Module 1: The Politics of Indigenous Identity

Developed by Rick Harp. Revised by Nicole Wegner, Department of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan.


Is identity political? The answer is as close as the nearest news source. From governments that discriminate against certain groups, to large-scale wars between people of different ethnicities or nationalities, identity clearly has political dimensions and consequences for everyday lives.

This module aims to promote a basic understanding of the politics of governance and Indigenous identity (membership and inter-group relations) in a multicultural state. As we improve our understanding about how identity works in the political realm, we can better appreciate identity-based claims and conflicts. By the end of this module, students should have a basic sense of how and why identity can play such a big part in shaping politics - and vice versa. Students should also be able to appreciate the role identity plays in Indigenous peoples’ ongoing efforts to regain greater control over their lives and lands, apart from state governments.

After a short introduction of what makes up identity and how it is formed, we will look at how this concept can be applied to Indigenous peoples. We will then be able to see how identity both contributes to, and reflects, the political dynamics of a state with colonized indigenous populations. Along the way, we will take note of one theorist’s provocative challenge to conventional interpretations of identity politics, and the promise it holds for an alternative approach to Indigenous self-government theory and practice. Finally, we will explore questions about what the future might bring for indigenous identities in an increasingly globalized world.

Learning Objectives
By the end of this module you should be able to:

  1. Explain the basic concept and components of identity.
  2. Explore the political implications of identity for Indigenous peoples and state governments.
  3. Analyze why community definitions of Indigenous identity often differ from state definitions.
  4. Critically assess the relationship between culture and identity.
  5. Evaluate the role that media, education, and arts play in identity formation and promotion.
  6. Investigate present and future challenges to the self-determination of Indigenous identity.

Module Instructions
  1. Read the module Learning Material.
  2. Read the Required Readings.
  3. Complete the optional Learning Activities. These will not be graded but will enhance your understanding of the course material.
  4. Complete the Self-Test and check your answers with those provided. If you have additional questions, please contact your instructor.
  5. Complete a Reflective Learning Journal Entry for this module within Canvas. This is a graded component.
  6. Check the syllabus for any other formal evaluations due.
Key Terms and Concepts

  • Identity
  • Culture
  • Ethnicity
  • Pluralism

Required Readings and Web Resources

Frideres, James. “Aboriginal Identity in the Canadian Context.” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies 2 (2008): 313-342. [Library link in Canvas]

Schouls, T. A. “Approaches to Aboriginal Identity.” In Shifting boundaries: Aboriginal identity, pluralist theory, and the politics of self-government, 35-59. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2003. [PDF in Canvas]

Coates, Ken. “Being aboriginal: the cultural politics of identity, membership and belonging among First Nations in Canada.” Canadian Issues 21 (1999): 23. [Library link in Canvas]

Learning Material

The Concept of Identity

Although the basic idea of identity – ‘who one is’ – may seem obvious in many ways, precise definitions and theories about how it operates politically have not been holistic. Poverty, racism, war, genocide: people’s very lives can depend on how well we understand and practice this concept. Before we can better appreciate the political aspects of identity, we first need to review what is conventionally meant by the term ‘identity’ in political circles.

Identity is a far from new concept, and its problems and challenges are just as enduring. For many people, personal identity involves deep feelings of belonging to a larger group. Group membership is often seen in exclusive terms – only some people can get in. There are a number of ways groups differentiate themselves from one another, for example, language, geography, history and religion. These differences can serve as dividing lines or boundaries between those who belong, and those who do not. Seen in this way, identity is not just about ‘who I am’; it is also – perhaps even more so – about ‘who I am not.’

This shared or collective sense of being different from other groups is internalized at the individual level. Perhaps most significantly, identity gives individuals “a sense of personal location and stability” (Schouls 2003, 2), which is critically connected to one’s self-esteem. Taken on their own, such bonds and boundaries of identity may be thought of as more or less benign. However, identities do not exist in a vacuum. Identity expresses itself most sharply during situations of contact and conflict, or where it emerges as a defensive response to real and perceived threats. We will explore this aspect of identity further in the next section.

Learning Activity 1-1

How would you describe your identity? To what extent, if at all, are the ethnic, cultural, religious and/or political groups you might belong to meaningful parts of your identity?

