Re-dressing and Reclaiming: Anishinaabeg Belonging and the Logics of the Family

The following paper was delivered at the Symposium on Decolonial Aesthetics from the Americas, 10-12 October 2013, Toronto, ON, and as part of Lakehead University’s 2014 Aboriginal Awareness Week, 20 March 2014 in Thunder Bay, ON.


As is the case for many Indigenous nations in Canada, Anishinaabeg practices for discerning belonging have been re-imagined along colonizing logics of Indianness.[1] In other words, being and belonging with Anishinaabeg, has become a matter of whether one fits into settler society’s projection of what an Indian is.  For the Anishinaabeg of the northern shore of Lake Superior, evidence of this intrusion was first witnessed in the signing of the Robinson-Superior Treaty in 1850 where, representing the Queen of Great Britain, colonialists argued that only those people who were racially pure ‘Indians’ could receive benefits of the treaty.  These race-based notions of Indianness were woven into Canada’s Indian policies, effectively inventing Indian in law and then penalizing anyone marrying non-Indians by removing Anishinaabeg individuals from Indianness over time.[2]  This dismemberment has worked to exclude up to two million Indigenous individuals from their nations across Canada today.

Much has been written about the troubles caused by the invention of Indianness in law.  Bonita Lawrence’s study “Real” Indians and Others traces the complexities and contradictions that Indian status causes in urban Indigenous communities, showing that Indigenous peoples can actually reproduce the very logics used by the state to write them out of existence when trying to reclaim control over belonging today.  Elsewhere, Pamela Palmater has shown us how Canadian Indian policy works to exterminate Indians and Indian bands.  Palmater shows that imagining Indigenous identities and belonging along the lines of blood quantum will lead to what she calls “legislative extinction,” a situation where Indigenous peoples will continue to exist, but as non-Indians.  Anishinaabeg, like other peoples, do not parent exclusively within their so-called “race.”  Intermarriage results in the dilution of Indian blood over time.  And so, according to Canadian law, once there are no more Indians, there will no longer be a need for Indian bands (or reserves).  In this way, the regulation of family-making allows the state to move ever-closer to exploiting what resources remain in Indigenous territories.  In other words, the regulation of Indianness is a project of termination.

All that said, Anishinaabeg are not creations of the Indian Act.  Our legal and political orders exist outside of Canadian law; they are sui generis.  We can look through these orders to see the world through Anishinaabeg eyes.  Doing so is simultaneously an act of resistance, resurgence and a performance of intellectual sovereignty.

And so, today I want to focus on what Anishinaabe law has to say about what it means to be belong with Anishinaabeg.  Whereas more than a century of Indian policy has made us think that belonging is a matter of Indian status, or solely a matter or racialized Indianness, Anishinaabe law says that belonging is a matter of family-making.  When one belongs with a family, whether through marriage, adoption, or birth, one carries responsibilities.  Those responsibilities are to people, but they are also to the land.  It is my experience, as someone who belongs with Anishinaabeg through adoption, that family-based customs for discerning belonging dispel the race-based logics that have come to grip Anishinaabeg communities.

I would like to discuss this through a recent piece of work by my friend, Anishinaabeg visual artist Christian Chapman.  His piece, entitled Past, Present and Future of the Anishinabe People gives us the opportunity to discuss belonging through Anishinaabeg constitutional orders.  By contrasting my interpretations of Chapman’s work with the ways in which colonialists deployed raced notions of Indigeneity to exclude individuals from Anishinaabeg communities, I demonstrate that a race-based approach to discerning belonging is not a part of Anishinaabeg customs, but a symptom of Canadian colonialism.  This opens a space where we can re-think belonging as a means to reclaim it from the logics that have created conditions of safety for what Joyce Green has called “Project Canada.”

