Fallout from Buffy Ste-Marie exposure | Joan Jack

By Joan Jack

Law360 Canada (November 2, 2023, 9:30 AM EDT) --
Joan Jack
Joan Jack
On Oct. 27, CBC’s The Fifth Estate aired Making an Icon and rocked the world. Now everyone in “Indian Country” is reeling and we are talking, which, as an aside, I see as a good thing. However, I am also concerned that some of us are being mean to each other.

I watched the program with my husband Watsait, Wolf Clan member of the T’aakú Kwáan (a.k.a. Taku River Tlingit First Nation). After 30 years of marriage, I’ve come to value how he sees the world as he often sees things different than me. I asked him, “What do you think?” I could feel that he was angry with CBC. He said, “Now they are shooting at us with rubber bullets!”

Much has been made of the “authentic” birth certificate that was uncovered that identifies Buffy as “White” and having been born to Italian/English parents who at the time were recorded as white as opposed to Black. I am left thinking, so, if something is written down by the White people in the White legal system, does that automatically make it true? 

This brings a story to mind. I had just finished law school and Watsait and I had built our own home on reserve that has a loft. One day, probably in 1992, I was lying on our bed and I heard someone come in and say “Hello” in a loud cheery voice that I recognized. It was Watsait’s aunt. “I’m up here Auntie!” Auntie was a small woman, also Wolf, and moved fast. Before I could get off the bed, I heard her coming up the stairs, so I lay back down. 

Auntie came into our bedroom and, to my surprise and joy, flopped herself down on the bed beside me. I loved asking her what she was thinking, because she too was such a radical thinker; sad that I call her thinking radical when really, she was an Indigenous thinker. Anyways, I said, “So, what are you thinking today, Auntie?” She said, “I’m thinking that White people are the only ones who can write down a lie and it comes true! Do you know what I mean?”

“Oh my God Auntie, yes!” I had just finished law school where I had often asked “What if it’s the wrong law or what if the law is wrong?” No one was particularly interested in having this conversation with me then, and it seems that few are interested today.

I believe that our challenge as Indigenous peoples is that, in large part, the common law is based on philosophical ideas, a worldview, that is not ours. My understanding of the worldview underlying the common law is that there is one right answer, and all the law exists to find that one right answer. This view also has another idea to support it that I see as the right/wrong paradigm.

So, I have a couple of big problems here. If there is only one right answer, then I am either right or wrong. Of course, there are mitigating circumstances, etc., etc., but ultimately, if I am right, you have two choices. You can agree with me, or you are wrong. There are only two positions, points of view, in this paradigm.

Despite my continued colonial experience and indoctrination into colonial thinking, I, and many other Indigenous people, have by a miracle retained our own worldviews. Our worldviews are based on more of a truth-seeking and finding process. We intuitively know that we should see reality through a kaleidoscope. We know that if you just take one step to the right or left in the circle, you will see something completely different and that what everyone sees in the circle is true for them. Then, together, we hear each other’s truths and decide together what is true for us in that moment and what action we should all take together. That’s a lot of togetherness!

And, of course, every time another member shows up with a view, we must hear their view and see if what we’ve decided previously still holds true for us in this new moment!

In my quest for truth considering CBC deciding to expose Buffy as a potential Pretendian, I spoke with my husband, mom, sister, daughter, son and several Indigenous and non-Indigenous friends. Mom asked me “What about wisdom?” She said, “Wisdom comes with experience where there was a dispute with your relations.”

My mother also raised the whole idea of witnessing within our Indigenous legal processes. I’ll just say that the role of the witnesses within Indigenous legal ceremony is critical. Buffy was adopted. Those who witnessed her Cree adoption have made public statements and that raises the prickly topic of blood.

Here, I jump to the Indian Act registration process, which is not necessarily based on blood quantum at all! There are many registered Indians who could be considered White. You may or may not know that those non-registered, usually White women, who gained registered Indian status by marrying a registered Indian prior to the amendments through Bill C-31 still retain their legal status as registered Indians — a whole other ball of wax!

So, which law is paramount? Is the common law paramount or is Indigenous law paramount? For a brief period, I sat at the B.C. Treaty negotiation tables and on the question of “who is a beneficiary?” Canada will not move. Only those registered as Indians in accordance with the Indian Act band are eligible to be beneficiaries of that Treaty. Oh, First Nations governments can include whomever they want as “members,” but Canada will not pay for them. Canada will only pay for registered Indians, and they control the process of who is a registered Indian. It’s about the money. Ultimately, we live within a state where who we say we are as Indigenous people is not recognized at law and, in my opinion, CBC has contributed to entrenching legalized racism. Heaven forbid, a birth certificate should show up thus proving identity!

If what White people have written down within their White legal systems is the only truth, then I guess I should just accept my legal subjugation based on the federal Department of Justice interpretation of our Sacred Treaties. Who cares what pipe ceremonies were held or drums were made? Too bad for us. You did cede and surrender because that is what was written.

In closing, I’m really upset with CBC! The way I see it they were simply seeing things from the one right answer/right-and-wrong paradigm and to justify or explain what was done, CBC editor-in-chief, Brodie Fenlon, has said “Reporting on stories of false Indigeneity is very much in the public interest.” Hmmm … I’m not so sure about that in this case. Does the damage CBC has done in “Indian Country” outweigh the public interest when clearly on social media we are sharing what we think/feel and sometimes without kindness? I’m sure there are Indigenous people out there hurt right now because they have had a harsh argument with someone they love because of what CBC published. 

One example of the conflict we are now experiencing is around Buffy getting awards that were meant for Indigenous Peoples. In short, some say no, those rewards are reserved for those with the blood. And others say she paved the way for us to be seen. I was wondering, would she have gotten an Oscar for Up Where We Belong if she identified as other than Indigenous? I think so, and she was a part of writing Universal Soldier which impacted and still impacts the world.

What is being repeated by some is that we should remember that “Buffy identified as Indigenous when it was not cool to be an Indian!” Hello!  And, she paid the price. Our price.

Indigenous relationships have been damaged by what CBC has done in the public interest. Instead of being so concerned about who is an Indian or not, CBC should help Canadians stand with us in our desire for justice in our own lands, not get us all fighting each other!

And how is the public interest determined? Whose worldview is being used to determine what is in the public interest? I have a lot to say about this as well, and too much to say within this short piece.

But, I will ask, does what we have all witnessed CBC do fulfil the Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action 86: “We call upon Canadian journalism programs and media schools to require education for all students on the history of Aboriginal peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law (emphasis added), and Aboriginal-Crown relations.” Epic fail from my point of view in the circle.

Joan Jack is an Ojibway woman and member of the Berens River First Nation in Manitoba. She is also married and adopted into the Taku River Tlingit First Nation in B.C. She is a mother to many children, a grandmother and auntie to many more. Besides being a lawyer and educator, Joan is an activist and is proud to say stands for Indigenous women always and has most recently created a private Facebook group to bring together Indigenous grandmothers and aunties and her group now has over 20,000 members and an average activity rate of over 80 per cent. Learn more here: www.nakinacall.ca

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