Using the whiteboard tool below, click on the (+) symbol and add a note with a word or label that you self-identify with. As your classmates also add to the board, we will be able to get a snapshot of the various ways in which the members of this class self-identify.

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Components of Identity: Hard and Soft

As noted earlier, academics have long tried to pin down the conceptual components of identity. For some, a useful way to look at this area is to break it down into objective and subjective approaches (Frideres 1993, 19). Objective approaches to identity tend to rely on mostly physical attributes such as skin color or other ‘hard’ facts like language classifications to distinguish among groups. By making up lists of criteria to objectively measure differences between peoples, so this theory goes, one can supposedly prove who belongs to which culture/race/nation, and who does not. In contrast, subjective approaches to identity acknowledge that identity involves many ‘soft’ factors that cannot be reduced to any such fixed traits or attributes. In this view, personal beliefs about identity, i.e., a chosen self-image, are just as important and relevant as any other potential factor. Subjective approaches often involve two components: someone who self-identifies as a member of a group, and the group accepting that person as a member. The objective fact of what language that person speaks or their physical appearance may be less relevant than the subjective fact of being seen and accepted as a member in the eyes of the community. Indeed, this process of self-identification and acceptance can apply to the community itself, which

may seek acceptance and recognition from other groups, be they from the same overarching culture or another culture altogether.

It is not unusual for people to employ some degree of both approaches in discussing identity. The real issue for students of politics and governance is determining who has the power to decide which definition is used, how and why. These questions lie at the heart of Indigenous identity politics in Canada.

Indigenous Identity

We begin our discussion of Indigenous identity by reviewing the by now familiar mix of objective and subjective factors. For some, a shared history or a shared background of social and political circumstances is key. Others point to a common language, geography, way of life and a set of physical features as important connecting factors. By now you may have the sense there is ultimately no right or wrong answer to the question of where identity comes from. However, identity is a very important political matter for many persons, particularly Indigenous peoples.


One element of Indigenous identity that stands out above the rest is (arguably) kinship. It is widely understood that family ties constitute a paramount source of identity. Another term used to describe these familial bonds is ethnicity. Some of the more commonly accepted components of ethnicity include:

  • A collective proper name (e.g., Sami, Cree, Inuit);
  • A “myth” of common ancestry;
  • Shared historical memories;
  • One or more differentiating elements of common culture;
  • An association with a specific homeland;
  • A sense of solidarity for significant sectors of the population (Smith 1991, 21; as cited in Schouls 2003, 9).

The use of the term ‘myth’ in regard to common ancestry requires some explanation. Smith does not mean it in a negative sense, but rather as a way to note that ancestry can be difficult to verify. To kin networks, family genealogy is often less important than a sense of community/familial belonging.


Strictly speaking, ethnicity is not the same thing as culture or nationality, though it can obviously draw upon elements of these two concepts. So where ethnicity is relatively stable and less liable to sudden, dramatic change, culture and nationality are more malleable and subject to the influence of external factors. As we shall see in the next section, this distinction will prove critical when it comes to the rationale and justification for demands for greater powers of Indigenous self-government.

Wherever colonization has established permanent ‘newcomer’ countries (regimes common in much of the circumpolar north, for example) the sense of Indigenous identity has usually been further complicated. As non-Indigenous people populated various territories and influenced cultural ways of life on indigenous lands and peoples, they also tended to impose their notions of what it meant to be Indigenous in the process. As a consequence, Indigenous identity has not always been a matter purely for Indigenous people themselves to decide. Generation after generation of non-Indigenous intervention later, confusion still reigns in many quarters as to who and what actually constitutes being Indigenous. This will be explored throughout our Modules to follow.

Identity formation often takes place as a way to differentiate ourselves from others, and Indigenous identity has historically been informed by how Indigenous culture differed from colonial/non-Indigenous ways of life. In other words, ‘Indigenous’ and ‘non-Indigenous’ are seen as two sides of the same coin. The one makes no sense without the other, because each group understands who they are only by measuring themselves against their opposite. If each Indigenous culture was one thing before centuries of contact with colonial immigrants, these cultures have changed over time. The interaction of Indigenous and European cultures has influenced how Indigenous culture has shifted, and the assimilationist practices of colonial governments are often seen as negatively influencing indigenous cultures.

