At least twice a year, I reread Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories, which is an academic staple for students in my field, Aboriginal Studies. I’ve noticed every year, students tend to reference and gravitate towards the story “I’m Not the Indian You Had in Mind”. In this particular story, King, who identifies (at least on his book covers) as Cherokee and Greek, writes about his identity and how non-Native people have painfully racist expectations about what a Native person should look like (buckskin, feathers, the noble savage who lives on a reserve stereotype) based on popular culture.
About once a month, whenever I tell a stranger or classmate I am enrolled in the Aboriginal Studies program, they often respond, “Are you Native?” or “What band are you from?” or “Where up North do you live?”
Maybe it’s because I have an ambiguous look and straight, dark hair. Or maybe my penchant for vintage wool Pendleton bags (which I started wearing long before they became overpriced items associated with Opening Ceremony) act as a signifier (I honestly feel uncomfortable carrying the bags around school now). But I wonder, am I the Indian you had in mind?
The truth about my story is, I’m not Native. Not that I have ever pretended to be something that I am not. In fact, I come from a stock of the most notorious colonizers in Europe and Asia. But I find myself perplexed whenever someone asks me if I am Native after they have discovered what I study at U of T. It’s as though strangers have to justify to themselves why I am in this field of study. And to be honest, I find it a racist (and predictable) question. Everyone who has asked me this question has been White, including a professor abroad. In fact, I’ve actually never had a Native student ask me if I was Native. I can imagine why.
Native (and please excuse my use of this pan-Indigenous term I’ve been abusing throughout this piece) students are constantly scrutinized and judged unfairly on campus. Many people assume that Native students automatically get a free education (this is so untrue) based on the “fact” that they know one friend who is something like 1% Native or six degrees separated from Pocahontas, has a status card and gets major discounts and freebies (I’ve heard this popular tale told over and over again by non-Natives). Although some Native students get full funding for school from their bands, there are many who only get partial funding and some get none at all because there simply isn’t enough money around for their community to financially support them. Another issue is that when any discussion regarding Aboriginal peoples, culture, history or problems are being talked about in class, the non-Native professor and students will automatically look to the (lone) Native student with the expectation he or she have something to say about the topic of discussion. One Native Ph.D. student came into a class and briefly talked about how her actions were constantly misread in a university classroom. If the professor talked about residential schools and she got up to go to the washroom, other students would interpret her as the angry Native student leaving the class because she became upset or was protesting. My intention is to not speak for Native students on here because they can speak for themselves. I’m merely trying to point out how visible minorities and Native people on campus are categorized and stereotyped by others, which can be both exhausting, offensive and annoying.
I asked my light-skinned friends in African Studies and East Asian Studies if they are ever asked if they are African or East Asian (in the most general terms) once they tell someone their field of study. The answer is no. Most likely because they don’t “look” the part. They never have to justify why they are sitting in a particular class, people just grant them the status that they are interested in that particular field without question. When someone says they are studying biology, do we automatically follow up with the question, “Do you come from a family of biologists?”. From my recollection, the only time when students have ever voluntarily supplied information to me about their parents, it has been in the context of “my mommy/daddy is a doctor/lawyer”. But I wonder, am I not entitled to simply have an interest in Aboriginal studies without question? I think before you ask someone to declare their background after they told you their field of study, ask yourself why you are asking them in the first place and why does their heritage matter to you so much. It shouldn’t.
I guess the funny part is that I am also enrolled in the English program. And guess what? My mother’s side of the family is English. In fact, my great-grandparents had English accents and read English books! Yet, have I ever been asked once during my entire study at U of T if I was English? Never.
So now you know the truth about my story. What’s yours?