I Was a Token Indian

Posted on August 5, 2012

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I’ve known them.  I’ve been one.  I suspect it is an almost inevitable rite of passage for any Aboriginal professional.  What I am talking about is the role of token Indian.

You’d be able to unearth a token Indian position in almost any government department at one time or other, often in response to the panicked realization by some bureaucrat that they are not even close to meeting their First Nations hiring quota, but sometimes because departments that have a lot to do with Aboriginal people just want to put a brown face up front in order to disguise their essential Whiteness from their clients.

No one is fooled by tokens, really, but Aboriginal people usually accept their existence with a wink.  Most are just glad to see one of their own collecting a decent government wage.

Token Indian white collar positions are often one step above the bottom rung in a government office.  People hired for these positions skip the bottom rung entirely, which seems fine until, looking around, you realize that the position represents a ceiling.  You skip a step, then stay still forever.  There is very seldom a natural next step in the career of a token Indian.

Another aspect of these positions is that they usually include a large number of things that you are supposed to do, most of which, when you look closely at them, are too vague to mean anything or too ambitious to be accomplished by anybody who didn’t command their own army of specialists.

There’s a lot of advising that is supposed to go on, in fact, advising is often built into the position title of token Indian positions.  The advice is wanted, supposedly, in order to enable departments who serve Aboriginal people to serve them more effectively.  Sometimes advice is wanted on how to get Aboriginal people in the doors of the department so that they can be served.  Government departments actually need this kind of advice—because almost all serve Aboriginal people badly—but almost universally they will fail to take it or act on it when the advice is offered.

One problem is that the token position is inevitably too low on the pecking order to have any effect on policy at any level.

I remember working for what was then called the Department of Manpower and Immigration.  The mucky-mucks decided one day to have an executive retreat to discuss Aboriginal employment, and they all retired to Harrison Hot Springs to do it.  However, the senior Aboriginal advisor in the department wasn’t sufficiently executive to attend.

No tokens need apply for that gabfest, sorry.

One of the positions I myself held as a token Indian was with the BC Open Learning Agency.  I was brought on as an “advisor,” a role which I took seriously but which made my experience at the Agency ultimately unsatisfactory.

When I worked there, OLA had no original Aboriginal curriculum at all, although there were 8 or 10 Aboriginal groups throughout the province with whom they had a relationship. I eventually saw an issue with the lack of curriculum.  The OLA, on the other hand, eventually saw an issue with the fact that I spent almost no time on public relations.

I didn’t see it as my job to promote an organization with inferior products.  I had an idea of what I really should be doing with my time, but the organization would have none of it.

One job I was given was to recruit a provincial Aboriginal advisory panel.  Since it was an educational institution, I decided to actually nominate Aboriginal educators to the panel.  My theory was that they, better knowing what the issues were from meeting it on the job everyday, could give better advice on Aboriginal education than politicians, even Aboriginal politicians, especially with an organization which was doing the education part of their job so indifferently in respect of Aboriginal people.

My nominations were rejected out of hand. OLA wanted Aboriginal politicians on the panel.  They didn’t want advice, probably didn’t think they needed it, on how to better educate Aboriginal people.  Fundamentally, they believed they knew how to do that already.  They simply wanted a higher profile in the Aboriginal community, for the sake of that profile and in order to sell their products.

You see, that’s the essential thing about token Indian positions, one of the reasons you know they are token.  They are not there to do anything except serve as a public relations front.  Their purpose is to sell whatever an institution is selling, to recruit customers for that institution, to put a brown face on an institutional product.

Token Indian positions are not reverse racism, as they are often described.  They are simply racism in another form, with the same class of victims:  Aboriginal people.

When White men in the minstrel show era blackened their faces to pretend they were Black, this was clearly racism in action.  When Black men who were hired for these same shows also blackened their faces–as they were expected to–it was still racism.

Not reverse racism.  Just plain White superiority racism as it is usually served up.