Diverse Indigenous Identities in Canada

It is important to recognize that the term “Indigenous” is an umbrella concept. There is a multiplicity of identities that exist within this term. In Canada, there are a variance of identity factors that differentiate Indigenous groups, however the term is used generally to describe the groups or nations of original inhabitants of the land mass known as Canada. While there are indigenous groups worldwide that differ greatly in both ethnicity and cultural practices, many global indigenous groups share a history of colonialization and land dispossession. In Canada, the term Indigenous is capitalized as it is the proper name of a group of persons, just as one would respectfully capitalize other proper nouns such as French, Spanish, or German.

While the term “Indian” is considered outdated, it still reflects a legal identity categorization for many Indigenous persons in Canada. This will be discussed in greater detail in following Modules as we discuss the legacy of the Indian Act. In the 1982 constitutional repatriation, the term “Aboriginal” was used in Section 35 (2) as an umbrella term to describe individuals who were Indian, Metis, or Inuit. Aboriginal is therefore also an umbrella term, however one that may be viewed less favorably and many groups prefer to identify with the internationally-used “Indigenous”. There are wide variances in the identities of persons who are Aboriginal as each of these categories contains its own self defined subgroups (for example, there are many First Nations in Canada who differentiate themselves as Ojibway, Dene, Lakota, Ininew/Cree) and there are still a large percentage of Indigenous persons in Canada who are excluded from official recognition of their Indigenous identity (e.g. non-status Indians). While Aboriginal is still a legal or constitutional term, the preferred self-identifying term of many is Indigenous.

Learning Activity 1-2

Watch the CBC News video “How to talk about Indigenous people.”

Next, complete the mini true-false quiz below to review some terminology related to Indigenous identities in Canada.

Learning Activity 1-3

Watch the BearPaw Legal video “Understanding Aboriginal Identity.” As you watch, take note of ways, symbols, and definitions used by Indigenous persons to describe their Indigenous identity. List those terms in the text box below.

The Politics of Indigenous Identity

Where and when differences have existed in the world between two or more groups of people, disagreement and conflict have often followed. Conflict is not necessarily bad in and of itself; in many ways, it is normal and natural, even inevitable, for groups lacking key areas of common ground. The real political challenge lies in finding ways to manage and resolve inter-group conflict that do not entail major losses to one side or the “other.”


Countries that have borders encompassing a number of groups based along cultural, religious and political lines are known in political science circles as pluralist states: pluralist because there is more than one group vying for what each believes is their fair share of the larger state’s resources and decision-making powers. These demands for political recognition from others lay “at the heart of identity politics” (Schouls 2003, 1).

Studies of pluralism look at how states with multiple group identities work to strike a balance between these groups’ demands. Does the state manage and accommodate group differences fairly and justly? How does it decide which groups get what share of resources? While different strands of pluralist theory come to their own conclusions, the foci of study are group power and equality.

In cases where Indigenous peoples have found themselves incorporated into a multi-cultural state, their desire to gain greater control over their political lives raises central questions about how best to realize those aspirations. What powers and institutions are necessary to do the job? Most scholars supportive of Indigenous rights would argue for self-government. This raises the question of how to successfully justify these claims for greater political control. In other words, how should they make the case for self-government to a state authority? How can they encourage empathy for their goals among non-Indigenous groups?

Identity and Self-Governance

There are two main arguments underlying the case for greater Indigenous self-government. The first notes the pre-contact occupation of the lands in question, and the legal and moral obligation that this entails. The second relies on the notion that Indigenous people possess a unique set of cultural characteristics in need of protection and preservation. According to Canadian political theorist Tim Schouls, while few can dispute the first proposition, they should carefully explore the second. Schouls critically examines the way culture, nationhood, and ethnicities are used to support demands for greater self-government. Schouls aims to better integrate subjective concepts of identity with pluralist theory.

