Identity Porn: Danielle Smith and her Cherokee alter ego

In a recent speech, leader of the Wildrose Party Danielle Smith commented that she would (could?) not tolerate discrimination in any form because she was a “person of mixed ancestry” with a Cherokee great grandmother. On the one hand, I suppose we should thank god for small favours that she didn’t refer to herself as Metis (many would have under similar genealogical circumstances) or that she didn’t refer to her great-grandmother as a “Cherokee princess”.

On the other hand, Smith’s suggestion that her inability to tolerate discrimination – and if her tweets are to be believed, her strong interest in Aboriginal issues – is based on her Cherokee ancestry is another example in a long line of white people claiming an Indigenous ancestor when convenient (fittingly, she refers to her “great grandmother”, rather than herself, as Cherokee) without claiming an Indigenous identity. It is as banal as it is irritating, at once gratuitous and meaningless. It is an example of what I call “identity porn”.

“Identity porn”: internet wags have used the term to refer to comic superheroes who are “normal” people with “secret identities” or alter egos (think Clark Kent and Superman or perhaps more fittingly, Diana Prince and Wonder Woman), neither of whom can be in the same place at once. In a colonial country like Canada (yes, Canada is a colonial country), it is an unfortunate fact that those, like Smith, who engage in identity porn, live in almost exactly the opposite circumstances. That is, in a colonial context, you can claim an Indigenous ancestry without an Indigenous identity. You can, in other words, make a claim to Indigeneity that literally means nothing.

To be clear, I don’t mean that it means nothing to her. I don’t personally know her, and this isn’t a personal attack. Instead, I mean that despite her current position of power, her claim means nothing – it is green beer on St. Patrick’s Day or perogies at Heritage Days. She invokes it now, however, as though this status, rather than embodied experience and attachment to a Cherokee (or any Aboriginal) community, gives her some special insight into discrimination or empathy toward those who have been discriminated against. She claims it without shouldering any of the responsibilities that such claims to identity (rather than ancestry) would entail and without any of the knowledge and context that growing up in an Aboriginal community affords.

Should we be anticipating the moment where she proclaims, “we are all Cherokee”?

With the Wildrose Party poised to win a majority in today’s election, Smith stands to (nearly literally) become a Cherokee Princess. Certainly, Alberta’s PCs have enjoyed four decades of power, more than most monarchs. And since many of the conservative elements of the PCs are now Wildrose-bound, there’s no reason to think that the same can’t be true of the Wildrose Party (*shudder*). Whether her Indigenous ancestry and its attendant “strong interest in Aboriginal interests” moves us beyond the predatory relationship Alberta currently enjoys with “its” Indigenous peoples, however, only time will tell. Until then, we will wait to see what superpowers her alter ego – “Cherokee Princess” – has brought her.

About BigMmusings

Chris Andersen, Ph.D., Associate Dean-Research, Associate Professor, Faculty of Native Studies University of Alberta
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2 Responses to Identity Porn: Danielle Smith and her Cherokee alter ego

  1. atomicpoet says:

    This is some honest food for thought.

    I was brought up by my mother who told me that I was part Indian. What kind of Indian, I didn’t really know. I personally had no Indian friends, and when the subject came up, I casually just mentioned that I had some Indian ancestry — and that was that. I’ve never claimed to “be native”. I didn’t think it was morally right for anyways.

    But this week, I spoke to my father for the first time in 27 years. I last spoke to him when I was 3-years-old. I asked him if he was Native. His response was, “I am Métis, and so are you.”

    That statement prompted a lot of emotion in me. It meant that I came from somewhere, that I didn’t come about in a vacuum. Honestly, I’d like to actually explore what this means.

    But I’m a bit hesitant. I don’t want to be an identity thief. I don’t want to claim something I haven’t been for the length of my life. I certainly don’t want to stand up and say, “I understand what it’s like to be Native” — because clearly I don’t. At least, not to the extent you do.

    So what does a person like myself do?

    • BigMmusings says:

      Hi Christopher,

      There is a number of different things you can do. First, you’re certainly not alone – thousands of people are in the same boat. A couple of things come to mind – first, is there any chance you can meet your father’s family? This isn’t always possible but in instances where it is, it can be a powerful source of connection for you (in this case, given that you’re just getting to know your father, it might not be possible). Second, you can ‘put in work’ for your local urban Aboriginal community if you live in a city. Be prepared for some pushback from some within the community who, for whatever reason, will be suspicious of your motives. Nonetheless, those are two of the ways that i can think to connect yourself more strongly to your lineage and I’m sure other people can suggest others. Best of luck.

      Also, in regards to my comment about Danielle Smith – i wasn’t poking fun at the fact that she has Aboriginal ancestry but did not grow up in a community. I was pointing to the fact that she was attempting to suggest that she knew about discrimination by virtue of her ancestry.

      Chris

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