Review: Bonita Lawrence and Indigenous Identity.

Bonita Lawrence’s explanation of identity is one that is very important to me.  I identify as a non-status Métis, and I have been struggling with my family to retrace back to my roots.  My papa (my mother’s father) is Métis, but he will not admit this.  As a child, my papa’s mother dropped him off at, what he recalls to be an orphanage, when he was about seven years old.  After listening to his stories, doing my own research on Indigenous identity, and comparing these to my papa’s rejection of his Métis identity, I am very certain that my family is a representation of colonial success.  At present, my family identifies as French-Canadian and Scottish, and Lawrence’s work continually explains to me that his is because of the government’s regulation of identities.

Lawrence’s discussion about the colonial legislation’s regulation of and control over First Nations’ identities connects to that of trans identities.  Lawrence notes that, “the numbered treaties were thus crucial to the project of forcibly identifying and segregating ‘halfbreeds’ from ‘Indians,’ regardless of how individuals saw themselves.” (Pg. 11)  In addition, Lawrence says that Indigenous peoples were often classified by colonial legislation, taking identity out of the individual’s hands.  This is similar to the regulation and control over trans people.  One cannot fill out a government document without checking off one of the ‘male’ or ‘female’ boxes.  Again, for another demographic of marginalized people, the legislation is regulating other people’s identities.

Although Lawrence does an impressive job at discussing the regulation of Indigenous identities, she definitely missed the mark in some areas.  It is troubling that Residential Schools, the massively misunderstood and often unknown pieces of Indigenous history, are not brought up in the article.  Lawrence claims that, “identity is […] about how history is interpreted and negotiated, and about who has the authority to determine a group’s identity or authenticity.” (Lawrence pg. 4)  This claim is interesting because it is exactly what she is doing when she misses such pivotal events in First Nations’ histories.  Residential Schools, which were absolutely centered around the regulation of Indigenous identities, get zero attention in this piece, which shows Lawrence’s authority, whether conscious or not, over how histories are discussed in this piece.

Given the focus on gender inequality and the time in which the work was written, one would think that a discussion of the Missing Women’s case would be a significant topic of interest.  However, aside from noting the “unimaginable levels of violence, which includes, […] sexist oppression” (pg. 5), Lawrence barely touches upon violence against women, let alone missing Aboriginal women and girls in Canada.  Neglecting a discourse on violence against women in a piece that aims to discuss the intersections between race and gender, does a serious disservice to First Nations women.  I’m not sure whether or not it would be worse if Lawrence consciously chose not to discuss violence against women in a more in depth manner, or if she overlooked it.  It is possible that Lawrence chose not to discuss violence against women in an attempt to focus purely on the regulation of First Nations identity.  However, I would argue that violence against women is in fact a form of regulating Indigenous identities.

Bonita Lawrence, “Gender, Race, and the Regulation of Native Identity in Canada and the United States: An Overview”, Hypatia, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring 2003: 3-31