In Shifting Boundaries, Schouls advocates a subjective approach to identity, anchored in the familial ties of ethnicity. Someone’s biology as cultural criterion is less relevant than the ways people choose whom they affiliate and identify themselves with. Calling this the “identification” approach to identity, Schouls believes it best accounts for the ever-changing nature of group and individual self-definition:

Because the meaning of ethnicity is associated with the quality of belonging to an ethnic community and not with the individual possession of cultural and political attributes, this approach lends to identity a greater flexibility; it acknowledges that identity can change over time without jeopardizing the integrity of the individual’s identity itself or the identity of the community to which that individual is related. (Schouls 2003, 9).

Fluidity of Identity

For Schouls, the true source of meaning for any group identity resides precisely in the solidarity of its members, what he calls a shared commitment to group ‘relatedness.’ Members individually and collectively engage in “ongoing act[s] of self-definition,” constantly adjusting and adapting to new circumstances where needed. Changes influenced by colonialism are not necessarily negative for Indigenous identity:  they simply create new conditions in which it must operate. Schouls contrasts this understanding of identity to theories that rely solely on more fixed cultural attributes:

Some commentators point out that individuals need culture not in a general way but in the specific ways provided by the cultures of their own communities. . . . Thus, it is the existence of cultural differences rather than the existence of culture itself that becomes the basis of identity of a community (Schouls 2003, 5).

The focus on specific cultural attributes can be counterproductive as it reinforces a stereotype of an ‘authentic Indigenous’ identity represented by culture from pre-European contact. Seen through this lens, any northern Inuit who now voluntarily use snowmobiles instead of sled dogs could be criticized for acting ‘untraditionally.’

Schouls argues that it is a serious error to base arguments for Indigenous self-government on something so fluid as cultural traits. He finds that the second rationale for self-government (that it is necessary to protect a given set of cultural attributes) has serious shortcomings (Schouls 2003, ix). Schouls notes that Indigenous culture is not homogenous, and we must consider “what” constitutes Indigenous culture. “Whose version of culture would self-government be set up to defend?” For example, cultural practices can differ between geographical areas even if their Indigenous citizens share a similar biological lineage. We should not assume that tribal or biological ties mean that all individuals possessing that heritage have the same cultural practices. Identity politics are far more complicated than nationality or biological characteristics.

Identity in its most ideal form is not one-way, top-down imposed, but rather is an ongoing, informal exchange between the group as a whole and the individuals who make it up. For Schouls, specific expressions of culture are not the primary issue for self-government. Rather, Indigenous peoples should have the right to make their own choices about how they can best make their own decisions.

What is far more important from this point of view is the idea that identity is constituted by the historical continuity of relatively open-ended processes of self-definition by community members that relate to both what they take themselves to be and how they define their interests or ends over time (Schouls 2003, 3).


One could argue that any self-determined act in and of itself generates examples of self-definition. If how we act reflects who we are, our behavior also defines who we are in the process. Theorists call this dynamic a dialectic, where personal actions inform their theories about those actions, which in turn informs further action, in a kind of constant feedback loop. In classic chicken-and-egg fashion, the question is which comes first: self-definition or self-determination? The simplest answer may be to say they are inextricably bound up together. The content of Indigenous identity, therefore, flows from the context in which it currently operates. In many Indigenous cases, ethnic ties are not strictly biological: there is a long history amongst communities of adoptions and intermarriage. Although genetically different, they are more or less regarded as being ‘Indigenous.’

For Schouls, ‘hard’ factors of identity remain relevant but only in the ways Indigenous people themselves choose to make them relevant. By now, it should be clear that even an attribute such as a shared language is no guarantee of group cohesiveness. Much more is involved:

While cultural and political attributes may be present in the life of a community, their existence is largely irrelevant from the perspective of whether ethnic identity exists or not. What is relevant is the role that cultural or national symbols play in the claims that ethnic groups make about who they are and how they wish to be seen. Cultural and political attributes are therefore viewed not as intrinsic to ethnic identity but as contingent on it (Schouls 2003, 12).

Challenges of Identity

Too narrowly focusing on the specific content of culture can be counterproductive. For example, many Indigenous hunting and fishing rights cases in both Canada and the USA have often hinged on what constitutes ‘legitimate’ or ‘authentic’ harvesting methods. These arguments are typically measured against pre-contact technologies and techniques. This creates a stereotype and limitations for Indigenous groups and their ever-changing cultures. To argue against any special rights, critics of Indigenous self-government note that Indigenous peoples no longer live the way they once did. Individuals who deviate from their cultural traditions are viewed as no longer fulfilling their identity as ‘authentic’ Indigenous people: “Why should the state give Indigenous people power and resources when there aren’t any ‘real’ Indigenous people left, anyway?” We must realize that all cultures evolve and must do so to survive.

