TORONTO — Through dance, Amy Hull tells Indigenous stories, her stories.
The 20-year-old York University dance student has choreographed pieces about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and her ancestral grandmother's life — how she was abducted by a settler in Labrador, and forced to marry, live as a Christian, and go by a new name, said Hull.
"Most of my works I create are about my experiences as an Indigenous woman, or about solidarity with other Indigenous peoples," she said.
The federal government, however, no longer considers Hull to be Indigenous enough.
She has lost her Indian status and membership with the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation, a Newfoundland band her grandfather spent his life fighting to have officially recognized, she said. That means she will not be eligible for tuition funding, and is now fundraising so she can complete the final year of her fine arts degree.
"At first I was crying a lot, I was afraid of having to drop out," said Hull, who found out last summer. "Then I was really angry. I still am angry. I have people to meet, art to create. I'm a valuable human being, I have a place here, I deserve a place here. It's owed to me."
Indigenous lawyer Jaimie Lickers, who has worked extensively on cases related to Qalipu Mi'kmaq membership, says Hull is not alone. Thousands of people share her story in a system Lickers describes as often discriminatory and unfair.
"In our view, if you live outside of Newfoundland, the burden is so much higher. It's discriminatory and penalizes people who left for education and economic reasons," Lickers said.
Hull became an official founding member of Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation around 2008 — when the federal government officially recognized the Mi'kmaq people as First Nations under the Indian Act for the first time since Newfoundland joined confederation in 1949.
In the decade that's followed, Qalipu membership applicants have learned, even if they identify as Mi'kmawq, there's no guaranteed acceptance.
I'm not accepting my Indian status is gone, I am going to challenge that.Amy Hull
The band originally anticipated having up to 12,000 members, but has received more than 100,000 applications from people who self-identify as Mi'kmawq, according to Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. To determine who should qualify, and have access to Canada's medical, educational and social programs for Status Indians, the Newfoundland Federation of Indians, an advocacy organization, and the federal government raised the bar for membership. They created a points-based system to evaluate how connected applicants are to Newfoundland's Mi'kmaq communities.
"The Government of Canada continues to work consistently with the Federation of Newfoundland Indians and the Qalipu First Nation to ensure the integrity of the process, and remains committed to maintaining a meaningful nation-to-nation relationship based on the recognition of rights, respect, cooperation, and partnership," said Crown-Indigenous Relations spokesperson Stephanie Palma in an email.
Applicants receive a varying number of points for visiting Qalipu Mi'kmaq communities, communicating with members of those communities, living on the island, being members of the Mi'kmaq organization before 2008, and maintaining the Mi'kmaq "culture and way of life," according to the agreement.
But the definition of a Mi'kmaq way of life is "offensive," and draws on Indian stereotypes, Lickers said.
"The fact that you don't hunt and fish or bead moccasins means you're not Indigenous is really offensive," she said.
And ironically, those are the same activities that for centuries governments have tried to stamp out with the colonization of Newfoundland and the push for assimilation.
Watch: Playwright uses his art to embrace Indigenous heritage. Story continues below
Hull said she thought her membership was safe, even after leaving for Ontario in 2016 to pursue dance. She felt like she didn't have a choice. If she stayed, the most she could do with her life was to be a housewife, work in her uncle's store, or perhaps teach, she said.
"As much as I love my home, I can't do that," Hull said. "I need my education."
Not only was she among the first to get a Qalipu membership, she keeps in contact with her family back home, visits there when she can afford it (about every other year) and honours her Indigenous heritage daily.
Hull is vice president at York University's Aboriginal Students' Association, and is doing a work placement at the Centre for Aboriginal Student Services. She's currently planning a campus powwow for about 1,000 participants this month. She does beadwork and writes poetry about her Mi'kmaq experiences. Her poem "My Days As An Indian" placed third in an Indigenous Arts and Stories contest.
Despite providing the Qalipu Mi'Kmaq enrollment committee with signed affidavits detailing her communications and trips to Newfoundland, and all her cultural activities, Hull scored zero in those categories. For being a founding member, Hull received nine points, shy of the 13 points needed to maintain her membership. She appealed the decision and lost — an outcome she calls "arbitrary and ignorant."
"I've pretty much accepted it now, this is the situation I'm in," Hull said. "But I'm not accepting my Indian status is gone, I am going to challenge that.
"I think it's another attempt to screw Indigenous students over, prevent us from getting educations, keeping us out of positions of authority like doctors, lawyer and academics," Hull said.
While she searches for a way to reclaim her Indian status, Hull is focusing on her future, which she hopes will be filled with dance, travel and the eventual pursuit of a PhD.
Crown-Indigenous Relations said it provided students losing their Indian status with funding for the 2018 to 2019 school year, and encouraged them to contact Qalipu First Nation officials to find funding for their next school year.
There is hope for Mi'kmaq people who are no longer band members, said Lickers. She recently argued in federal court that the point system was unreasonable and unfair, and can't stand. If the court agrees, the enrollment committee will have to re-evaluate applications like Hull's.
"I don't know if there is an intention to harm Indigenous people and communities in these decisions," said Lickers, who knows of six court challenges to the membership system and has worked on three.
"I do think the federal government is trying to get it right, and rectify historical wrongs committed against Mi'kmaq in Newfoundland, but they made a lot of mistakes in the agreement."
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