The Story Behind Jordan Peterson’s Indigenous Identity

The controversial professor has used his links with the Kwakwaka’wakw people as a shield against accusations of racism

Photograph of Jordan Peterson
Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Jordan Peterson is a University of Toronto psychology professor, bestselling author, culture warrior, YouTube celebrity, and a growing presence in Canadian conservative politics. The one thing he is most certainly not is a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw people of British Columbia. That claim, however, has appeared several times in Peterson’s bios—which state that he has been “inducted into the coastal Pacific Kwakwaka’wakw tribe.” It appears in social-media posts, and it was referred to again this week, when Peterson tweeted at Pankaj Mishra, who wrote a critical piece about him in The New York Review of Books:

You say “Peterson claims that he has been inducted into ‘the coastal Pacific Kwakwaka’wakw tribe’ Just what do you mean by “claims” you peddler of nasty, underhanded innuendo, you dealer in lies and halftruths?

Peterson’s connections to the Kwakwaka’wakw people derive from his friendship and traditional bonds with the family of Charles Joseph, an accomplished Kwakwaka’wakw carver from Ma’amtaglia-Tlowitsis tribe. Earlier this year, I spoke to Charles Joseph—who confirms that Peterson is not a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw people nor the Ma’amtaglia-Tlowitsis tribe.

Peterson’s mischaracterizations are ironic given his admonition in his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, to be “precise in your speech.” Indeed, he first burst onto the Canadian scene in 2016 with a controversy over what he believed was dangerously deceptive language tied to the use of gender-neutral pronouns, such as ze and hir. He argued that there is no scientific evidence that any genders exist outside of male and female and felt that Bill C-16—a bill to amend human rights legislation to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination—could compel him to use these new pronouns, which he objected to on free-speech grounds.

While most legal experts quoted in the press disagree with his interpretation of the pronouns issue, Peterson’s opposition resonated with many Canadians who appear to feel that social and political gains by minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community have come at their expense. Peterson today enjoys a famously active and motivated fan base and can count among his defenders Canadian writers, including Christie Blatchford and Rex Murphy. Political figures such as ousted Conservative senator Lynn Beyak have also spoken of him admiringly. While Peterson styles himself a centrist, his conservative bona fides were bolstered when Tory MPP Randy Hillier invited him to speak on June 15, 2017. Peterson called his talk “12 Principles for Twenty-First-Century Conservatism.”

The pronoun controversy was the first of many for Peterson, and with 12 Rules for Life, he has established himself as the voice battling postmodernism: a theory that, he argues, promotes shifting definitions of truth and “completely rejects the structure of Western civilization.”

But with Peterson’s new prominence has come criticism and a closer look at how he has presented himself. This increased attention led to old tweets of his resurfacing—one of which came to light on January 27 of this year, when it was re-tweeted by Al Jazeera writer Andrew Mitrovica. In his original tweet, Peterson wrote:

Courtesy Robert Jago

Senator Murray Sinclair, a First Nations senator and former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada tweeted in reply: “Jordan Peterson is a racist. Are we really surprised?” Senator Sinclair’s tweet reflects Indigenous anger at how non-Natives, especially on social media, keep pushing the stereotype of thieving, drunken Indians. Many First Nations people don’t take kindly to being called “Indians” either—a term widely regarded as a slur.

Gregg Hurwitz—the novelist to whom Peterson sent the offending tweet—stepped into the ensuing controversy. On January 29, Hurwitz explained on Twitter that Peterson was refering to an inside joke involving a “self-identified Indian bartender” who had “duped” Hurwitz out of a bottle of bourbon, an incident that apparently occured right before Peterson was to become an “honorary member of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe.” All of this, Hurwitz seemed to suggest, was evidence enough that Peterson was not “biased against Native Americans”—a statement that Peterson seconded.

