Indianz.Com > News > ‘The Pretendians’ documentary from Canada tackles hot topic
‘The Pretendians’ documentary from Canada tackles hot topic
Friday, September 30, 2022

A new documentary tackles a topic that continues to generate controversy across Turtle Island. Just why are so many people claiming to be Indian?

Created by executive producer Drew Hayden Taylor, “The Pretendians” premieres on CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, on Friday evening. Though the documentary is presently only available in Canada, it focuses on an issue that has attracted attention in the United States as well.

“A lot of the Pretendian issue also makes mainstream news,” Taylor, a citizen and resident of the Curve Lake Nation, an Ojibwe community in Ontario, said in an interview on Thursday ahead of the premiere.

Taylor, an award-winning playwright, author and journalist, pointed to a slew of recent Pretendian news coverage, including the case of Gina Adams, an American artist who is the subject of a major story in Maclean’s Magazine. She recently left her position at a prominent educational institution in Canada after questions were raised about her claimed tribal affiliation.

“That’s actually one of the weirdest things we’ve discovered is that, you know, two thirds of them, or two thirds of the people we’ve discovered are opportunists,” Taylor said of people like Adams, who turn their Pretendian claims into profitable careers.

Taylor believes Pretendianism appears to have gained a hold at educational institutions because of their efforts to hire people who come from Native communities, whether tribal nations in the United States or First Nations in Canada. Emily Carr University had touted Adams as part of a “cluster hiring initiative” of “Indigenous faculty members” at the institution in British Columbia.

“They go out of their way to encourage hiring Indigenous people in academia, you know,” Taylor said of such efforts. “It’s a positive thing. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Problems can arise, however, due to a reliance on self-identification, rather than recognizing the sovereignty of Native nations. In the case of Adams, Emily Carr University described her as being “Ojibwa Anishinabe and Lakota descent of Waabonaquot of White Earth Reservation in Minnesota” despite the former employee not having any connection to any tribe in the U.S.

“As a result, a lot of these institutions hire people that claim to be Indigenous and aren’t,” Thomas said. “These universities are caught in the middle of, ‘What do we do?'”

Academia isn’t the only place where false claims are an issue. “The Pretendians” includes a segment on the illegitimate “Native” art market in British Columbia, where investigative journalist Francesca Fionda discovered that fraudulent products represent 75 percent of what’s being sold in Vancouver, a popular tourist destination.

The Pretendians
A segement in “The Pretendians” features Drew Hayden Taylor, left, and Francesca Fionda examining the fraudulent Native art market in Canada. Photo by Sara Cornthwaite

Another segment in “The Pretendians” highlights efforts to exploit and undermine the sovereign nature of First Nations in Canada. Through the use of fraudulent documentation of Indian status, non-Natives have tried to gain economic benefits from gas stations and even car dealerships in order to avoid paying taxes on their purchases.

“They are self-proclaiming that they’re Native, that they have Native ancestry and ‘here’s my card to prove it,'” Chief Rick Obomsawin of the Odanak First Nation states in the documentary.

According to Obomsawin, Indian status fraud poses economic and legal risks to businesses on his reserve, located in Quebec. Only by educating consumers and off-reserve entities has Odanak been able to address a problem that has entirely been created by outsiders.

“We have caught over 100 people with fake cards,” Obomsawin says in “The Pretendians.”

Despite the attention being drawn to the Pretendian issue, Taylor and the subjects in the documentary have often found it difficult to get answers from those who have made claims to Native nations. One segment focuses on Robert “Bob” Lovelace, a professor at Queen’s University who claims to be Cherokee from the United States and has since been identifying himself as Algonquin in Canada.

Lianna Constantino, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a co-founder and director of the Tribal Alliance Against Frauds, attempts to ask Lovelace about his shifting claims. As seen in “The Pretendians,” she even travels from the U.S. to the university campus in Ontario to speak with him directly — yet fails to receive a response.

In the interview, Taylor said his documentary crew also attempted to reach Lovelace, a former chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, a group that is not considered legitimate by other Algonquin governments. His team didn’t have much luck either.

“We’ve been trying to get a hold of him for for like six months,” Taylor told Indianz.Com “We tried to get a hold of him while we were there.”

Taylor, though, wasn’t too surprised with the lack of responses from Pretendian figures. He recalled other recent high-profile cases, including that of Michelle Latimer, a filmmaker who sued CBC for writing about her unverified claim to a First Nation but later withdrew the lawsuit. Another professor, Carrie Bourassa, recently left her position after her Native nation claims were questioned.

“Most of them go into hiding,” Taylor said of Pretendians.

“The Pretendians” airs on CBC at 9pm Eastern on Friday as part of the The Passionate Eye television series. The documentary can also be streamed on CBC Gem.

The CBC services are available for viewers and internet users in Canada, so for now people based in the U.S. won’t be able to watch “The Pretendians” easily. Taylor hopes the situation changes in the future.

“Hopefully, somebody in the States will find it, like it, wanna buy it and broadcast it, and hopefully everybody will be able to see it,” he said.

Also from Drew Hayden Taylor
Identity wars: What makes an Indigenous person Indigenous, and how do ‘pretendians’ complicate things? (CBC September 29, 2022)