I have been watching with excitement over the past few days the story of Josiah Wilson – a Heiltsuk man who has been refused entry into northern British Columbia’s All Native Basketball Tournament because he does not meet a minimum blood quantum requirement. Josiah is black, born in Haiti, and adopted into the Heiltsuk nation by his father, Don Wilson.
The media attention given to Josiah’s story is a good thing. It is raising important questions about how Indigeneity in Canada is defined, by whom, and about whether adoption is valid grounds for Indigenous peoples to claim individuals as citizens of their nations.
However, while Josiah’s story seems to be challenging many of us to wrap our heads around inherent Heiltsuk law, it also presents us with another ‘teachable moment’: in each story I’ve read so far, the role of Indian status seems to emerge as the “real” proof that Josiah belongs as Heiltsuk. This is ironic and potentially damaging.
Adoption stories provide us with an opportunity to think about inherent Indigenous citizenship orders on their own terms in two important ways. First, they show us that such orders are not heterosexist in nature. Blood quantum, after all, is a heterosexist concept: it demands that Indianness be reproduced exclusively through heterosexual parenting. Adoption stories, therefore, show us that Indigenous citizenship orders include queer families in renewing Indigenous nations.
Second, adoption stories show us that families are the decision makers within inherent Indigenous citizenship orders. Unlike under the Indian Act, where belonging is determined by the Indian band in a centralized manner, adoption stories show us that families decide who belongs in a decentralized sense. This is important because it helps us to see that the authority to discern citizenship flows from Indigenous peoples’ own constitutional orders, not the Indian Act. All of this is reflected in how Josiah’s family and community claim him in the media: he is a Heiltsuk citizen regardless of bloodline because he was adopted by a Heiltsuk family. His father made this perfectly clear: “[Our children are] ours. We as the Heiltsuk Nation accept my son as one of us.”
Yet, in each story I’ve read over the past few days, Josiah’s “status card” slips into the discussion seemingly as a sort of authenticator. While his status as an Indian under the Indian Act is an important fact, I worry that it is being used as the ultimate proof of Josiah’s belonging. Its as if Heiltsuk citizenship law is not enough.
On one hand, including Josiah’s Indian status in this story is understandable. Collectively, we are suffering from “status hangover” given that, for generations, Canada made membership in an Indian band based solely on Indian status. Put simply, many now see Indian status as a pre-requisite to being Indigenous.
However, the over-emphasis of Josiah’s Indian status in the discussions about him being and belonging with Heiltsuk runs the risk of hiding the most important element of this story, namely, that Indigenous citizenship laws are alive and well. Such laws do not need the recognition of Canada to be valid.
Ultimately, it is up to Indigneous nations themselves to determine who belongs with them. As Josiah’s story clearly attests, Heiltsuk citizenship law has survived the assertion of Canadian sovereignty. This needs to be emphasized not only because its clearly the source of law that claimed Josiah as Heiltsuk, but ultimately because it demonstrates that Indigenous peoples throughout Canada do not need to rely on Canadian laws to determine who belongs.
With this in mind, the pathway forward can be one of demanding Canada base resource allocations in accordance with Indigenous citizenship orders rather than the terminal concept of Indian status.