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.
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.”