Adoption is not a passport to an Indigenous community

Opinion: At the core of Joseph Boyden’s essay on his identity is the ‘tried and tired’ idea of adoption as passport

A few family photos of the author Darcy Lindberg's mother and father, provided by the author.

Two family photos of Darcy Lindberg’s brother, his mother, and his father, as provided by the author.

Darcy Lindberg is an âpihtawkosisân nehiyaw/mixed-rooted Plains Cree person, a recovering practicing lawyer and doctoral student at the University of Victoria.

My father married into an Indigenous family. My mother carried within her the blood-memory and lived experience of a nehiyaw iskwew, a Cree woman, growing up in Saskatchewan and Alberta in the ‘50s, ’60s and ’70s. My father’s primarily Swedish-Canadian roots were hard to dismiss in his physical stature; his blue eyes and blonde hair would betray any claim otherwise.

My father’s marriage meant he assumed relational obligations familiar to the Cree side of my family. That meant, along with the responsibilities of providing for my immediate family, he and my mother were obliged to welcome all of our family into our house and shelter and feed them—no matter how distant the relation. Sometimes this meant extended stays lasting weeks and months by cousins, aunties and uncles. It also meant that he entered a system of reciprocity where the exchange of things was based on need rather than ownership. I later came to recognize this as gifting, a central practice that is formalized in our ceremonies. It also meant that he became a nista, or brother-in-law, bringing its own set of requirements as a new brother to my uncles (including being the receiver of endless teasing). Growing up, I thought these were merely family characteristics. It is only after I was removed from the immediacy of these family spaces that I recognized their Creeness.

Strictly by lineage, my father was also Indigenous, though he never claimed this through his actions, nor proclaimed it through his words. Aside from his three Swedish-Canadian grandparents, his paternal grandmother was Metis. Her roots diverged into Cree, French, Anishinaabe and Iroquois communities. He was untroubled by a lack of recognition of Indigenous identity, he was who he was. He grew up Swedish-Canadian, and adopted his obligations as part of a Cree family when he wed my mother at age 18. There was one exception: when my father passed away in 2002, my uncle fulfilled one of his wishes by placing moccasins on his feet at his wake, to provide him with a softer walk in the next world.

I consider my dad’s experiences when I think about Indigenous identities, and the power that comes in claiming it. In an essay in this magazine by Joseph Boyden—the author who has come under fire over whether or not he is from or is part of an Indigenous community—he reflected upon the very public questions of his claimed Indigenous identity. “If I am accepted by people in Indigenous communities,” he wrote, “if I have been traditionally adopted by a number of people in Indigenous communities, if my DNA test shows I have Indigenous blood, if I have engaged my whole career in publicly defending Indigenous rights as well as using my public recognition as an author to shine light on Indigenous issues, am I not, in some way, Indigenous?”

For me, this raises questions of what it means to be adopted into a community. In Boyden’s most recent piece, he talks about his “traditional adoption” into Cree and Ojibwe families. I agree with his assertion that there are obligations and responsibilities that come with these relations.

But such obligations and responsibilities are also part of a legal order, where kinship ties bring upon very specific obligations particular to the society they are founded in. To be adopted both into Cree and Ojibwe communities means separate obligations and rights for each. These obligations exist and have always existed for Indigenous community members. The reality is that for even the Indigenous person, learning and living these obligations for one community is a lifetime journey; this is part of the reason for our respect of the old ones. Creeness (or nehiyawiwin) isn’t simply being able to give away or to tease, but provides a system of legal principles that guides us. While Indigenous legal orders have personalities that can differ from the Canadian common law system, they provide Indigenous nations with similar methods to seek fairness, accountability and justice within their societies. Kinship obligations are significant parts of these Indigenous legal orders. And as a Cree person, I know that even I will not be on this earth long enough to learn all of these legal principles; a sense of identity comes along the path of this long journey.

This is, of course, Joseph Boyden’s private journey, to be shared with those communities or families who have adopted them. They will hold him to account for his membership, and to teach and remind him of his responsibilities.

However, Boyden is a public figure, and his essay has excavated wider issues about what it means to be adopted into a community. Whether it was his intention or not, deploying stories of his adoptions to counteract demands of accountability about the Indigenous stories and knowledge systems he utilizes—many of which are from communities he is not adopted into—puts forward the idea of adoption as a kind of passport to a diaspora of Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices, and as a license to write freely about them. The “adoption as passport” approach is a tried and tired strategy of circumventing accountability for these types of appropriation. It is such a well-used strategy that scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang call this “settler identity fantasies,” and outline in detail their uses in their work.

Unfortunately, like many other Indigenous people, I have witnessed the “adoption as passport” strategy at play professionally and personally. While these adoption claims can often be sincere in their foundation and reciprocated by members of the adopting Indigenous family or communities, they are buttressed by strategic attempts to dissuade accountability. It is usually marked by an appeal to what is believed to be the highest authority in Indigenous communities (“I was given this right by an Elder”), and confirmed through a connection to spiritual processes like ceremonies (“This is a sacred connection” or “I was told this or given this right in ceremony”). Finally, there is often a false equivalency offered by the adoptee attempting to align their life struggles with those experienced by community members (“This is a rite of passage, albeit in a different form, just like you have experienced” or “My people were culturally persecuted as well, only thousands of years ago”).

These appeals often stick out for their ambitious reach. They often speak of things that are hardly spoken about publicly. They talk about ceremony as though they belong on a resume, in spite of protocols and rules of procedure that give caution to such public talk. Further, the appeal to elder authority and to sacred processes like ceremonies is especially telling. It is a coded attempt to make the critique of the adoption relationship off-limits. This, however, cannot be the case: We can disagree with our elders, and we can critique the sacred, including the ceremonies. We can also disagree—as Indigenous people, and with each other.

Boyden’s defence misses a crucial purpose of these conversations: It isn’t simply about reaching a standard that greenlights societal or familial inclusion, but is to acknowledge a wider adoption into the perhaps humbler reality of being fully accountable not only to adoptive families, but to the Indigenous nations and people that have been subject to his work. It is trite to say that as a Cree person, I do not have a blanket right to tell Cree stories, sing Cree songs or engage in ceremony in any manner I choose. In the past, Boyden has stated that his Indigenous characters within his works come to him like a voice that needs to be spoken. This wider world seeks this voice to be tempered with the obligations to the communities he is writing about. This includes taking into account those voices that wish to correct him.

I do not know Joseph Boyden, and I do not intend this to be an attack ad hominem. If his relationships with Indigenous people and nations are as he has described, then he is a wealthy person indeed—a wealth in relations that is often not afforded to those who spend their lives working within Indigenous communities. But I do hope he understands how adoption, used in a way that circumvents obligations toward Indigenous stories, knowledge systems, and law, continues to prop up the modes of extraction of Indigenous cultural knowledge. The criticism he is facing does not simply stem from claims that he is shifting his identity; it seeks an acknowledgement from Boyden of what bloodline or adoption really provides. It is not a passport to a diaspora of Indigenous knowledge, if one exists, or even to the law and stories within a particular nation. It’s merely a doorway into long work of living those obligations.

I have learned to watch such adoptions carefully. This is not to question their sincerity, but to see if they are simply a strange means of reaching towards the “magic” and “medicine” of our communities, rather than ensuring a true relationship with day-to-day grind of being obligated towards them. This is why many nehiyaw iskwew (and other Indigenous women) are rightfully asking for their public acknowledgements and star-blanket ceremonies, when they see how easy it is for adopted men from outside their communities to receive theirs.

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