The Indian Act as a Method for (Mis)Reading Indigenous Peoples

Submitted by Danielle Tasch… on Thu, 01/24/2019 - 15:51

10 January 2019

In my second year as a postdoctoral fellow at the JHI, I have been exploring the ways that the Canadian state has made Indigenous peoples visible as so-called “Indian” subjects. Broadly, this project examines the broader visual-political scene of settler colonialism through the nexus of vision, documentation, and power. Taking Canada’s “Indian” documentation techniques as a case study, I am investigating the world-creating capacity of documents and their role in mediating settler colonial political visions.

To develop the concept of settler colonial ways of seeing, this project addresses four key moments of documentation: the Indian Act, the Indian Register, Certificates of Indian Status, and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Each of these moments of documentation contributes to making Indigenous lives visible as objects of knowledge and governance, yet invisible as lives that matter. My research presentation for the JHI Fellows on January 10 focused on the Indian Act.

Indian Act 1876
The Indian Act of 1876

The Indian Act, first passed in 1876, asserts the terms of the political relationship between the Dominion of Canada and some Indigenous peoples, who the Act defines as “Indians”. At the heart of this legislation is the definition of “Indian status”. This category is defined in restrictive, explicitly gendered terms designed make it much easier for someone to lose status than to gain status. By design, the definition leads to a shrinking population of “status Indians” and serves colonial logics of elimination through forced assimilation. For Indigenous peoples, the stakes of being visible to state agents as a “status Indian” are high, as status determines one’s ability to participate in reserve governance, eligibility for on-reserve housing, and access to treaty-owed healthcare and education[1]. Val Napoleon, a Saulteau and Gitanyow (Gitksan) legal scholar, diagnoses the Act’s restrictive definition as “extinction by number”[2].

In addition to defining “Indian status” and who is eligible to pass status on to their children, the Act seeks to govern all aspects of life for “status Indians” in Canada. While the Act has undergone several amendments and the specific modes of restrictions on Indigenous lives have changed over time, the assimilationist intent of the legislation and Canadian state’s claim to have the “authority to control the reserve land base, the definition of ‘Indian’, and reserve governance” remain constant[3].

Indian Act 1951
The Indian Act of 1951

My project approaches the definition of “status Indian” as a state technique for making Indigenous peoples visible in ways that align with settler colonial political visions. The ways of seeing at work in this legal definition and the documents it gives rise to are part of broader attempts to arrange the field of the perceptible. Invested with the claimed authority of colonial law, the definition of “Indian” contains a claim to reflect the world as it is. Settler colonial ways of seeing do not merely mistake “Indians” for Indigenous life. Rather, the settler bureaucratic gaze is designed to only see “Indians”. This gaze operates as if the two were identical. This is fully separate from how actual Indigenous peoples live their identities, memberships, and relationships.

A key insight from Kahnawà:ke Mohawk political theorist Audra Simpson provides a point of departure for my thinking about how the conditions of perception and settler colonial power work together. In her 2007 article, “On Ethnographic Refusal”, Simpson argues that colonial framing and its concepts have shaped the “terms of even being seen” for Indigenous peoples and nations[4].  Similarly, in Seeing Like a State, James Scott argues that states try to order the world by rendering it in the abstract terms of bureaucratic representation, like maps, land surveys, and population registries[5].  My broader research project develops the concept of “settler colonial ways of seeing” to clarify the conditions of possibility that establish such “terms of even being seen” and to examine the documentation as a technique through which this seeing—and unseeing—unfolds.

“Indian status” and its documentation—and revocation—are one way that state agents work to bring the settler colonial vision of Canada into being. From early band rolls compiled by Indian Agents in the mid-19th century to the contemporary system of registration and status cards, administrators have used documentation to assert the existence of “status Indians”. Invoking Suzanne Briet’s conception of documents as things produced to represent, reconstitute, or prove the existence of a phenomenon[6],  I read state-generated identity documents as a method of producing—and reproducing—evidence of the material existence of a legal fiction. Where the Indian Act first asserts “status” as a phenomenon, official documents produced to account for a specific individual as a “status Indian” then iteratively reproduces the fact of “status”, as a fixed, material concept. Collectively, the body of documents reflecting “status Indians” creates an administrative population using terms and processes unilaterally imposed by policymakers. This effort to classify, order, and govern Indigenous peoples—a governance strategy premised on eventual disappearance by assimilation—disregards how actual Indigenous communities govern membership.

The legal definition of “status” and the iterative process of its documentation are designed to erase the social and political fact of multiple Indigenous nations, their epistemologies, their relations, and their histories, while generating abstract “status Indians” and the conditions for their forced assimilation into the settler body politic. However, this settler colonial way of seeing is neither totalizing nor fully successful. Indigenous voices—such as Sharon McIvor[7], who has spent more than three decades fighting the sex discrimination that mediates the Act’s assimilationist effects —have disrupted and continue to refuse the Indian Act taxonomy and its torqueing effects on relations and communities.



  1. Chelsea Vowell, Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Issues in Canada (Winnipeg: Highwater Press, 2016), 25-35.
  2. Val Napoleon, “Extinction by Number: Colonialism Made Easy,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society Vol. 16, No. 1 (20001), 113-45.
  3. Mary-Ellen Kelm and Keith D. Smith, Talking Back to the Indian Act (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 11.
  4. Audra Simpson, “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship,” Junctures 9 (2007), 67-80.
  5. James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
  6. Suzanne Briet, What is Documentation?, trans Ronald E. Day, Laruent Martinet, and Hermina G. B. Anghelescu (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006[1951]).
  7. Pamela Palmater, “What You Need to Know About Sharon McIvor’s Major UN Victory on Indian Status,” Indigenous Nationhood, 20 January 2019,