Identifying “Indians”: Racial Taxonomy as a Settler Colonial Politics of Knowledge

Settler Colonialism
Settler colonialism is a structure of political relations where a settler population seeks to replace native forms of life and relations with settler communities and, ultimately, to establish a new political community distinct from the colonial metropole. Unlike other forms of colonialism that primarily seek to exploit natural resources or extract labor power from native populations with the intention of enriching the metropole, settler colonialism additionally involves permanent invasion.

Canada’s definition and documentation of “Indians” is a project of bureaucratic knowledge production in service of the continued assertion of settler colonial political visions.1 The Indian Act was introduced in 1876 to assert the terms of the political relationship between the Dominion of Canada and certain peoples the Act defines as “Indians.” The Act has been amended many times, but is remains a current piece of legislation in Canada and still defines “Indian” as a political and legal category of person.2 Defining and identifying “Indians” served the broader project of managing Canada’s so-called Indian problem. From the perspective of nineteenth-century legislators, the “problem” was one of Indigenous peoples asserting nationhood and insisting on claims to the lands where they have lived since time immemorial, thus creating obstacles for settler claims to sovereignty. But it is also a problem of knowledge, which Indian Affairs administrators sought to address through a practice of classification. To apply and enforce the provisions of the Act designed to undermine Indigenous sovereignty and compel their assimilation, “Indians” had to be made visible to state legislators, bureaucrats, and other agents. The definitional work of the Indian Act is both a technique of classification and a way of seeing.

The Indian Act defined its object in restrictive, explicitly gendered terms designed to make it much easier for someone to lose than to gain “Indian” status. Under the Act, “Indians” were characterized as wards of the state in a condition of tutelage, but these same people could also become enfranchised citizens who would “cease in every respect to be Indians.”3 The definition aimed to decrease the population of “status Indians,” thereby serving colonial logics of elimination through forced assimilation. Privileging paternal descent, the Act’s definition stripped status from “Indian” women who married “non-Indian” men. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples found that sex-based discrimination was responsible for more than 5,000 compulsory enfranchisements between 1965 and 1975 alone.4 To the Canadian state, each enfranchisement decreased federal responsibilities to provide treaty annuities, healthcare, and education. For Indigenous women, on the other hand, losing status meant being forced by the state to leave one’s community, lose one’s inheritance, and face other material and political losses.


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Assimilation is a way of unseeing. To establish a new polity in a new land, settlers seek territory and authority over that territory. This effort entails eliminating communities with pre-existing claims to sovereignty over the territory. Asserting a vision of Indigenous life that can be readily absorbed into the settler body politic, the state definition of “Indian” refuses to apprehend Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. 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.5 Val Napoleon, a legal scholar of the Saulteau and Gitanyow (Gitksan) First Nations, calls the impact of the Act’s restrictive definition “extinction by number.”6

In claiming the authority to say who is “Indian,” the Canadian state also asserts who is not. The sorting of lives in relation to the definition is a practice of classification. Classification systems and their categories connect social and political ideas with practical applications. Such systems organize the world within a range of specific possibilities. Within such models, Ian Hacking argues, categories create ways of knowing the world and therefore ways of being in the world. The delimitations of a category have the effect of “making up” or inventing a type of people, which in turn “changes the space of possibilities for personhood.” The process—a combination of social change and emerging identification and counting techniques—”creates new ways for people to be.”7 In “making up” a racial subject, the Canadian state’s definition of “Indian” has had profound material effects on the lives of Indigenous peoples.

As a classification schema for identifying “Indians,” the Indian Act establishes a frame of visibility for the legal fiction of the “status Indian” and—once recognized—a phenomenon to record. My research approaches the definition and documentation of “status Indians” as a state technique for perceiving Indigenous peoples in ways that align with settler colonial political visions. The ways of seeing at work in this legal definition and the documents it generates belong to a broader set of attempts to arrange the field of the perceptible and, thus, the knowable and governable. Invested with the avowed authority of colonial law, the definition of “Indian” claims to reflect the world as it is. Settler colonial ways of seeing do not merely mistake Indigenous peoples for “Indians.” Rather, the settler bureaucratic gaze is designed to see only “Indians” and not comprehend how Indigenous peoples live their lives.

