To what extent is our identity influenced by our family and community? How do stereotypes and prejudice affect who we think we are? How can stereotypes affect our sense of pride, security, and independence?

In February 2014, the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth (Ontario) released Feathers of Hope: A First Nations Youth Action Plan. This plan lists “steps to hope”—actions recommended by the group of youth leaders as to how the government and First Nations community leaders should address the difficult realities that young indigenous individuals confront in their lives on reserves. In the excerpt below, one of the authors of the report discusses the issue of indigenous identity.

Growing up, much of our identity is formed by our parents, grandparents and our whole communities. It is formed by the things we are taught in school, the attitudes and behaviours directed toward us by others on- and off-reserve and representations we see—or don’t see—of ourselves in the media and mainstream Canadian society. How we see ourselves is strongly influenced by our families, in the cultural and traditional sense of the word, i.e., distant relatives, our band councils and First Nations leadership, health practitioners and educators among others. This brings me to question how these influences affect our lives and what impact they have on how we see ourselves as youth and individuals.

To start off, it is difficult to speak about how First Nations youth see themselves. I have met a range of young people from the proudest of the proud of First Nations youth, to those who are extremely self-conscious, withdrawn and voiceless. . . . I find that those who are the most confident are usually the ones who are firmly in touch with their First Nations culture and roots. Having a strong sense of one’s identity provides a level of confidence that affects what we do and everything inside ourselves, right down to the decisions we make.

There can be no conversation about identity if we do not mention the pervasive stereotypes that impact the way others and we perceive ourselves. Here are some common terms and ideas that are used to describe First Nations people:

Positive Stereotypes: Spiritual masters, nature-loving, spirit-talking, wise, stoic, traditional, brave, long-haired, warrior.

Negative Stereotypes: Indians, natives, bogans, nates, wh-indians . . . alcoholics, lazy, red-skins, wild, rich, impoverished, druggie, thugs, gangsters, ungrateful, victims, angry, tax-free, brown (or “white”), violent.

Many of these stereotypes are contradictory and create confusion on the part of young people. We, as First Nations people, need to start questioning the beliefs we hold about each other and ourselves. Youth need to be engaged in a self-learning process to start undoing the negative images we see and believe about ourselves. We must explore where these beliefs come from and start questioning the validity of the sources and then work to rebuild our identities with positive and empowering self-images. Working with our Elders will be a vital part of this process.

. . . From beat-boxers, hip-hoppers, artists, young leaders, drummers, singers, jingle-dress dancers and athletes to traditional knowledge experts, traditional-medicine students and hunters, we all shared the view that we were a cohesive group, united in our various identities. We were “the 7 Shades of Brown,” to borrow a forum team group name, who came up with this name so that everybody in the group would feel a sense of belonging.

When we have a strong, healthy and positive identity, we feel confident enough to pursue what anybody else would in terms of working towards our life goals, attaining our education and feeling empowered to change our worlds, despite whatever negative messages we hear from others based on the colour of our skin. It is unfortunate that some of the things our parents passed down to us to protect us from things they faced growing up were—although well intentioned—misguided. For instance, some parents chose to not pass their languages down for fear that their children would grow up and face difficulty living in the modern world because it would be hard to know how to speak both our language and English. Traditions were not passed down because of our parents’ fear of stigma and concern that the practice of certain traditions, such as smudging (one of the ways traditional medicines are used), use of our medicines, and use of the sweat lodge and ceremonies would be thought of as “black magic.” This feeling of shame about our traditions and culture was taught to our parents as young children in the residential schools, and is still struggled with today in our homes. . . .

It is hard to identify as a First Nations person in mainstream Canadian society when you carry this sense of shame and live surrounded by people who look down on you. . . .1

Citations

  • on- and off-reserve : Since the beginning of the reserve system in the 1830s, many First Nations people have resided on reserves in Canada. Historically, reserves served as “social laboratories” where First Nations inhabitants were to become productive, “civilized,” Christianized, and assimilated into the settlers’ ways of life. There is a growing population of people who live “off-reserve” in urban or simply non-reserve locations. Over the years, many reserves have transitioned into relatively autonomous self-governed communities. The most recent Canadian census reveals that just over 50% of First Nations individuals registered as Status Indians reside off-reserve.
  • 1 “Identity and Culture,” in Together We Are...Feathers of Hope: A First Nations Youth Action Plan (Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, 2014), 66–68, Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal. Reproduced by permission of Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, 2014.

Connection Questions

  1. According to Feathers of Hope: A First Nations Youth Action Plan, what forces influence indigenous identities in Canada? What similarities and differences do you see between the forces that shape indigenous identity and the forces that shape your identity?
  2. What does the report suggest about the relationship between feeling secure in one’s identity and having access to one’s cultural roots? What do the authors of the action plan suggest about the relationship between language and indigenous culture?
  3. What are stereotypes? The authors of the report list both positive and negative stereotypes of indigenous culture. What are the effects of stereotypes on indigenous identity, according to the action plan? Are positive and negative stereotypes equally harmful?
  4. What is shame? Where does it come from?
  5. How can language bind people together? To what extent is language significant in defining our individual and group identities? How can not sharing a common language create barriers, even if you can find other ways to communicate?

Related Content

Reading

Feathers of Hope

Read excerpts from a plan created by indigenous youth activists to address the legacy of colonialism and residential schools in their communities.

Reading

Are Apologies Enough?

Consider two indigenous leaders' reflections on the shortcomings of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's public apology in achieving movement toward justice and reconciliation.

Reading

Schedule and Discipline

Learn about the methodical schedules and system of discipline and surveillance imposed on students of Indian Residential Schools.

Reading
Genocide & Mass Violence

“I’m Not the Indian You Had in Mind”

Thomas King's poem explores the difference between stereotypes of Indigenous Peoples and how these people live their lives in contemporary Canada.

Search Our Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.