Decolonizing questions, de-quantifying blood

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OPI_Decolonizing Questions_Emily Thiessen_web

Emily Thiessen (graphic)

In this article, I want to discuss a question that I have been asked more times than I can count: “How much Aboriginal are you?” Just writing the words, my blood instantly begins to boil and stir uncomfortably through my body, as though I can feel my ancestors getting rattled.

A friend from school recently asked what my typical response is to this question. Despite my desire for a punchy and quick-witted response, I had no answer for her . . . just like every other time. All I could come up with was a pounding heart, and a sense of defeat.

I realized in that moment that I didn’t want to feel this way again. I told myself that I needed a one-liner that assertively combined retaliation and respect. No one should have to feel like they have just lost the battle of proving their identity.

One week later, I raised this issue in one of my safest communities: Sisters in Spirit, the YWCA Aboriginal Youth Mentorship Program. I bumbled through an explanation of my experience during our opening sharing circle. As I spoke, my vulnerability and pain was reflected in the expressions of my fellow mentors and mentees. Their eyes expressed an intimate understanding. We were collectively fed up with being asked these types of questions: Are you allowed to live on reserve? How can you have an Aboriginal scholarship? Are you even status? What are you, like, an eighth?” A youth in the circle said her response to the last question is always, “I am not a piece of a pie; I am a whole person.”

Our group leader discussed these questions as examples of blood quantum—a colonial concept that has been imposed upon Aboriginal peoples. Explicitly designed to strip away our rights and existence, it leaves us feeling powerless. The issue is as pertinent as ever, continuing to force our identification into boxes like First Nations “status” or “non-status,” our blood boiling along the way.

Within the fields of health research and program evaluation, I have learned the importance of asking good questions. Word choices are compared for the potential answers they could elicit. Surveys are piloted, and the meaning behind each question is critically assessed. Upon deconstructing the blood quantum question, its colonizing nature becomes quickly apparent as a means of silencing Aboriginal peoples. In my experience, answering it survives its very purpose. I feel powerless and voiceless. My shoulders hunch over, and I become smaller, literally taking up less space.

It is critical that we start asking better questions—ones that meaningfully seek to understand Aboriginal health outcomes and experiences. Research is in dire need of decolonizing methodologies. It is to no one’s benefit to perpetuate these inequities and colonial mentality. It is time that we start asking questions that give power, give life, and give voice to Aboriginal peoples.

Despite the aim of blood quantum to divide us, our unity as a sisterhood became stronger that day. The circle had an air of peace and safety that said, “You don’t need to defend yourself here.”

Instead of that sharp one-liner, I left with the realization that there is no need to have the perfect words because we don’t even have to answer the question. Indigeneity lies not just in our blood: it runs through our minds, our hearts, and our collective Aboriginal spirit.

I would like to acknowledge my sisters at the YWCA Aboriginal Youth Mentorship Program for allowing me to share their voices and wisdom.

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  • Hilda Sweck

    but don’t people always get angry about people who pretend to be Native when they’re say, 1/32 Native and 31/32 Caucasian? I’m all for acknowledging your heritage, but a) it should be accurate and represent ALL of your heritage, and b) if the part of your heritage is very small/you don’t know the culture/language/aren’t involved with the community, then you don’t really have much of a right to claim it.

  • Noah

    This is curious. I’ve always been under the impression that asking one “what part are you” of something (Irish for me, according to me mam) was just a matter of innocent curiosity. Now that being said, while the Irish are often a people who would consider themselves a victim of European hegemony, I’ve never felt questioned or attacked in any way by questions about my heritage (granted I’ve never been to Ireland and I couldn’t care less about Irish sovereignty). Could you clarify if these questions of your “quantum of Native blood” are occurring in a legal capacity?

    • Nicholas Mcdonald

      There are a few reasons that asking about an Aboriginal persons blood quantum is particularly offensive. First, you are judging the person about being more Aboriginal or “white” or what other race. You are judging if they should be able to qualify for “special treatment” (a racist term of its own) in being able to live on reserve, partake in the culture, or take advantage of the few scholarships that are available. You are asking if they are Aboriginal enough. It’s a thorny issue because it’s always been the white people trying to define Aboriginal people. Do it’s a loaded question is why. Plus, the follow up question or comment of ” wow! You don’t look aboriginal!” Or “I knew you looked different”.

      • Noah

        With respect, I think you’re being paranoid. When someone asks “what percentage” of [insert ethnicity] one is, I wouldn’t jump so quickly to “nefarious undertones of latent racism;” they are probably just curious as to the individual’s family history for curiosity’s sake. I asked a friend of mine recently how many parts Persian her family was, not as a lead in to a conversation, I was merely curious as to how much of her family was directly tied to Iran – it’s different from me and I’m curious. She wasn’t offended, in fact she asked me the same question in turn. And why should she be offended? White English Europeans ask White French Europeans the same question all the time; the same goes for Scots, Swedes, Germans, Iranians and Maoris. Maybe we should all just chill out a bit, what do you think?

        • Iron

          Of course he’s being paranoid. It’s not a judgmental question at all and he’s just making whole bunch of assumptions about people who ask. There’s nothing wrong with asking a person about family lineage/bloodlines. It’s interesting conversation fodder and a good way to get to know about a person and their ancestry generally. Don’t let fear of being called racist stop you from having normal friendly conversations with people. Ironically this guy’s hostility and assumptions of racism in others will do nothing but chill and antagonize white/aboriginal relations. A healthy approach would be to invite people to ask!

          • Noah

            I think Samantha is a “she.”