Book Review: Bonita Lawrence, "Real" Indians and Others
|Book: "Real" Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood|
ZNet Book Page
Publisher: UBC Press
Bonita Lawrence’s book “Real” Indians and Others (2004) explores the definitions and complexities of indigenous identity and nationhood, particularly for “mixed-blood” and urban native peoples. Lawrence argues that mixed-blood natives and “full-blood” Indian women have been historically (and in many ways continually) “externalized” from “Indianness” by various means, including colonizer mythologies about what constitutes an “authentic” Indian, as well as through an array of colonial policies and legislation. Lawrence analyzes how this externalization occurs in practice, by examining various iterations of the Indian Act, and its predecessors, going back to 1850 in Lower and Upper Canada, through the flurry of legislation in the 1860s and 70s (when the Dominion sought formal continental rule), and extending to more recent amendments such as the Indian Act of 1951 and Bill C-31 (1985). One of the crucial components of Lawrence’s thesis is that the Indian Act, by its very classification and regulation of different categories of “Indian,” has in fact “producedthe subjects it purports to control,” and that this has, in turn, been naturalized and internalized to varying degrees by native peoples themselves (p. 25).
One of the interesting (tertiary) arguments made in Lawrence’s book is that east-west differences have been as important as north-south (Canada-U.S.) differences in shaping Indian self-identity, assessing the impact of colonialism on indigenous peoples, and in terms of discussing contemporary strategies of renewal and assertions of sovereignty. Lawrence does not trivialize differential experiences between Canada and the United States, but critiques the typical Canadian smugness with which U.S. “Indian wars” have been treated: she suggests that the Dominion “piggy-backed” off U.S. Manifest Destiny, enabling the threatof violence to be wielded more effectively north of “the border” (p. 7, 30). Lawrence also points out that the typical view of the “medicine line” that presents Canada as a “refuge” for Indians fleeing U.S. military violence, ignores the fact that this flow of people sometimes worked in reverse (such as in the wake of the 1885 “rebellion”) (p. 35, 121). She also discusses how “race-based” notions of blood-quantum did not originate in Canada -- which used other mechanisms to “statistically eliminate” Indians -- but that these ideas have nevertheless more recently begun “to invade” some native communities in Canada, most notably Kahnawake (p. 77-78).
One of the important points of Lawrence’s book is that the meaning of “Indian” and “Métis,” including the self-identification of native peoples themselves, are largely shaped by more than a century of colonial legislation. Lawrence is careful to point out that very real material and experiential differences have been tied to government assignation of categories such as “status Indian,” “non-status Indian,” and “half-breed.” She is also careful to acknowledge that Métis people have an individual and collective right to identify as a distinct nation. At the same time, however, Lawrence notes that “Métis” – like “Indian” – is not a homogenous category, and for many people the separation between them has also been externally-imposed. For Lawrence, one of the indicators of this is the fact that “there has been considerable two-way traffic in and out of Indianness and Métisness over the years, on both sides” (p. 91). Another key point emphasized in the book is that gender discrimination in the Indian Act has also “shaped what we think about who is Native, who is mixed-blood, and who is entitled to access to Indian land” (p. 61). Section 6 of the Indian Act (1869) stripped Indian women of their “status” if they married non-status men, and these women thereby lost band membership and attendant rights of residency on their reserve (p. 50-51). Lawrence’s book discusses how this legislation functioned not only to disempower native women, and contribute to the urbanization of a growing Indian “diaspora,” but also argues that it contributed to the erosion of indigenous sovereignty more broadly, and to a “cultural genocide” by “bleeding off” Native women and their children for more than a century (p. 55-56).
Overall, Lawrence’s book is a powerful challenge to colonial “common sense” and internalized notions of what it means to be “Indian,” mixed-blood, Métis, status and non-status, “full-blood” and “half-breed.” The book would be greatly strengthened by referencing the colonial legislation and treaty texts directly (through easily-accessed collections such as Sharon Venne (ed.), Indian Acts and Amendments, 1868-1975), rather than relying on an array of secondary sources. Arguably, this has led to a number of minor errors. For example, Lawrence’s brief treatment of Treaty 1 and 2 erroneously refers to a “Lieutenant Governor Simpson, who negotiated these treaties” (p. 88). In actuality, Wemyss Simpson was the “Indian Commissioner” who negotiated these treaties, although the Lieutenant-Governor (Adams Archibald) was also involved in the negotiations and acted as a witness and signatory. If Lawrence had simply gone to some of the standard primary sources (like Morris’s The Treaties of Canada) she would have been able to avoid some of these admittedly minor mistakes. Despite such weaknesses, the book challenges many of the received truths and everyday perceptions about boundaries between Indian, Métis, and white, and is a good antidote to “racial” essentialist thinking. It makes a strong case for rethinking the criteria for Indianness along the lines of nationhood and citizenship, rather than arbitrary and problematic notions of biology and blood-quantum.