The “Pretendians” exploiting Indigenous communities through identity fraud

False claimants to Indigenous identity — possibly in the tens of thousands — are stealing money, opportunities and culture from Indigenous people in Canada.
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When Nadya and Amira Gill laid claim to Indigenous identity, they opened a world of opportunity for themselves.

In 2021, the Ontario-based twins launched Kanata Trade Co., selling Indigenous-themed face masks, T-shirts and other products, described as an “Indigenous-owned business” owned by “Inuit sisters.” The twins, who had received thousands of dollars in scholarship money for Indigenous youth, pledged to donate proceeds from their small business to Indigenous students. “It’s a cycle of positivity,” the magazine Global Heroes wrote of their venture.

There was just one problem: After an investigation into a fraud complaint, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI) — the organization that oversees enrollment of Inuit people in Canada —  removed the sisters from its enrollment list. The woman they had claimed as their birth mother had allegedly been unaware of the twins’ existence. The Gill sisters’ claims that they had NTI enrollment cards from a young age have been refuted; NTI records show they were enrolled as beneficiaries in 2016, when the twins were in their late teens.

For centuries, Indigenous peoples have been cut off from their identities through systemic discrimination and aggressive assimilation efforts, including state-funded residential schools where Indigenous youth were abused, starved, forbidden from speaking their native languages and forced to convert to Christianity. 

In an ironic and disturbing turn, the last few decades have seen a rise in cases of non-Indigenous people exploiting Indigenous identity by making false or dubious claims to Indigeneity. Informally, the phenomenon is referred to as “Pretendianism” — being a pretend “Indian,” that is. More formally, it is known as “Indigenous identity fraud.”

And Indigenous peoples across North America, especially in Canada, are feeling increasingly worried by the issue. 

“I feel threatened by [Pretendians], because they’re trying to take our identity,” says Drew Hayden Taylor, a First Nations playwright, novelist and filmmaker from the Curve Lake Anishinaabe community in Kawartha, Ontario. His work has delved into the world of false claimants to Indigenous heritage, and what’s at stake.  

“They’re trying to become our leaders, our thinkers, our influencers,” Taylor says. In some ways, social media is making it easier for people to falsely assume and profit off of Indigenous identity. But it can also make it easier for their lies to be exposed. In the case of Kanata Trade Co., it was Inuit individuals asking questions online about the business’ claims that precipitated the investigation into the twins’ Inuit enrollment. 

Now, the Kanata Trade Co. website exists only as a broken link. Its Instagram page is filled with comments calling out the theft of Indigenous art and culture — and pointing out the twins’ apparently muddled understanding of Inuit culture versus First Nations cultures. 

“I think it’s now become only a matter of time before all these people are exposed,” says Taylor. “You can hear the clock ticking for people who have assumed this identity.”

Filmmaker Drew Hayden Taylor (left) created the award-winning 2022 documentary “The Pretendians” (right).

Why Indigenous identity fraud?

Cases of alleged Canadian “Pretendians” such as the Gill sisters, former Memorial University president Vianne Timmons, author Joseph Boyden and prominent judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond have grabbed headlines in the past year. 

But according to a report on Indigenous identity fraud written for the University of Saskatchewan by Métis lawyer Jean Teillet, the number of people falsely passing as Indigenous in Canada is likely in the “tens of thousands.”

While there have been a few prominent cases of people engaging in “blackface” to falsely pass as Black, falsely claiming Indigenous heritage can be even easier because Indigenous people don’t necessarily look a certain way. Taylor, who directed the 2022 documentary The Pretendians, believes there are three main reasons that people falsely claim Indigenous heritage: community, financial benefit and family lore.

“Nobody likes to be alone; everybody likes to be part of a group,” Taylor says. Indeed, less than half of the Canadian population has a strong sense of belonging to their local communities, according to a Canadian social survey in 2022. “Let’s face it, in current society, Indigeneity is exotic and fascinating. That’s one reason people say they are Native. They want to belong to a really interesting club.”

In an age when it’s lucrative to capitalize upon identity, laying claim to Indigenous culture is practically incentivized. 

In Canada, the government provides certain financial benefits to Indigenous peoples. These include lower gas and cigarette prices, as well as some tax exemptions. On a larger scale, many universities and institutions set aside scholarships and academic opportunities for Indigenous peoples — opportunities that were exploited in the case of the Gill sisters.

One report on Indigenous identity fraud estimates that the number of people falsely passing as Indigenous in Canada is likely in the “tens of thousands.”

Over the last decade, dozens of well-respected Canadian authors, professors and professionals from coast to coast were ousted from their positions of high standing as a result of false claims to Indigeneity. Among them were Boyden (a celebrated author) and Turpel-Lafond (a distinguished lawyer), both of whom received accolades and awards for their achievements as “Indigenous” people.

Then there is family lore, which Taylor describes as “People’s grandparents saying, ‘Oh yeah, my grandfather said we were part Native.’” Often, without verifying the facts, generations accept the story as a reality.

While these types of stories seem harmless at first, in the long run, they lead to harm: Once somebody decides to embrace the false story as their claim to Indigeneity, they take opportunities from those whose ancestors really struggled at the hands of settlers.

In the United States, Senator Elizabeth Warren has infamously claimed Cherokee and Delaware Indian heritage, identifying as a minority based on stories she says she heard from relatives. (Warren has since apologized.) Most recently, University of California, Berkeley professor Elizabeth Hoover published a statement admitting she was white, when she had claimed throughout her life that she was Native American as a result of “incomplete information.” 

“In uncritically living an identity based on family stories without seeking out a documented connection to these communities, I caused harm,” Hoover wrote. “I acknowledge that I could have prevented all of this hurt by investigating and confirming my family stories sooner.”

In failing to do so, Hoover said she gained “access to spaces and resources that I would not have otherwise, resources that were intended for students of color.”

The harms of Indigenous identity fraud

While not all those who falsely lay claim to Indigeneity initially do so with malicious intent, their claims cause two major harms: the loss of opportunities meant for Indigenous peoples and the loss of Indigenous culture.

“There are few things that are more valuable, more important, to a person than their identity,” Taylor says. “In situations like this … you’re not just taking our identity. You’re replacing us.”

The Gill sisters received scholarships that were set aside specifically for Indigenous students and made sales through a small business that they marketed as Indigenous-owned. In doing so, Indigenous leaders say, the sisters took away opportunities from Inuit students and entrepreneurs who have faced ongoing systemic discrimination and rely on these identity-specific opportunities for a more equitable chance at success.

“In situations like this … you’re not just taking our identity. You’re replacing us.”

In academia, when spots reserved for Indigenous professors or Indigenous researchers are taken by non-Indigenous peoples, Indigenous professionals are further put at a disadvantage.

For years, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond was considered to be one of the country’s most successful and decorated Indigenous scholars and legal professionals and referred to herself as the “first Treaty Indian” appointed to a judicial bench in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. So when a CBC News investigation contradicted her claims about Indigenous ancestry in her father’s lineage, Turpel-Lafond faced backlash. 

Fraudsters not only take away opportunities, Indigenous leaders say, they take away the acclaim that actual Indigenous scholars and professionals deserve. A holder of 11 honorary doctorates, Turpel-Lafond had put her name next to historic achievements in the Indigenous community.

“It’s the height of white superiority to think that you have the ability to shop from other peoples’ ethnicity and take what you want, and get the opportunities from it, and deny them the opportunities from their own ethnicity,” says Pam Palmater, a prominent Mi’kmaq lawyer and politician, as quoted in Teillet’s University of Saskatchewan report.

Indigenous identity fraud also creates a rift in Indigenous culture, becoming a source of inauthenticity. Often, identity fraudsters spend years cultivating strong relationships with Indigenous leaders, granting themselves insider status. Once they do so, they are able to take up Indigenous space and become gatekeepers to Indigenous communities.

Many of these so-called “Pretendians” in the spotlight are accused of colonizing the public space — becoming tellers of Indigenous stories, though “they weren’t here for the struggle,” as Taylor says. “They’re here for the benefits.”

Claiming Indigenous identity vs ‘re’claiming Indigenous identity

While cases of so-called Pretendians grow, there are also many people reconnecting with their long-lost Indigenous ancestry.

Over the course of Canada’s history, there have been many attempts to either eliminate or assimilate Indigenous peoples. Most famously, residential schools attempted to “kill the Indian in the child” — in other words, indoctrinating them into Euro-Canadian lifestyles and discouraging expressions of their own culture. Birth alerts in hospitals across the country alerted child services when an Indigenous woman would give birth. The government agency would take their child away, alleging that the family was unfit to raise the child, and put the child into a white family instead. The “Sixties Scoop” era was full of instances like this, with Indigenous children being “scooped” from their families and placed into the child welfare system, where they were often given to white families to assimilate into the dominant culture. The racism and discrimination Indigenous peoples faced led many to hide their connections to their communities. 

Now, many Canadians are starting the journey of retracing their roots, in hopes to reignite their Indigeneity with pride this time. One of Canada’s most celebrated heroes, Terry Fox — an athlete and cancer research activist — and his family are among those who have recently reclaimed their Métis heritage. Their grandmother’s family had hailed from the Red River communities in Manitoba, but she had hidden her Indigeneity, possibly out of fear of stigma and inequities.

With no clear-cut way to determine whether an individual truly has Indigenous heritage, fraudsters are taking space meant for Indigenous peoples

While ancestral connections, legal status and enrollment in an Indigenous tribe are a first step, they are insufficient to verify whether an individual has genuine Indigenous heritage. “I don’t know how you say this person is Indigenous and this person isn’t,” Taylor tells Analyst News. “Assuming it’s a combination of nature and nurture, it’s a combination of blood and how you were raised.” 

With no clear-cut way to determine whether an individual truly has Indigenous heritage, fraudsters are taking space meant for Indigenous peoples — both those who have always known they were Indigenous and those who are finding their way back. 

According to Teillet’s report, identity has now become a contested term, a subjective notion with additional legal, political, social and psychological dimensions. But Teillet rejects this idea: “Indigenous identity exists only if it is in relation to cultural ancestors and to existing Indigenous societies,” she writes, explaining that reliance on subjective self-identification and “tenuous ancestral connections” is what allowed identity fraud to flourish. 

Indigenous identity is incomplete, Teillet emphasizes, unless the community also acknowledges an individual as one of their own.

The exploitation of Indigenous identity has taken on many forms since colonizers first settled in Canada. In order to combat Indigenous identity fraud specifically, community leaders say there must be an understanding that the fraud is more than just assuming a mask or playing a role — that it does serious damage to vulnerable people. Indeed, in Teillet’s report, professor Kim TallBear describes false claims to Indigenous identity as “a final act of theft in a long history of multiple layers and strategies of theft.”

For Taylor, the solution is that individuals simply should not claim an Indigenous identity without solid evidence of their ancestry.

“The best way to continue on in this society is don’t do it unless you can prove it,” he says. “That’s basically where my argument begins and ends on the topic.”

Daniyah Yaqoob is a staff writer at Analyst News.