There have been multiple instances of white people posing as Indians — after all, you can suddenly acquire the illusion of authority and wisdom by calling yourself Grey Owl and claiming to have been taught the sacred ways by a native American elder. You don’t actually need to be wise, just attaching an animal to your name and sticking some feathers in your hair does all the work.
Oh boy, here comes another example: Carrie Bourassa has been an advocate for indigenous rights in Canada (that’s good), but the way she has done it is to appropriate indigenous identity. She wears a costume and claims to be a member of a growing list of native tribes, expanding from Métis at first, to now claiming Anishinaabe and Tlingit origins.
Caroline Tait, a Métis professor and medical anthropologist at the U of S, has worked with Bourassa for more than a decade.
She said early on in Bourassa’s career, she only identified as Métis. But more recently, Tait said, Bourassa began claiming to also be Anishinaabe and Tlingit. Tait said she also began dressing in more stereotypically Indigenous ways, saying the TEDx Talk was a perfect example.
“Everybody cheers and claps, and it’s beautiful,” said Tait. “It is the performance that we all want from Indigenous people — this performance of being the stoic, spiritual, culturally attached person [with] which we can identify because we’ve seen them in Disney movies.”
Right. It’s reducing identity to a performance. It’s all a sham, though — she isn’t the slightest bit Métis, Anishinaabe, or Tlingit. She’s of Eastern European descent.
Tait said Bourassa’s shifting ancestry claims made her and other colleagues suspicious. They also recently learned that Bourassa’s sister had stopped claiming to be Métis after she examined her genealogy. So Tait, Wheeler, Smylie and others decided to review that genealogy for themselves.
“We start to see that no, as a matter of fact, [Bourassa’s ancestors] are farmers,” Tait said. “These are people who are Eastern European people. They come to Canada, they settle.”
Tait said genealogical records show that Bourassa’s supposed Indigenous ancestors were of Russian, Polish and Czechoslovakian descent.
“There was nowhere in that family tree where there was any Indigenous person,” said Wheeler.
She also claims cultural affinity, being brought up in the ways of the native by her grandfather (who was the child of Czech-speaking farmers), and that she was raised in a poor neighborhood, subject to discrimination and oppression (her parents owned a Saskatchewan real estate development, and her father owned Ron’s Car Cleaning, the “No. 1 detail shop in the province”). That would be contrary to her indigenous stereotype, though!
Wheeler says she’s offended by the way that Bourassa has described her childhood, “feeding into stereotypes” of poverty, violence and substance abuse.
“Maybe she did have a dysfunctional childhood and it was full of pain. But to bring that into a discussion about her identity and under this flimsy umbrella of her Indigeneity, I think, was really manipulative, because it suggests that she is Indigenous, that she experienced Indigenous poverty.”
Wheeler said Bourassa’s claims of Indigeneity are offensive.
“It’s theft. It is colonialism in its worst form and it’s a gross form of white privilege.”
Be who you really are, it’s always better. I try to pretend I’m actually a raging Viking berserker, and no one is fooled — my ancestors were all unglamorous peasant farmers. Maybe if I called myself Paul the Bloody Handed and wore a horned helmet to class, and demanded that all student essays be written in futhark? Yeah, that would add authenticity.