What Does It Mean to Be an Indigenous Man in 2016?

A new book looks at the complex reality and why even just exploring the topic is a difficult task.

May 12 2016, 6:58pm

Image via'Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration'

What does it mean to be an Indigenous man? What seems like a simple question is really a complex and sensitive issue for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people across North America.

In the new book Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration editors Robert Innes and Kim Anderson show the social attitudes and issues related to the complex idea of being an Indigenous man. In Canada, Indigenous men have shorter life spans, are less likely to graduate from high school, are more likely to be incarcerated, and are murdered at a higher rate compared to non-Indigenous Canadians.

It's not an easy topic for people both within and outside of Indigenous communities to talk about. It's not an easy topic to do an interview about either.

Innes is a Plains Cree member of Cowessess First Nation and an assistant professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. He explained that he was teaching a class last year when former Aboriginal Affairs (now called Indigenous and Northern Affairs) Minister Bernard Valcourt told a gathering of First Nations chiefs that they knew who was killing Indigenous women: Indigenous men. Innes said he brought the issue up to his class, and the students, all Indigenous, said they had also faced violence in their lives but they were afraid to talk about the implications of the statistic.

"They said we don't want to talk about this because it will reinforce negative stereotypes of Native men. So there's this real reluctance to wanting to deal with this because the reality is, especially in Western Canada, white people are afraid of Native men," Innes said.

To find out why exploring Indigenous masculinity is such a difficult task, VICE spoke with Innes and contributor Robert Henry (in separate interviews). Henry is Métis, and while working on his PhD research explored the relationship between Indigenous male youth and street gangs, which is also the topic he explores in the book.

VICE: There is not a lot of research or conversation about what it means to be an Indigenous man or identify with Indigenous masculinities. Why is that?
Innes: This is a sensitive issue because it can perpetuate stereotypes. So how do you have these discussions about Indigenous masculinity without reinforcing ideas in the general population? One of the things we have to do as a society is recognize that Indigenous men are not inherently violent, right. If we don't come to accept that basic premise then it's going to be a real challenge to try and deal with people's fears. If we don't accept the fact that Indigenous men are not inherently violent then we can never deal with white people's fear and we can never deal with the fact that a big Native guy walking down the street is not dangerous, right.
Henry: I think that, in Canada, it's easier to look at it from a gendered perspective rather than a colonial perspective. It's for different reasons but it's that colonial notion of "it's in the past" and by focusing on Indigenous women, a lot of the emphasis can be on saying "it's Indigenous men causing the impacts" rather than connecting it to the formation of colonialism and colonization of Indigenous bodies as a whole. So what it does is it helps to absolve the settler-colonial history by just focusing on women, Indigenous women, rather than looking at Indigenous peoples.

This is not to say that we shouldn't look at Indigenous women or they shouldn't have a focus, because their experiences are different... It needs to be analyzed through a decolonizing perspective to understand how men contribute to that violence... It can't take movement away from the women. It needs to come in and they have to support one another at the same time.

Why is it an important time to discuss this?
Innes: We can see how issues of masculinity, the language around how we think men should act, is detrimental to the whole community—from children to elders to women to Two Spirit people.

For at least the last 40 years, Indigenous people have been really focusing on Indigenous rights and really if we can't get our house in order—issues with our social relations—it's going to be hard to assert our political relations in a meaningful way, in an effective way. I think that by having a much broader view of maleness, it can mean a lot more than we think it means. Femaleness can mean a lot more than we think it means. By setting that premise we start to open ourselves up to accepting each person as an individual and how we accept our identities.

Also we have to accept our shame. Shame is a big thing that we have to be able to deal with as Indigenous communities. We have to be able to talk about things that we have done and what has been done to us. We don't talk about it and we carry it around with us and it's weighing us down. Talking about masculinities and in terms of multiple ways of being masculine, now I think will hopefully add to the momentum that many people are experiencing in terms of trying to turn our communities around and trying to deal with dysfunction.
Henry: We construct spaces where kids in one part of a city, depending on their socio-economic status and their racial status, where two boys are fighting on the playground they are considered "boys being boys" because that's what boys do, they roughhouse.... When you look at another side of the city and you add that they are Aboriginal and they live in a marginalized, low socio-economic space then when the two boys are fighting they are not "boys being boys" they are boys becoming criminals or learning to become criminals. So right there, they are youths being labelled different. So how does understanding Indigenous masculinity help to change the way in which we view behaviours? But also how do we use this knowledge to shift policy.

What can the larger Canadian society take away from the book and the conversation?
Henry: I think to just question why is that? Why do we see individuals who are from ethnic minorities or lower socioeconomic status and assume that their behaviours are criminal? Why are they the ones that we are afraid of? We can look at this and how colonization and colonialism has come to impact relationships. We look at cultures of terror, cultures of fear, what is it that we are actually fearing? What has been created in which individuals have been prejudiced as evil monsters when we are acting the same way but we can validate our actions as being good.

Looking at it as individuals from outside, sit back and reflect on what are those notions of what it actually means to be a man, what does masculinity actually mean, and how does that begin to shift? Then we need to infuse that with the idea of patriarchy and understanding that masculinity and patriarchy are not the same thing but rather help inform one another at the same time.

[We need to] create a space for these discussions to occur and to work from there so that we can start looking at why is it that Indigenous male youth are over-incarcerated? Why is it that Indigenous men have such a high incarceration rate? Start looking at the violence and why Indigenous men are more impacted by violence than any other group. Then ask how do we begin to address this. So it's not just about Indigenous males trying to figure out who they are but also non-Indigenous people in Canada and globally trying to understand how is it that I've come to be so fearful of Indigenous men and how do we begin to work together. Isn't that what reconciliation is all about—working together?

This interview has been edited for style and length.

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