Blood Based Exclusions

Signed at Sault Ste Marie on what is currently the Canadian side of the border on September 7 and 9, 1850, respectively, the Robinson-Superior and Robinson-Huron Treaties embodied and reflected the nation-to-nation relationship between Anishinaabeg and the Imperial Crown.  Overt racism was vogue at the time: the colonialists saw Anishinaabeg as a dying race.  Race in and of itself was believed to be an immutable difference between settlers and Anishinaabeg, and so racial mixing was perceived negatively as a threat to the purity and righteousness of the (white) Imperial global order.

Representatives of the Imperial Crown deployed racial discourses in the treaty negotiations in at least two ways: first, in conducting a unilateral census before the treaty, the commissioners distinguished between ‘full blooded Indians’ and those they identified by phenotype as ‘half breeds.’[3]  Their goal was to exclude all half-breeds from the treaty.  This form of racism presumed not only the ability to discern who belongs with Anishinaabeg communities solely on phenotype, but also asserted a hegemonic logics of identity formation.  Part white, half-breeds had less a claim in Anishinaabeg sovereignty than those deemed ‘full bloods,’ simply because of their biological heritage.  In other words, what we see here is that nationality was being tied to biology through a politics of recognition.

Second, the commissioners made the treaty contingent on logics of an ever-decreasing racial purity.  The ‘dying race’ logic was used against Anishinaabeg; colonialists took it as only a matter of time before blood lines were diluted ‘enough’ through intermarriage with white settlers, to the point that all Anishinaabeg communities would be classified as ‘half breeds,’ thereby voiding the treaty.[4]

The commissioners, and the colonialists after them, thus attempted to hijack family-making practices, such as birthing, adoption and marriage, claiming them as methods for assimilation.  As Ann Stoler notes about the British in other colonial contexts, family-making was targeted because it as the level of the family that new bodies are made and taught how to be Indigenous.[5]  Racialized approaches to protecting the “purity” of the European Master Race fostered settler anxieties about mixed parenting patterns within the British colonies.  This resulted in laws discouraging mixed parenting between “natives” and Europeans.[6]  Claiming halfbreed Anishinaabeg bodies into the settler body politic was a form of attenuating settler anxieties within the colony; it made them non-Indian, while also having the ancillary benefit of removing more Indians out of the way of settlement.

In North America, it was the idea of blood quantum, whether explicit or implicit in policy, that answered the colonialists’ call to protect pure Europeanness from the racial contamination created by mixed parenting.  Blood quantum establishes a system of control based on mathematics where an Anishinaabeg person can cease to be Indigenous in the eyes of the law, effectively assimilating into Canadian society in a legal sense.  By measuring one’s quantum of Indian blood, colonialists could police and silence those who had legitimate claim to lands the settler society was attempting to dominate.[7]

Canada’s Indian policies evolved with these raced logics in mind.  Though not mentioned explicitly in current Canadian Indian policy, blood quantum is nonetheless still at play in our belonging practices.  Worse, many First Nations have reproduced the terminal creed of blood quantum.  As of 2005, of the 11 Anishinaabeg communities within the Robinson-Superior Treaty territory, nearly 100% were still using race-based logics to discern belonging.[8]

Creation Story as Theory

By contrast, we have our own legal orders that consider belonging and identity along a spectrum of Anishinaabe-ness.  The Anishinaabeg word for colonialism is zhaaganashiyaadizi, translated as to live one’s life like a white person at the expense of being Anishinaabeg.[9]  Zhaaganashiyaadizi differs from Indianness because it speaks to a fluidity around identity not apparent in Indian discourses predicated on the stasis of one’s genetic make-up.  As Leanne Simpson writes, zhaaganashiyaadizi is relative and based on one’s choices – not one’s race.[10]  Potentially anyone is in a spectrum of belonging with Anishinaabeg; what matters is whether a person lives according to Anishinaabe laws, and carries-out their responsibilities towards Anishinaabe relatives.