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. Simpson argues that colonial framing and its concepts have shaped the “terms of even being seen” for Indigenous peoples and nations.8 My broader research project develops the concept of “settler colonial ways of seeing” to examine identity documentation as a technique through which this seeing—and unseeing—produces bureaucratic knowledge critical to the assertion of settler colonial sovereignty.9

State agents have worked to literalize the figure of the legal “Indian” through bureaucratic documentation. From the ad-hoc lists compiled by Indian agents in the mid-nineteenth 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,10 I read state-generated identity documents as a means of producing and reproducing evidence of the material existence of a legal fiction. For example, a Certificate of Indian Status (pictured below) sutures the name and face of an individual person to the category of “status Indian” and reinforces that link with the insignia of state authority. When accessing treaty-owed services, “Indians” must show this document as proof of their status under the Indian Act. Where the 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 that status as a fixed concept and subject position. Collectively, the body of documents encompassing “status Indians” creates an administrative population using terms and processes unilaterally imposed by policymakers.

Secure Certificate of Indian Status (2017). Source: Crown-Indigenous Relations & Northern Affairs Canada.

Defining, classifying, and documenting “Indians” has an aesthetic effect: a legal fiction returns as an object of state knowledge, naturalized as an element of the reality asserted by settler colonial political visions. The naturalization of “Indians” as an object of knowledge refuses to see actual Indigenous lives, communities, and relations, but it also refuses to let Indigenous peoples go unseen. Cree theorist and poet Billy-Ray Belcourt writes of a denial of “opacity,” a denial of “the right to be unseen and unseeable.” The result is “a structural and structuring articulation of Indigenous life so as to refuse it the promise of freedom, to refuse us a world-making kinship that was in opposition to the world-engulfing effects of racial capitalism.”11 The framing techniques of settler colonial ways of seeing foreclose Indigenous world-making practices. World creation and world destruction are mutually entwined processes of settler colonial politics. The insistence on seeing “Indians” refuses the possibility of evading the entrapment of state gazes and projects of knowledge production.

The legal definition of “Indian” and the iterative process of its documentation are designed to erase the social and political fact of multiple Indigenous Nations and their epistemologies, relations, and histories. Simultaneously, this classification generates abstract “status Indians” as objects of state knowledge. However, this settler colonial way of seeing is neither totalizing nor fully successful. Indigenous women—such as Sharon McIvor, 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, its claims to knowledge, and its distortion of Indigenous relations and communities.

Danielle Taschereau Mamers is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities (2017–2019) at the University of Toronto’s Jackman Humanities Institute.


I have conducted this research and writing as a settler (a non-Indigenous citizen of Canada) and guest in Tkaronto. This is the territory of the Seneca, Huron-Wendat, Petun, and Mississaugas of the Credit River Nations, to whom I raise my hands in gratitude.

  1. For more on settler colonialism, see Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006), 387–409; and Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Historical Overview (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). ↩︎
  2. Mary-Ellen Kelm and Keith D. Smith, Talking Back to the Indian Act (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 11. ↩︎
  3. Canada, House of Commons, Debates, March 2, 1876, 343. Today, individuals with “Indian” status are also Canadian citizens; however, until 1960, “Indians” were unable to vote. ↩︎
  4. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, vol. 1, Looking Forward, Looking Back (Ottawa: Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996), 303n80, http://data2.archives.ca/rcap/pdf/rcap-490.pdf. ↩︎
  5. Chelsea Vowell, Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Issues in Canada (Winnipeg: Highwater Press, 2016), 25–35. ↩︎
  6. Val Napoleon, “Extinction by Number: Colonialism Made Easy,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society 16, no. 1 (2001): 113–45. ↩︎
  7. Ian Hacking, “Making Up People,” in The Science Studies Reader, ed. Mario Biagioli (New York: Psychology Press, 1999), 161. ↩︎
  8. Audra Simpson, “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship,” Junctures 9 (2007), 67–80. ↩︎
  9. Danielle Taschereau Mamers, “Disrupting the Register: TreatyCard.ca and Indigenous Counter-Archives,” PUBLIC: Art/Culture/Ideas 57 (2018): 48–57. ↩︎
  10. Suzanne Briet, What is Documentation?, trans Ronald E. Day, Laruent Martinet, and Hermina G. B. Anghelescu (1951; Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006). ↩︎
  11. Billy-Ray Belcourt, “Fatal Naming Rituals,” Hazlitt, July 19, 2018, . ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Danielle Taschereau Mamers, “Identifying “Indians”: Racial Taxonomy as a Settler Colonial Politics of Knowledge,” History of Knowledge, May 22, 2019, https://historyofknowledge.net/2019/05/22/racial-taxonomy-as-a-settler-colonial-politics-of-knowledge/.