The issue here is that Peterson encouraged Hurwitz’s use of his link to the Kwakwaka’wakw people as cover for his own thoughtless language. Indeed, Peterson has never been shy to promote his connection with the Kwakwaka’wakw to protect himself. On April 1, 2017, in reply to a commenter on Facebook who suggested he was a racist, Peterson explicitly restated his claim, writing: “If by KKK, you mean Kwakwaka’wakw, of whose nation I am a member.”

When I approached Penguin Random House Canada for an interview with the author to discuss why online descriptions of his current bestseller, 12 Rules for Life, carried a biographical note that stated he had been “inducted into the coastal Pacific Kwakwaka’wakw tribe,” they declined. But, as his publisher, Penguin Random House Canada accepted responsibility for “a couple of errors” in the bio and confirmed that it has been changed in the published edition. The final version says that he was “invited into and named by that Canadian First Nation.”

Peterson, however, has yet to own up to the error. As he reminds readers in 12 Rules for Life: “If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, however, things remain vague….The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.”

There’s a chapter in 12 Rules for Life in which Peterson talks about abuse, and without using the term residential school, he zeroes in on a person he suggests attended one: “ I know a man, a great artist, who emerged from just such a “school”….Incapable of speaking the language of the school, deliberately isolated from his family, abused, starved and otherwise tormented, he emerged an angry, broken young man.”

Peterson goes on to praise this man for recovering and for giving up the hate that should naturally come from suffering that abuse and for becoming “a good person.” The name of that “good person” is not mentioned in the book, but Peterson does name a very similar man in other writings, a residential-school survivor and an acclaimed artist—Charles Joseph, from the Ma’amtaglia-Tlowitsis tribe, part of the Kwakwaka’wakw people.

I spoke with Joseph this January, and asked him about Peterson’s ties to the tribe. “He’s part of my family, he’s part of the Joseph box, not the nation, the Joseph box.” Joseph replied.

He explains that “box” can, in this context, be used as a metaphor for extended family. Joseph made clear that, as thanks for what Peterson did for his family, he was blanketed and given a name—Alestalagie (“great seeker”). These are common ceremonies among the West Coast First Nations. Among my people, the Stó:lō, blanketing is done at the end of festivals and ceremonies to honoured guests. It doesn’t make them part of a family or part of the nation, but is a big step up from simply saying “thank you.” Giving somebody a name is even more significant.

Joseph continues: “[Peterson’s] name talks about what kind of job he’s doing, who he is. It’s nothing like the chief’s name or my name or my Hamatsa name, we understand all that, how to find names for our people that we’re adopting—and then, in our culture, strength comes from when you’re making your box bigger, you’re making your family bigger. It means he’s part of my box, he has a name in there, and we honour him for his name, and he is blanketed to respect what he did for the family.”

The naming ceremony can be an expensive one, requiring much preparation, and in Peterson’s case, it was done in the presence of chiefs who signed off on the honour. While the name chosen for him wasn’t the same type that would be given to a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, Peterson still, in a way, became part of Charles Joseph’s family—but emphatically not a member of the tribe.

It is surprising that these ties haven’t been investigated in print before, because the type of honour given to Peterson is profound. Since the interview, Joseph has asked me to remove mention of what Peterson did for the family—a request that I have to respect. I can say that it is what in other cultures you would call a mitzvah—one significant enough for the Joseph family to honour the man he now calls his brother.

It’s because of this good deed, and these bonds, that Charles Joseph defends Peterson. Referring to the “letting some Indian steal it” tweet, Joseph says: “That was a total joke to his friend. When stuff like this occurs, we can certainly back up Jordan and whoever else is in my family box. I don’t have any judgement on my brother Jordan, I can’t answer you what other people think of Jordan, because that’s their stuff.”

No person can stand between Peterson’s relationship with Charles Joseph and his family. However, that relationship ends at the walls of the “Joseph box”—it does not extend to the Kwakwaka’wakw people, and it does not include assuming an Indigenous identity.

Peterson’s tweet against Mishra was sent out the same day I was set to interview him about his connections to the Kwakwaka’wakw people. That interview was cancelled at the last minute. When I asked to reschedule, I was told that Peterson was “all booked up.”