We see these responsibilities-based logics at play in part of the Anishinaabeg creation story, where humans were the last beings created, after all the animals and the ecologies.  Humans were weak because they did not know how to survive.  They were in need of help.  The animals, who already knew how to live on the earth, decided to care for these new humans.  They had the ability to do so, and they took them into their nations as adopted family members.  It didn’t matter that they looked different than, say a bear or a deer.  What mattered was exercising a responsibility to care for all of creation, and for families to promote mino-bimaadiziwin, or continuously renewing life in a balanced way.

I can see myself in this story.  It makes sense to me as an adoptee.  I was adopted into Fort William First Nation as a baby through the custom adoption practices my grandmother, Geraldine MacLaurin-ba carried with her throughout her life.  Phenotypically, I am white, but I grew up on the reserve as part of my family and community.  Like the humans in the creation story, it didn’t matter that I looked different than my dad and his family.  And while we cannot overlook the fact that settler society does not mark my my body for extermination as it has family and people of colour,[11] the values underpinning adoption nonetheless animate a sui generis logics of belonging that challenges Canadian regulation of what it means to belong with Anishinaabeg today.

Past, Present and Future

Anishinaabe artist and curator Wanda Nanabush writes that Indigenous artists tell the story about their peoples in the face of degrading colonial narratives.  In other words, the work of Indigenous artists is decolonizing because it inherently challenges the normalizations spun to make the world safe for colonialism.[12]

Christian Chapman’s Past, Present and Future questions the normalization of race-based belonging in ways that draw together our treaty relationship with the Crown while also asserting the contemporary validity of Anishinaabeg legal order of discerning belonging.  The images of Queen Elizabeth as a young queen (the past), then again as an older Queen (the present), are juxtaposed with an image of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge – most likely a future Queen.  The women in the three images are re-dressed in Anishinaabeg aesthetic; in each image we see a spirit circle, an element common to Anishinaabeg ‘woodlands’ art symbolizing our connection to the ecology-spirit world.

Chapman honours continuous renewal here as the three images are points within a circle of family-making.  Kate Middleton will one day take the place of Queen Elizabeth of the past (on the far left); this process opens spaces for in-coming generations who will take Kate’s current place on the right.  Kate’s connection to the young Queen Elizabeth on the far left is established through marriage to the unseen grandson, who is somewhere behind the Queen of the present.  What makes Kate belong to the family is her relationship and responsibilities, not her blood.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not a Monarchist.  But Chapman’s piece reminds me of several laws Anishinaabeg use to discern who belongs.  Similar to the way Kate comes to belong with the Queen, Anishinaabeg also bring new people into their communities and nations through marriages and adoptions.[13]  Indeed, it can be said that the Queen belongs with Anishinaabeg through these very practices.  Harold Johnson, a Cree lawyer, argues that Cree treaties with the Crown are a form of adopting settlers.  He writes,

It was in accordance with the law of adoption that my family [the Cree] took your ancestors as relatives.  This adoption ceremony is what we refer to when we talk about the treaty. … When my family adopted your family, we became relatives, and that cannot be undone.  … [The Queen] is the one we adopted.  She and her children received the right to occupy this territory alongside my family. [14]

These logics of adoption demonstrate that Anishinaabeg family-making practices transcend race-based logics of belonging.  In Chapman’s work, as in Johnston’s writing, we see the Queen and Duchess being claimed as family members, both politically and personally.  The bonds are based on teachings such as acceptance of difference, humility, caring for others, non-hierarchy and mutual success.[15]

Looking at Chapman’s work from a different perspective unfolds another layer of Anishinaabeg belonging orders.  In addition to adoption, Past, Present, and Future also represents family-making through birthing.  Birthing is a symbol of continuous renewal of the nation; it is a sign of mino-bimaadiziwin.  The portrait of Kate Middleton plays on the family-as-renewal narrative found in Norval Morrisseau’s 1975 work entitled Artist’s Wife and Daughter, a piece he painted in conjunction with a self-portrait.[16]  When juxtaposed together, we see in Morrisseau’s piece a Wife holding a Daughter, symbolizing the renewal of life into the next generation; in Chapman’s piece, we see Kate anticipating a child.  Chapman includes the next generation here by placing a spirit circle in front of Kate where Morrisseau’s ‘Daughter’ is located respectively.  Like the Duchess in the image, we are all anticipating the arrival of the next generation of those who belong with our families and communities.


This makes even more sense when we view Morrisseau’s Self Portrait and Artist’s Wife and Daughter together.  This is not to assert a heternormative, monogamous family model, but in this instance it is one model through which Morrisseau chose to emphasize continuous renewal through family-making.  In this original juxtaposition, Artist’s Wife and Daughter emphasizes the importance of the family within Anishinaabeg constitutional orders.  The family is the nation because it is through the family that people come to belong with the land and other Anishinaabeg.  This is why our treaties are discussed as adoption ceremonies: the principles underpinning treaty-making are based on the principles underpinning family-making.


Read together, Chapman and Morrisseau’s portraits assert not only the continuous renewal of Anishinaabeg in a physical sense, but speak metaphorically to the continued existence of Anishinaabeg constitutional orders that house our philosophies for discerning belonging.  As James Sákéj Youngblood Henderson has shown, if an Indigenous nation does not clearly surrender in treaty a right or responsibility, that responsibility remains within the jurisdiction of the Indigenous nation.[17]  Further, Anishinaabeg constitutional orders are not designed to automatically surrender aspects of sovereignty when we enter into treaties with other nations.[18]  No where in the Robinson-Superior Treaty does it state that Anishinaabeg surrender the responsibility to discern who belongs, and therefore our legal orders to do so are still in place despite the states’ unilateral assertion of its race-based Indian policies.  We see the continuation of our orders for discerning belonging in the portrait of Kate Middleton: dressed in Anishinaabeg aesthetic, she and her yet unborn child are being brought into Anishinaabeg belonging through our treaty-family relationship despite their low quantum of Indian blood.

Chapman’s work thus upsets the colonial narrative that says Anishinaabeg have no political or legal orders.

What Does it Mean?

What Chapman’s work does is it reminds us that we have our own customs for discerning belonging that are nested within sui generis legal orders.  It centers the family as the decision maker when determining who belongs and who does not.  It reminds us that such orders survived colonialism, particularly at the family level.  To me, Chapman’s Past, Present, and Future of the Anishinabe People pushes back on the colonial narrative that says belonging is a matter of being a racially ‘pure’ Indian, thereby challenging us more broadly to re-examine the ways our social order relies on race.[19]

I believe we can we can use the legal orders for discerning belonging as found at the family level to re-think how belonging is discerned at the national level.  I believe the family-making practices used by Anishinaabe families today can re-articulate at the community or national levels to reclaim control over belonging in resurgent and decolonizing ways.  In this, Christian’s work, and other stories about marriage, birth and adoption challenge us to see past the racialized notions of Indianness.  To belong, is to be part of a family, not whether one holds a status card.


[1] Pamela Palmater argues that the philosophy of “blood quantum” is at play in the provisions of the Indian Act that determine whether one is an “Indian” according to the Act, despite the absence of the term in the current version of the Act.  See Palmater, Pamela, Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity (Saskatoon: Purich, 2011), 46.

[2] Indian Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. I-5, ss.6-7, accessed September 8, 2013,

[3] Robinson qtd. in Alexander Morris, The Treaties of Canada with The Indians of Manitoba and The North-West Territories Including The Negotiations on Which They are Based, and Other Information Relating Thereto (Toronto: Willing & Williamson, 1880), 19.

[4] The Robinson-Superior Treaty states that annuities will be provided only so long as

the number of Indians entitled to the benefit of this Treaty shall amount to two thirds of their present numbers (which is twelve hundred and forty) to entitle them to claim the full benefit thereof, and should their numbers at any future period not amount to two thirds of twelve hundred and forty, the annuity shall be diminished in proportion to their actual numbers.

See: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, “Copy of the Robinson Treaty Made in the Year 1850 with the Ojibewa Indians of Lake Superior Conveying Certain Lands to the Crown.”

[5] Stoler, Laura Ann, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 81.

[6] Stoler, Ann Laura, Race The Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality And the Colonial Order of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 131-2, 144.

[7] Eva Marie Garroutte discuses the purposes of blood quantum as such: “[t]he original, stated intention of blood quantum distinctions was to determine the point at which the various responsibilities of the dominant society to Indian people ended.  The ultimate and explicit federal intention was to use the blood quantum standard as a means to liquidate tribal lands and to eliminate government trust responsibility to tribes, along with entitlement programs, treaty rights, and reservations.”  Garroutte, Eva Marie, Real Indians: Identity and Survival in Native America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 42.

[8] See Clatworthy, Steward, Estimating the Population Impacts of the E-Dbendaagzijig Naaknigewin, (Winnipeg:  Four Directions Project Consultants, 2010), 9.  This is not to say that these communities use blood quantum or the Indian status out of choice, as Canada’s Indian policies were forced onto Anishinaabeg; indeed, our communities were forced to abide by such policies in order to access treaty promises.  Regardless, generations of woman and their children have been wrongfully removed or barred from their communities because of this history.

[9] Geniusz, Wendy, Our Knowledge is Not Primitive: Decolonizing Botanical Anishinaabe Teachings (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009), 192.

[10] Simpson, Leanne, Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2011), 52-3.

[11] Sium, Aman, “‘New World’ Settler Colonialism: ‘Killing Indians, Making Niggers’,” [Blog post], Decolonization, Indigeneity, Education & Society.

[12] Nanabush, Wanda, “Love and Other Resistances: Responding to Kahnesatà:ke Through Artistic Practice,” in This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades, eds. Leanne Simpson and Kiera Ladner (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2010), 170-3.

[13] Auger, Donald, The Northern Ojibwe and Their Family Law [Unpublished dissertation], (North York: Osgoode Hall Law School, York University), Chapter 6.  Also see various stories shared by Maggie Wilson in Cole, Sally (ed.), Rainy River Lives: Stories Told by Maggie Wilson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

[14] Johnson, Harold, Two Families: Treaties and Government (Saskatoon: Purich Publishing Ltd., 2007), 27-29.

[15] Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back, 107.

[16] Seen together, Morrisseau’s Self-Portrait and Artist’s Wife and Daughter speak to re-creating the Anishinaabeg through family-making.  See Morrisseau’s Self-Portrait here:

[17] As James Sákéj Youngblood Henderson writes about another British-Indigenous treaty relationship, “[a]ny Aboriginal rights or tenure withheld from or denied to the British sovereign in the treaties were vested in the [Indigenous] Nation.”  Henderson, James Sákéj Youngblood, “Constitutional Powers and Treaty Rights,” Saskatchewan Law Review 63(2000):720-7.  Similarly, the Robinson-Superior Treaty makes specific agreements while protecting Anishinaabeg sovereignty, including sovereignty in discerning belonging.

[18] Simpson, Leanne, “Looking after Gdoo-naaganinaa: Precolonial Nishnaabeg Diplomatic and Treaty Relationships,” Wicazo Sa Review 23(2008):38.

[19] Root, Maria P. P., “Within, Between, and Beyond Race,” in Racially Mixed People in America, ed. Maria P. P. Root (Newbury Park: Sage Publications, Inc., 1992), 3.

One thought on “Re-dressing and Reclaiming: Anishinaabeg Belonging and the Logics of the Family

  1. NaomiReis

    The “Blood Quantum” idea sounds rather frightening. For me as a Jew it sounds like the Nazi idea of defining who was a Jew via a blood quantum. It was the same idea, just the other way round.
    I hope you are able to fight this racism in your lifetime, as we should fight racism on the whole earth in our lifetime.


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