There is no general consensus on the exact capacity of the term “non-status Indian” in Canada or the United States.
In Canada, the term often was used to describe persons of native descent who no longer had Indian Act status, such as people who once had status under the Indian Act and who subsequently lost it due to a variety of means.
Unfortunately, the imposition of the Indian Act has a very narrow scope of its definition which has led to a good many persons of aboriginal descent to be erased from their heritage in legal terms. This narrow view has created inequalities between Aboriginal people and left many non-status people figuratively hung out to dry socially and economically. Because of the strict and unfair system imposed by the Canadian government, many persons of varying degrees of Indian blood and culture were legally shut outside of the statutory definition even though the majority of non-status people share similar lifestyles with their status brothers and sisters.
Further confusing the issue in the here and now is the fact that in the past, the term “non-status” was used much more broadly as a catch-all term that often included people who qualify nowadays as Métis people. This confusion is sometimes problematic as the Métis Nation has arisen as a distinct political entity with well-defined rights under the Canadian Constitution that are apart from the non-status Indians who are not eligible to define as Métis under the current criterion.
The Métis are descendants of mixed marriages which mainly occurred in the Prairie Provinces and in northwestern Ontario. Although of Indian ancestry, the Métis are dissimilar to the non-status Indians as they have their own distinctive history, language, and culture. Like non-status Indians, the Métis were excluded from being classified as Indians under the Indian Act. In addition, the Métis generally have different historical and contemporary experiences than non-status Indians, creating an aboriginal group that feels strongly about their unique cultural identity as separate from their “Indian” and European roots and from persons who identify as either status or non-status Indians.
Unlike Canada who has defined “Indian” as a legal term, there is no generally accepted legal definition of an Indian in the United States. While the US census relies on individual self-definition, Federal agencies charged with administering programs for Natives are generally made with eligibility dependent on being half Indian, or a quarter Indian, or being listed as a member of a Federally-recognized Tribe. Some agencies, like the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Education, and others sometimes consider persons to be Native based on descent from an enrolled member, or if they are regarded as Indian by the community in which they live.
The term “non-status” doesn’t really have a meaning in the United States. Because of this many people of Native descent are unable to legally claim aboriginal status beyond self-identification. Persons who claim to be tribal descendants must legally have an ancestor on a base-tribal ‘roll’ in order to qualify for such services, so persons of Indian blood who do not have an ancestor on such a roll cannot access such services – leading to a similar situation to the non-status Indians in Canada.
There is no definition for Métis in the United States, although there are many persons living in the United States who qualify as Métis under the definition of the Métis National Council. These people were separated from their Métis communities in Canada by the establishment of the international boundary, or were part of roaming bands of Métis who resided on the United States side of the border in places like Pembina, Walhalla, or Turtle Mountain, North Dakota, Lewistown, Milk River, or the Judith Basin in Montana, or in scattered areas along the border itself. Many of these people are able to qualify as Indian in the United States based on association with tribes there, or by being counted on early tribal rolls, while others do not qualify and are not counted as members even though they possess native ancestry.
The situation for non-status and Métis people is constantly evolving in both Canada and the United States. Hopefully, justice can be served for these people as they have strong claims to their indigenous status and deserve favorable treatment after decades and centuries of unfair dealings by the governments of both countries.