It was Peterson himself who first offered the interview after details of this article reached him in late February. In an email exchange with me, he wrote: “In these times of ‘truth and reconciliation’ why wouldn’t your article be critical of someone who is half a genuine friendship established across lines that are so rarely crossed?” He told me I “don’t understand the situation at all,” but did not offer any additional information or clarification.

What first drew my attention to Peterson’s ties to the Kwakwaka’wakw, however, was the way he seemed to be exploiting that “friendship.” He appeared to be deploying it as a talisman to ward off any social consequences for helping spread racial stereotypes about Indigenous people. It was a defence rooted in identity politics—his language was okay, because he is, after all, an “Indian” through his connection to Charles Joseph. Yet Peterson himself, in a Youtube video, called that “whole group-identity thing” a “pathology” and “reprehensible.”

Language is important to Peterson. The debate over language is how he came to prominence, and the discussion of identifying and defining things is a large part of what he speaks about. As Peterson said in a interview, “language takes the chaos and makes it into things.” According to Peterson, there isn’t a reality to things until they are stated and given a name: “You talk about it and you name it, it goes from this blurry thing that’s kind of potential, and then snap, it’s this thing. ”

When you push stereotypes, in other words, you make them a reality. Twice in recent weeks, non-Native offenders were acquitted on charges of killing First Nations youths. One of those youths was Tina Fontaine. The fifteen-year-old First Nations girl was found dead in Winnipeg’s Red River in 2014, wrapped in a duvet cover. Witnesses testified that they had seen a similar duvet belonging to Raymond Cormier, who was later found not guilty of Fontaine’s murder. Newspapers, when reporting on the trial, focused on how a RCMP toxicologist had found alcohol in her system when her body was discovered. The other youth was Colten Boushie, a twenty-two-year old First Nations man from Saskatchewan. Boushie was shot and killed by Gerald Stanley. But the fact repeated dozens of times on social media was that he and his friends were drinking on the day he died. As with Cormier, Stanley was found not guilty.

That the media reported on the use of alcohol by the Indigenous victims wasn’t a coincidence. A stereotype is what made the chaos of the facts presented at trial snap into place: a drunken Indian, a violent Indian. Ultimately, a worthless Indian.

Peterson is unquestionably right on this: words matter. It matters if those words are used to bury the worth and individuality of Indigenous peoples. It matters if you contort our cultures into a shield to protect yourself from responsibility for your own words. And it matters if you say that you are something, and you are not.

As novelist Joseph Boyden learned, Indigenous nationhood isn’t about spit, or blood, or DNA, or race; it isn’t something you can embellish—it is a legal and political connection to the nascent state of an existing Native nation. Everything else is simplistic identity politics that First Nations peoples widely reject.

Peterson’s Twitter outburst against what he called Mishra’s “lies and halftruths” has ignited a heated debate within the Kwakwaka’wakw people. The debate isn’t about whether or not Peterson is truly a member of the tribe. I spoke to community members, and each confirmed that the naming ceremony that Peterson took part in does not grant him membership. Instead, there is concern about the harm caused by the way he has boasted of and exaggerated his Kwakwaka’wakw connections. Juli Holloway, a Kwakwaka’wakw community member whose family is in the process of arranging for a similar adoption ceremony for a non-Native friend, describes how she sees the problem: “It’s the lack of humility that bothers me the most, I guess. It should not be a badge of honour. It’s for within the community, not for without.”

Peterson’s bond with the family of Charles Joseph is real and sincere. Based on his social media, his understanding of First Nations people is often nuanced and sophisticated—more so than that of the critics who are quick to call him a racist or a fascist. But Peterson’s failure to acknowledge mistakes in how he characterized his Kwakwaka’wakw ties only makes this whole debacle that much more disappointing.

Robert Jago
Robert Jago (@rjjago) is an entrepreneur, an occasional writer, and a member of the Kwantlen First Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe.