Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden
(photo: author page Hamish Hamilton

Imagine believing something about yourself and your family and then having someone tell you it’s not true. This seems to be what has happened to Joseph Boyden. We’ve met Boyden before in the pages of Canadian Writers Abroad, because he is a Canadian author who writes and teaches in New Orleans and comes North during the summers. He is the author of Three Day Road (2005), about two Cree snipers in the First World War, Through Black Spruce (2008), which features a Cree bush pilot, The Orenda (2013), and Wenjack (2016), about an Ojibwa boy. The dust jacket of The Orenda describes him as: “Boyden, of Ojibwe, Irish and Scottish roots…”

I am writing about this controversial topic from the Holy Land, where intolerance arises from judgemental attitudes, where people are daily harassed because of their identity. From here, the question of whether Boyden has indigenous ancestry seems insignificant. But it made the local paper (New York Times International Edition), and it raises a question that CWA asks of every author: Living abroad, what do you consider to be your identity? Although the issue of Boyden’s indigenous ancestry seems questionable from here, there seems to be real anger, not so much against him as against those who support him, as in this Toronto Star article. The Canadian Encyclopedia has already modified its entry on Boyden to read, “Boyden has claimed Indigenous heritage through both his father’s and mother’s ancestry. However, he has been accused of misrepresenting himself by those who say his claims cannot be documented or confirmed.”

So what happened exactly? Jorge Barrera wrote an investigative piece for Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) News, “Author Joseph Boyden’s shape-shifting Indigenous identity,” questioning and rejecting Boyden’s claim to any indigenous heritage, examining documents and calling Boyden’s uncle, “Injun Joe,” a fraud. Boyden responded by going North to talk with his family for a few weeks, and then releasing a statement and giving interviews. In Boyden’s statement he said what he has always said: “My family’s heritage is rooted in our stories. I’ve listened to them, both the European and the Indigenous ones, all my life.” He again asserted he had grown up a white boy in Willowdale with native links, having spent summers with his Ojibwa family on Christian Island.

By writing well-researched gripping stories that needed to be told, Boyden became a media darling. And when the media wanted to talk to someone about the disappearance of native women in Canada, they may have reached for the guy who was already in their contacts list, the guy who said he had some native ties in his family background.

Oneworld Publications dustjacket 2013

Oneworld Publications dustjacket 2013

Ah, fame. Such as it is in Canada, where, it turns out, it is not acceptable to speak up on behalf of native women if you can’t prove you have official Indian status. For this reason, among others, Boyden has been asked for proof of his family’s native ancestry, from the colour of his family’s beadwork to the name of the clan that has taken him in.

What if Boyden believed his family’s stories? What if he has deceived himself? And how does his identity crisis compare to the real crises of war refugees, climate refugees, or the daily harassment some people face simply because of where they were born?

In the 1980s there was a controversial issue dividing the creative community in Canada: the appropriation of voice. If you were white, you weren’t supposed to write about a black hero; if male, not about a female; if a colonial oppressor, then not about a First Nations person. Fortunately for us, writers like Carol Shields (Larry’s Party) and Leon Rooke (Fat Woman and Shakespeare’s Dog) ignored this attempt to silence them. But what if you were a young writer just starting out, and you wanted to explore something you’d heard about as a kid? What if you were a white guy from Toronto for whom it was no longer acceptable to write a book like Brian Moore’s Black Robe? Wouldn’t it help to reclaim your bit of native ancestry to protect you from accusing fingers? Apparently not.

Joseph Boyden has apologized in his statement of 11 January 2017 for allowing himself to become a spokesperson on indigenous issues: “I let myself become a go-to person in the media when issues arose. I was wrong to do that and will never again provide anything but my piece. That role should go to those with deeper roots in their communities – wiser and more experienced spokespeople and elders – who have that right and responsibility, and who can better represent their community’s perspective.”

Apology accepted? Not really. Drew Hayden Taylor writes in The Globe and Mail:

“Unfortunately he and the words written about him have generated a lot of mistrust and confusion in the native community and it will take more than a few humble words of contrition to appease the aboriginal public. … If his next book is aboriginal in nature, this discussion may not be over.”

The kindest response comes from Wab Kinew, whose piece “There is Room in our Circle for Joseph Boyden” appeared in The Globe and Mail:

“His novels remain powerful. But they were always the work of a talented outsider. Even if he is Anishinaabe, he is not a member of the nations he wrote about – the Mushkegowuk, the Huron, the Haudenosaunee. Recognizing the distinctions will inform readers. So, yes, read Joseph Boyden. But also read authors who have lived a more indigenous experience.”

Eric Andrew-Gee weighed in with a ten-chapter profile in the 4 August 2017 issue of The Globe and Mail, “The Making of Joseph Boyden.” In it he suggests that his invitations to interview Boyden led to Boyden publishing a piece in Maclean’s recently:

Months of research, travel spanning Ontario, and dozens of interviews with scholars, colleagues, friends and extended family members have not yielded a definitive answer about whether Boyden is “really” Indigenous, and probably never could. In part, that is a challenge peculiar to him. Neither Boyden nor any member of his immediate family would agree to be interviewed for this article. Boyden has taken care to maintain control of his story. After deferring and eventually declining interviews for this piece, he responded this week with a brief statement that read in part, “I am proud of my heritage and I will always stand beside my friends and family within the Indigenous community.” The same afternoon, he published a 4,000-word essay on the Maclean’s website defending his identity claims over the years.