Fixed ideas of identity force conformity with a dominant idea of what, and who, Indigenous peoples should be. This is why one should always consider the ultimate origins of any definition of identity. How a group defines itself is much less relevant than its right and ability to do so. This is because aspects of that self-definition will change and evolve over time. This is the reason why this module has avoided supplying any certain prescribed attributes of identity for any Indigenous population.

Learning Activity 1-4

Consider the following article about who is recognized as having legitimate Indigenous identity and therefore has access to membership in particular organizations: Analysis: Josiah Wilson, the Indian Act, hereditary governance and blood quantum. Read the article and respond to the question in the text window below.

Schouls is right to caution scholars and policy makers against putting too much emphasis on cultural differences when making their case for expanded self-governance. Given that culture is not fixed in time, attempts to fix it only serve to distract us from the real needs: To protect people’s right to make choices as self-determining collectivities, including the forms of culture and nationality most important to them.

Political and Economic Effects of Identity

If Schouls’ critique offers exciting and innovative new approaches to Indigenous citizenship, today’s legal and political realities are a bracing reminder of how far we have to go. In countries where indigenous people’s way of life now operates in conjunction with non-Indigenous culture, their chosen bonds of allegiance are not always taken into account by the state. The ruling elites – dominated by non-Indigenous interests – enact membership or citizenship laws and policies that may or may not fit well with Indigenous systems. In Canada, for example, First Nations communities were not allowed meaningful control over any aspects of their membership laws or codes until 1985, and there is still limited Indigenous control over these areas.

Critics suggest that economic concerns make states reluctant to release total legal control over Indigenous membership. In many countries, much of the funding for indigenous programs and services is based on population figures (i.e., on a per capita basis). So, the more members there are, the more it will cost state governments. States that make it more difficult to gain Indigenous citizenship (and/or easier to lose it) will need to spend fewer dollars. This is detrimental to preserving Indigenous lineage. However, pushes to limit membership are not necessarily confined to non-Indigenous state authorities.

Many Indigenous governments or agencies deliver programs and services on behalf of the state. Fixed budgets and a growing population in many cases can translate into fewer dollars per community member. This in turn encourages some Indigenous administrators or politicians to find their own ways to keep official ranks from swelling by employing more restrictive membership criteria. For example, some opt to tighten up genetic requirements. Here, objective identity criteria (biology) trump subjective criteria such as community acceptance. Intentionally or not, the net effect is that the state has offloaded its political problems onto local Indigenous governments and authorities. Another example of restrictive identity policies and practices occurs in the case of a sudden influx of funds from newfound natural resource wealth or land claim settlements. Indigenous leaders concerned about inflating community memberships have been known to try to pre-empt new memberships by tightening up the criteria.

It would not be fair to blame Indigenous people for their reliance on rigid cultural attributes as a basis for framing demands for self-government. It is important to recognize that Indigenous peoples are being constantly immersed in images that inform and reinforce ideas about ‘who they are’ in the mainstream media and arts. Until only recently, Indigenous-controlled media outlets have been a relative rarity, and still constitute a minority portion of the media environment. It is to this environment we now turn.

Media and Arts in Identity Formation

We now shift our focus to the politics of a realm where, for better or for worse, many of us learn about who we are today: the media and arts. This is not to diminish community efforts to draw on local traditions, stories and artistry as a means of fostering stronger Indigenous identities. Mainstream books, newspapers, movies, radio and websites continue to draw Indigenous audiences, and political theorists should not discount the significance of media effects.

Learning Activity 1-5

Consider popular media representations of Indigenous peoples (movies, tv series, books, news coverage).

Using the whiteboard tool below, click on the (+) symbol and add an example of such a media representation used to represent Indigenous peoples in North America. List the (1) medium and (2) representation (e.g., character, image). You might also choose to add an image, video, or link to illustrate your example. Note (3) if this representation is historical or contemporary.

