“Who’s an Indian now?”: concept, definition, and significant ruling

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A unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada on April 14 gives us a dramatic example to take to a Theory of Knowledge class: Métis and non-status aboriginal people in Canada are now defined as “Indians” by the federal government. The people who now fit into this category are celebrating. The implications are significant for the rights they can now claim, the programs and services to which they now have access, and the increased clarity of their place in federal and provincial jurisdictions. Moreover, some consider it to be an acknowledgement of their history and a validation of their identity. But why do I suggest a judicial ruling with political ramifications as an example for a class on knowledge? What does it illustrate that is relevant to our course?

1. knowledge questions of classification

For one thing, it provides an example of the complexities and uncertainties of classifying phenomena, specifically human beings – and yet the huge implications for people of their being categorized in a particular way. Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella wrote in her verdict, “There is no consensus on who is considered Métis or a non-status Indian, nor need there be. Cultural and ethnic labels do not lend themselves to neat boundaries.” The judge overrides distinctions earlier considered important and adopts an inclusive definition for aboriginal people.

This issue of classification involves numerous ways of knowing (notably sense perception, intuition & reason, and language) and runs through areas of knowledge, with particular relevance in this case to the human sciences and history. A few over-arching knowledge questions stand out:

  • How do the categories our societies and languages have constructed for things and ideas affect how we learn and build our knowledge?
  • What is the relationship between a concept and a definition? What ways of knowing are involved in establishing and changing concepts and definitions?
  • How does the way we categorize the world affect what we think is good action (ethical, effective) within it?

If you’ve read much of my book (Theory of Knowledge Course Book, OUP) or if you’ve been following my blog, you’ll already know that I find these topics totally riveting, both for the way that shifting concepts connect with research and writing and, even more, for the way that concepts affect how people treat others in the world. If you share my interest, you may want to check back to related posts I made when preoccupied by the topic last June:

June 14, 2015 “Passing” as black: classification and social implications

June 17, 2015. Classification and implications: Who is black, or indigenous, or Jewish? 

June 20, 2015. World Refugee Day: What do our categories leave out? 

2.knowledge questions regarding definition

For another thing, definitions can be just so important – clever attempts to clarify things and ideas so that we can talk about them with a shared understanding of what we’re talking about.  (Always a good idea!)

And yes, they can be peaceful. They may be no more than calm moves in a language game (WOK language), as we use some words from our collection to set the boundaries of others, and thus share our knowledge.  Not a lot of sex, violence, and power struggle evident in the grey columns of text of your average dictionary!

But definitions can also be weapons. As we watch elections being fought and witness the struggles to protect — or not! — our natural environment, we become spectators of language wars.  Whose categories and terms will take over public discourse and push people to think in a certain way?  Who will succeed in toppling opponents and their views into deep pits of unflattering terminology and seize control of the dominant concepts and terms on the battlefield of public media?

Similarly, pushing concepts and their definitions to the fore of public awareness can be political and fierce.  Did you know, for instance, that “sustainable” is a recent word?  Three decades ago, most of my international students were vague about the word, and two decades ago most of them couldn’t find an equivalent in their own languages.  I’d bet they could now!  Behind this now-common concept and familiar word lies development of ideas within the natural sciences and economics. But there also lies a history of resistance to the dominant worldview, and some success in persuading the public and leaders to re-conceptualize situations and talk about them in a different way.

Challenging past definitions, too, can involve contest. The particular case of the Canadian Supreme Court changing the definition in law of “Indian” is a potent example of the relationship between language and power – power in this case exerted through a legal system that is one of the functions of government.  Allow Métis and non-status aboriginal people into the category, and instantly they gain certain rights, greater control of aspects of their own lives, and access to some government programs.  But it wasn’t a spontaneous choice on the part of the Supreme Court to reconsider the definition: the legal decision came in response to a challenge launched by a Métis leader in 1999, which first came to trial in 2011, with the decision reached finally this month.

A definition in law, though, isn’t necessarily the common understanding of the term.  More informally, the term “Indian” carries an array of connotations, such that many of our Canadian indigenous peoples reject the word and prefer the use of “First Nations”.  I certainly wouldn’t call my neighbours on the nearby Snaw-Naw-As reservation “Indians” in my own language context.

But, of course, in TOK the particular example, interesting though it may be in itself, isn’t what ultimately matters.  In our TOK classes, its role is to illustrate and develop broader knowledge questions — many of which are even more interesting (and potent for thought and action!) than the examples:

  • What is the relationship between a concept and a definition? To what extent does your response to this question depend on whether you are thinking about mathematics, physics, or contemporary politics around race and the environment?  (knowledge framework: concepts/language)
  • How do differing, and shifting, perspectives in history affect how we name events in the past, talk about them, and integrate them into our understanding? To what extent do these ways of talking about our past have resonance for how we see our present?

3.areas of knowledge: indigenous knowledge

Of course, you knew I’d arrive here – at indigenous knowledge. Isn’t the naming of this area of knowledge a debatable issue of definition in itself?

I really like the ambiguities and inconsistencies that the category “indigenous knowledge” tosses up for us to look at!   The very concept of this area of knowledge differs from the academic areas we treat. In areas of knowledge such as science and history, the people who are active in the field take their name from what they do. They are “scientists” or “historians” because they engage in the work of science or history. But in the TOK category “indigenous knowledge”, the knowledge is named for the category of people who possess it.

So….who is categorized as “indigenous”?  (Clearly, we don’t always need the Canadian Supreme Court for this!)  And what common characteristics does the knowledge possess, if any, that makes it distinct from other knowledge? Do the people of diverse cultures around the world possess “indigenous knowledge” in the same way or to the same degree? What, really, are we talking about, and — when people are categorized as they are being colonized — from whose perspective? (If you’re interested in what I’ve written in the past about Indigenous Knowledge in TOK, you need only find the tag cloud on this page and click on the term or, for more, try the tag cloud on my personal website Activating TOK.)

And I’m sure I’ll be coming back to this topic, one way or another, given the immediate world in which I live. Canada is a country to watch for how it develops its relationship with its indigenous peoples over coming years – how it handles current crises including epidemics of suicide, and how it acts upon the conclusions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s reports.  My country’s continuing interaction with its own First Nations will be affected by many of the topics we discuss in Theory of Knowledge: how knowledge is constructed, whose knowledge counts (and why), what perspectives are included as valid, and what interpretations win out in law, history, the human sciences, and the public mind.  Canada is at a point, politically, where change may be possible.


“Unanimous ruling says Ottawa has jurisdiction over all indigenous people”, CBC, April 14, 2016. http://www.cbc.ca/news/aboriginal/metis-indians-supreme-court-ruling-1.3535236

Metis leaders welcome Supreme Court ruling, The National, April 15, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXWwXdRw1RQ