Here is the link to Eric Andrew-Gee’s profile of Joseph Boyden in The Globe and Mail (4 August 2017).

Here is the link to Joseph Boyden’s piece, “My Name is Joseph Boyden,” Maclean’s magazine (2 August 2017). Boyden writes:

If I am accepted by people in Indigenous communities, if I have been traditionally adopted by a number of people in Indigenous communities, if my DNA test shows I have Indigenous blood, if I have engaged my whole career in publicly defending Indigenous rights as well as using my public recognition as an author to shine light on Indigenous issues, am I not, in some way, Indigenous?

Posted by Debra Martens

author, editor


  1. When someone achieves a high public profile we get lots of quotes and actions to analyse. In the absence of actual hard copy genealogical records to back up Boyden’s claims, all we have are his words and actions to make a judgement with. Two things stand out for me in his public interviews. The obvious of course is his willingness to claim a variety of indigenous roots without any real proof. This is evidence of someone living in a surreal bubble where all that matters is his ego and sense of destiny. It’s as if he has zero respect for the people he is speaking to on the subject of his roots. This is one of the issues that has so many First Nations people upset.
    The second thing deals with his refusal to condemn the Asper Foundation, and the Canadian Human Rights Museum, for their failure to acknowledge the genocides inflicted on indigenous people in Canada.

    In response to Huggan’s comment: There is significant disagreement among genuine indigenous scholars with your idea that Boyden accurately portrayed First Nations people. You wrote: ” What’s important here is, as you say, the artist’s right to choose to write about any subject — with integrity and good heart. And this he did.”

    Two years before Boyden’s lack of indigenous origins were recently exposed, Hayden King, Assistant Professor of Politics and Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario wrote this about Boyden’s Giller Prize winning The Orenda:

    “The Orenda is a comforting narrative for Canadians about the emergence of Canada:Indian savages, do-good Jesuits and the inevitability (even desirability) of colonization.
    The themes that push this narrative are a portrayal of Haudenosaunee peoples as antagonistic, the privileging of the Jesuit perspective, and a reinforcing of old story-telling tropes about Indigenous people.These themes work together to convey the message that the disappearance of the Huron and the loss of their orenda was destined to happen.”

    And this from: Adam Gaudry, who is Métis and an assistant professor in the Faculty of Native Studies and Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta.
    He was asked: If Boyden never was aboriginal, should he have never been writing about aboriginal topics and cultures in the first place? Or is that open for anyone to write about?

    “This is a much-debated thing. One of the points that Robert Jago brought up on Twitter is that a lot of people in his community have trusted certain outsiders who have put in the time with the community. A lot of the time these are non-fiction writers, historians or academics. If you want to tell indigenous stories and you’re not from that community, you need the blessings of that community. You need to work with that community to ensure what you’re saying is accurate and reflective of their interests. Misrepresentation of indigenous people, even if unintentional, can have massive detrimental impacts.”


  2. Jane Christmas January 20, 2017 at 11:43

    Interesting post on Joseph Boyden. I have been following the controversy and have been on two minds: 1. He¹s a liar. 2. Someone has to speak for First Nations and he has done so elegantly and eloquently. More than any other reading I have done on First Nations peoples Boyden¹s books helped me understand the psyche of that culture. (And I admit to wondering whether that is now a good thing or a bad thing!) Isn¹t everything we learn filtered through someone¹s eyes ‹ Author? Textbook writer? Historian? Journalist?

    Also, this is shades of Jonathan Franzen when he passed off as memoir a piece of work that was fiction (or vice versa), and readers felt he had betrayed their trust.

    The issue has made me question the role of the writer: We adopt and adapt to our audiences and to the characters in our books. We even adapt to our writing environment. Who is to say who we really our? Some of us feel more connected to a different reality than our birth papers might indicate. Is that such a bad thing? And are writers ³forced² to create different identities (like actors) in order to market themselves in a highly competitive business?

    So many more questions. It would be wonderful to have a round table discussion on this!

    Cheers, Jane

    From: Canadian Writers Abroad Reply-To: Canadian Writers Abroad Date: Wednesday, 18 January 2017 at 13:44 To: Jane Christmas Subject: [New post] Joe¹s ID DMartens-CWA posted: ” Imagine believing something about yourself and your family and then having someone tell you it¹s not true. This seems to be what has happened to Joseph Boyden. We¹ve met Boyden before in the pages of Canadian Writers Abroad, because he is a Canadian a”


  3. Fascinating subject/post; thanks.


  4. brilliant piece… you raise and answer some of the major questions swirling around JB.. it has been a politically motivated witch hunt distracting people from the very real truth that he has written powerfully about First Nations people in his fiction, his power coming at least in part from his identifcation with their history. Surely that is what matters — the writing itself. Nevertheless, the unanswered question is still whether he “illegally” benefitted from grants specifically given to “native artists”. If that is the case, he can clear his name by returning the funds OR donating them to good cause. What’s important here is, as you say, the artist’s right to choose to write about any subject — with integrity and good heart. And this he did.


  5. Thank you, Deb, for this balanced and articulate presentation of the situation.


  6. Thank you for this thoughtful overview.


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