As examples are added to the board, take some time to critically assess these representations. How might you connect this to your next Learning Journal Entry (see syllabus)?

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From their onset, non-Indigenous media have generated a host of stereotypical images purporting to capture what ‘being Indigenous’ means. Whether the images reflect everyday Indigenous life does not matter. The end result has been a set of beliefs and expectations about who Indigenous peoples ought to be. For many writers, artists, broadcasters and filmmakers, the only Indigenous people of interest were historical images. These images purport that the only ‘authentic’ Indigenous people were those who lived pre-contact. Modern Indigenous people lost their lands, and their traditional ways of living off those lands were drastically altered. Modern Indigenous peoples cannot meet expectations based on images projected by media about ‘authentic’ Indigenous culture.

Among the audience of this imagery are non-Indigenous policy makers and legislators who set down the standards for Indigenous membership and citizenship. The consequences of all these representations (ones indigenous people had little if any part in creating) extended well beyond the printed page or silver screen.

Some critics brand the mainstream media as a primary accelerator for globalization, which is something many consider a major new threat to indigenous identity. Regional cultures and identities are often silenced in heavily commercialized business expansion. Indigenous communities are often wary that their interests will be overlooked in resource development.

Present and Future Challenges to Identity

The loss of language is one cost of a dominant society’s culture affecting Indigenous identity. However, integration does not always have to equal assimilation, provided Indigenous governments have the necessary tools and the proper support to pursue their continued existence as an ethnic group. As Schouls’ analysis indicates, Indigenous peoples cannot afford to forget the crucial distinction between adapting to new circumstances versus the complete adoption of non-Indigenous ways of life. Granted, it is not always easy to tell the difference. Even here, it should be left up to Indigenous peoples themselves to collectively assess their situation and determine how to proceed through their own internal processes of debate and dialogue.

In truth, this is a debate about what should come first: Indigenous culture, or the Indigenous people who ultimately make (and re-make) that culture? In the final analysis, we must be wary of arguments to protect our cultures that effectively sever them from the humans who make them. A negative example of ‘protection’ of culture is corporate efforts to trademark and patent Indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants. While this preserves the knowledge, it is often done while the people themselves waste away from diseases and dispossession. This is why an exclusive focus on culture alone is risky.

Indeed, now that the powers that be have taken indigenous people’s land and resources, it is very important to preserve traditional indigenous knowledge. Arguments to protect culture do not represent a fundamental threat to non-indigenous state control over the land and resources. Indigenous cultures are in danger of becoming extinct. To preserve Indigenous culture does not require great sacrifice. For example, it is quite conceivable that an Indigenous language could be preserved in digital form, without a single original speaker left alive to speak it.

As Schouls points out, it is people who make culture, not the other way around. Schouls’ analysis puts Indigenous people first, so that restored powers of self-determination leave them free to constantly make culture anew, just as they have for thousands of years. As indigenous peoples are finally allowed to determine their own fates, they will simultaneously define themselves in the process.


Group membership is often seen in exclusive terms – only some people can get in. The ways we differentiate ourselves from others – language, geography, history and religion – can serve as dividing lines or boundaries between those who belong, and those who do not. Seen in this way, identity is not just about ‘who I am’; it is also – perhaps even more so – about ‘who I am not.’

Objective approaches to identity tend to rely on mostly physical attributes such as skin color or other ‘hard’ facts like language classifications to distinguish between groups. By making up lists of criteria to objectively measure differences between peoples, so this theory goes, one can supposedly prove who belongs to which culture/race/nation, and who does not. In contrast, subjective approaches acknowledge that identity involves many ‘soft’ factors that cannot be reduced to any such fixed traits or attributes. In this view, personal beliefs about identity, i.e., a chosen self-image, are just as important and relevant as any other potential factor.

For Schouls, the true source of meaning for any group identity resides precisely in the solidarity of its members, what he calls a shared commitment to group “relatedness.” Members individually and collectively engage in “ongoing act[s] of self-definition,” constantly adjusting and adapting to new circumstances where needed. This view sees identity as fluid and evolving, intimately connected to the persons it represents.

Schouls argues that it is a serious tactical and theoretical error to base arguments for Indigenous self-government on something so changeable and fluid as cultural traits.  Self-government is far too important to Indigenous peoples to simply base it on fixed qualities that indicate who is, and who is not, Indigenous. Processes for self-government need to embrace the complexities of identity (particularly Indigenous identities) if they wish to adequately address the needs of First Nations persons in Canada.



Self Tests and Answers

Quiz yourself by writing down responses to each of these questions below. When finished, click each question to reveal the suggested answer. Doing the Self-Test in this way will help you prepare for the Midterms and Final Exam.

1. What are the basic concepts and components of identity?

Answer: Identity, simply put, is how we both associate and differentiate ourselves from others. Identity markers can be “hard,” such as geography, language, or sex, or they can be “soft,” such as ethnicity, kinship, and shared history.

2. What are the political implications of identity for Indigenous and state governance?

Answer: Indigenous identity is inherently political in Canada because many rights-based assurances (such as health care and education) are constitutionally guaranteed to those recognized as Indian. Enabling or prohibiting individuals to be legally recognized as Indian identity is therefore closely tied to how much government funding is allocated and to whom.

3. Why do local/community definitions of Indigenous identity often differ from state definitions?

Answer: State definitions of Indigenous identity often use “hard” identity markers while local/community members use “soft” identity markers.

4. What are some problems associated with concepts of identity restricted to culture and nationalism?

Answer: Exclusivity is a part of identity: certain characteristics will allow members in and keep others out. Genocide – either political or cultural – is a potential risk of isolating and labelling groups based strictly on culture and nationality. Culture and nationalism should not be the sole markers for determining identity, as they do not accommodate for the dynamic, fluid nature of identity.

5. What role do media and arts play in identity formation and promotion?

Answer: Media and arts represent a static version of identity that restricts a full understanding of the dynamic nature of identity. Identity evolves as the people it represents evolve, and the media/arts often portray simplistic or historically inaccurate caricatures of Indigenous persons.

6. Investigate present and future challenges to the self-determination of Indigenous identity.

Answer: As Indigenous identity is inherently political and connected to resource ownership, government funding, and rights-based issues, the government has been hesitant to allocate full control over the determination of Indigenous identity to Indigenous communities. Particularly as new resource development in Canada expands to Indigenous controlled lands, there are still many challenges ahead in allowing true self-determination (and self-governance) of Indigenous persons.




Identity: In a simple sense, the arbitrary division and of individuals from one another based on a variety of markers (geography, language, sex, age, class, etc.).

Culture:  A group of people who share a common history, language and way of life.

Ethnicity:  A group of people related by blood and other forms of kinship that also share a culture. Ethnic groups may choose to make political demands for their members as a whole.

Objective approach to identity (hard): An approach to identity that tends to rely on mostly physical attributes, such as skin color or other ‘hard’ facts like language classifications to distinguish between groups.

Pluralism:  A society that includes a number of prominent cultural, religious and/or political identity groups. Pluralist theories focus on how multicultural societies manage and balance relationships between these distinct identity groups.

Subjective approach to identity (soft): An approach that acknowledges that identity involves many ‘soft’ factors that cannot be reduced to any fixed traits or attributes. In this view, personal beliefs about identity, i.e., a chosen self-image, are just as important and relevant as any other potential factor. Subjective approaches often involve two components: someone who self-identifies as a member of a group, and the group accepting that person as a member.




Frideres, James and Lilianne E. Krosenbrink-Gelissen. Native Peoples In Canada: Contemporary Conflicts. Prentice Hall Canada, 1993.

Schouls, T. A. “Approaches to Aboriginal Identity”. In Shifting boundaries: Aboriginal identity, pluralist theory, and the politics of self-government. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2003.



Recommended Readings

Corntassel, Jeff. ”Who Is Indigenous? ‘Peoplehood’ and ethnonationalist approaches to re-articulating indigenous identity.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 9 no.1 (2003): 75-100.

Harding, Robert. "The media, Aboriginal people and common sense." Canadian Journal of Native Studies 25 no.1 (2005): 311-335.

Palmater, Pamela. Beyond Blood: ReThinking Indigenous Identity. Saskatoon, SK: Purich Publishing, 2011.