A local artist is questioning what it means to be Indigenous, tackling a subject that can be highly sensitive not only in the Yukon, but across Canada: how white-passing Indigenous people move through the world and whether the colour of someone’s skin has any place in it.
Teresa Vander Meer-Chasse, a member of the White River First Nation of Beaver Creek, launched her independent undertaking, called Project Hue, about one year ago. Since then, about 60 people, all of whom have lighter complexions, have come forward, posing for or submitting pictures and writing short bios about identifying as Indigenous (not all participant stories have been published yet).
Vander Meer-Chasse is no different, as she, too, has a mixed background, which didn’t seem to be a problem growing up. Only later did things get complicated, she said.
“You have to explain who are you every day, because they can’t get it from your face,” she said. “I think that’s kind of where everything really started. It goes back to Indigenous communities questioning themselves and questioning who they accept as their own.”
Vander Meer-Chasse grew up in Whitehorse, visiting her First Nation during the summers and holidays where she was steeped in community traditions.
“My mom felt the need to raise me in her community,” she said, noting that her mother is half-Indigenous, while her father is white.
She was surrounded by relatives, all of whom have brown skin, she said.
“Me being the little white girl, just kind of doing my dance, doing everything an Indigenous person is supposed to do, but not realizing I was so white until later. The older I got the more I realized I didn’t quite fit in.”
Eking out a space – a “new space” – for those with similar histories is the thrust of the project. But that’s been misinterpreted at various points throughout its timeline, Vander Meer-Chasse said.
She’s tried to tread carefully, she said, right down to word choice (light-hued, for example, or subbing out the word “racism” for “prejudice”).
But backlash has been fielded, regardless – mostly from visibly-Indigenous people.
“I think it was because there was this thought that I was taking up space using this project,” Vander Meer-Chasse said. “Even in the intention statement I said I’m not taking up space, I’m creating a new space for Indigenous people like me, who, we’re just kind of friends, but we’re floating in this centre area of, ‘we’re too native to be white and we’re too white to be native.’”
She said support has come in from people like herself and, when the project was first created, non-Indigenous people.
Joella Hogan, a participant and member of the First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun, said it doesn’t necessarily matter what your skin colour is for Yukon First Nations.
“It’s your family history, it’s your culture, but for us that’s all connected to the land,” she said.
The project, in Hogan’s opinion, is about steering clear of the concept of blood quantum.
“Clearly that’s the government and the Indian Act,” she said. “Having this dialogue about identity and family history, connection to land and place, I think is so much more important than the colour of your skin.”
Not all Indigenous people with mixed backgrounds agree with the linchpin of Vander Meer-Chasse’s work.
Tristan Morgan, an Anchorage-based artist who’s part Iñupiat, said there’s an element of privilege to the project that can’t be ignored — that it should be more community-directed.
Because of having lighter skin, “we’re already given a platform, even more so than darker skinned and more visibly native people,” she said.
“It’s seeking validation from somewhere you shouldn’t be seeking validation. My Indigenous identity doesn’t come from my skin tone, and I look to my community for that validation as an Indigenous person.”
Morgan considers herself white-passing “in certain settings,” though she does have identifiers marking her as Indigenous – tavlugun tattoos, which appear on the face.
“It depends on where I’m at,” she said. “To outsiders I’m visibly native, especially here in Alaska, when I go outside, they know that I’m mixed, but they think I’m some sort of Asian. When I’m within my community, I’m acknowledged that I am Indigenous, but it’s also acknowledged that I’m white.”
Outside the community, she said, is a different story, where it’s observed that Morgan has opportunities others don’t.
“Outside the community I’m very white-passing. I do have these opportunities and kind of like not internalizing that and feeling ashamed of it, but more so using that as a confidence booster, as a means to be like ‘I have this power. I should be able to utilize it to help my community,’” she said. “I want to be able to use what I have to be able to give back to the communities who did not have the opportunities and the avenues that I was given.”
In this respect, she feels “Project Hue,” to a degree, supplants community support for personal validation.
“I think this project kind of separates the two communities and it will provide even more division, because it’s not acknowledging the platforms we are already given,” Morgan said.
“What is the baseline for looking native enough? What is the baseline for being dark enough?” she added. “You can be white and Indigenous.”
Morgan said that when she was growing up it “didn’t matter if people didn’t think I was native enough because I knew that I was and family knew that I was and I was involved in the community, so I didn’t need that validation as a white-passing person.”
The News followed up with Vander Meer-Chasse about some of Morgan’s concerns.
In a written statement, Vander Meer-Chasse said her project is still in its “infancy” and that she has no intention of satisfying everyone.
She said she takes offence to the notion that she and project participants don’t dedicate themselves to the betterment of their communities, calling it “none other than ignorance-based prejudice.”
“I myself am the volunteer Vice-President of my First Nation’s Development Corporation,” she said. “I’ve spent the last two years volunteering for a full-time position until we have a General Manager.”
She said that participants are encouraged to acknowledge their privileges in their statements, but aren’t required to do so. The project, Vander Meer-Chasse said, is “guided by their words.”
“Rather than ‘what does it mean to be white-passing?’ I’d like to explore conversations of ‘what does it mean to be Indigenous?’ These conversations will naturally occur overtime when more people are open to this discussion.”
While inadvertent, Vander Meer-Chasse does concede to some of Morgan’s criticism, specifically when it comes to omitting oppression visibly-Indigenous people regularly face.
“This isn’t something I’ve ignored, I’m still in the process of developing what I can say on the matter,” she said.
“It’s an ongoing process and I hope to do as much justice to this topic as humanly possible. Myself and the participants are in a place of vulnerability. We are not the walking, talking reminder of colonization – we are NDNs and proud to be.”
Contact Julien Gignac at firstname.lastname@example.org