I’ve had a lot of my non-indigenous friends express sympathy for the beleaguered author, Joseph Boyden. They think his background sounds complicated and that perhaps he’s being unfairly criticized for not being “Indian enough,” as one of them said to me today.
The discussion that’s been raging on social media, however, is not about “how Indian” Boyden is, but whether he has any indigenous ancestry at all, or whether he’s made that up entirely.
This is based on two major concerns: his wildly divergent stories about his ancestry, and the inability of APTN, after conducting a genealogical/archival search, to find any indigenous ancestry at all. Boyden argues, in response, that the records don’t reflect his family history and that the family hid their indigenous ancestry, and for sure, that’s always possible.
So let me simply set out a list of some of the inconsistencies that remain problematic, despite his interviews this week with Candy Palmater on CBC and Mark Medley of the Globe and Mail.
In 2005, Boyden told the Quill and Quire that there was “Métis in [his] ancestry, and his father’s Irish-Catholic family history also has some Micmac in the mix.”
The mention of his father being part Micmac (Mi’kmaq) appears again in an interview with The Scotsman that same year, and a further reference to his aboriginal “blood” as including Mi’kmaq was reported in the Globe and Mail in 2008.
In his December Twitter statement responding to the APTN article, Boyden said that he did not recall ever saying he was Mi’kmaq and that the interviewers must have misunderstood him when he said his father had Nipmuc blood. The Nipmuc are a small Indian tribe in the US, so this certainly seemed plausible, as the two words sound similar.
Here’s the entire tweet:
However, Boyden told an New Orleans reporter that he was “Mi’kmaq on my father’s side. They’re an east coast tribe in Canada.” Which really negated any suggestion of confusion on the part of the interviewers. In his interview with Mark Medley yesterday in the Globe and Mail, Boyden finally admitted that indeed, he had said he was Mi’kmaq, but it was a mistake:
“Métis, when I used it, it was as the Canadian federal government defines it. Mi’kmaq was a mistake, and I did make that mistake.”
Medley didn’t ask him to explain how the mistake originated, but I would note that the Mi’kmaq are a completely different nation from the Ojibway or Nipmuc, linguistically, culturally, and territorially. It would be like telling someone I’m Welsh or Polish, when I’m Canadian. I don’t really know how one could make that mistake or do so repeatedly.
As for the claim of Nipmuc heritage, in the statement he provided APTN for their original story, Boyden wrote:
Over the last few decades I, along with some siblings, have explored my family’s heritage. We’ve uncovered and traced a fascinating and personal genealogy, a genealogy often whitewashed of our Indigenous ancestry due to the destructive influences of colonialism,” said Boyden, in the statement. “While the majority of my blood comes from Europe and the Celtic region, there is Nipmuc ancestry on my father’s side, and Ojibwe ancestry on my mother’s [sic].”
Barrera reports: “It wasn’t until about 2014, in an interview with Walrus magazine, that Boyden began to say his father’s ancestry included links to the Nipmuc. The next year, in an interview with CBC’s Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild, Boyden revealed he discovered Raymond Wilfred Boyden’s Nipmuc heritage by reviewing Nipmuc membership rolls.”
I find it interesting that Boyden would rest his claim to Nipmuc heritage on his father’s side by relying on historical census documents but deny the reliability of historical materials when it comes to the Ojibway heritage he claims, but I digress.
The problem is that the Nipmuc themselves don’t support the information Boyden provided. The Nipmuc’s main historian and genealogist says she finds the claim confusing. In the APTN story, she points out that Boyden is not a Nipmuc name. She looked at the female names of Boyden’s ancestors from the records (which remember, predate the date of the census rolls Boyden relies on) and couldn’t find a connection.
Although Boyden said in his Twitter statement that his Nipmuc ancestors were from Dartmouth, Massachusetts, she debunked that altogether:
I think it’s very hard to maintain a claim based on one’s own research when that research is not only not supported by the historical evidence, but is contradicted by those who are actual experts in the area. That leaves us with Boyden’s claim to Ojibway ancestry.
In his Twitter statement, as noted, he claimed his Ojibway ancestry through his mother; his father’s ancestry, he said, was Nipmuc. However, it is through his father’s brother, Erl, that Boyden has most often referred to his Ojibway heritage. The 2008 Globe and Mail article refers to this claim, that both sides of the family had Ojibway “blood”:
Both his father, an Ottawa-born Irish Catholic who later became a doctor and served with distinction in the Second World War, and his mother, an elementary-school teacher of Scottish origin, had aboriginal blood (Ojibwa, Mi’kmaq). During the summer, they’d take their 11 children – Boyden was the third youngest – camping and canoeing in and around Georgian Bay where the Jesuits once roamed. An uncle, Erl, his father’s older brother, was nicknamed “Injun Joe” and, when he wasn’t “travelling the world like a bum – he was even in a Jimmy Cagney movie years ago,” he lived in a tepee in Algonquin Park.
In the 2008 Penguin Reading Guide to Three Day Road, Boyden wrote that “In the summer of 1945, Erl, my dad’s older brother, was living a traditional lifestyle in a teepee near Algonquin Park, selling crafts to tourists.” He adds: “I grew up with history and myth swirling around me, stories of my father’s war exploits and my uncle Erl’s Ojibwa ways inseparable.” He referred to his uncle as somehow acquiring the “horribly racist moniker” Injun Joe.
But as both APTN and blogger Robert Jago reported, “Injun Joe” chose the moniker himself, as part of a persona he adopted to sell Indian souvenirs.
Jago posted several newspaper articles about a coroner’s inquest into the tragic death of a tourist in the mid 1950s when Injun Joe put on a headdress at the request of a tourist, and fired what he thought was an unloaded rifle. Injun Joe was cleared, but all the news reports of the time indicated that “Injun Joe” was not really an Indian, but Erl Boyden, a white man. (You can see these stories imbedded in the APTN story, along with some pictures of Injun Joe.)
Dorothy Sangster of Macleans magazine did a lengthy feature about Erl Boyden in 1956 called The Double Life of Injun Joe. Here are a few excerpts:
When Erl Boyden was five years old, his Uncle Richard took him to a wild-west show in Ottawa and introduced him to Buffalo Bill.
Excited by tom-toms and war cries and trailing war bonnets, little Erl fell in love with Indians on the spot. He took to cutting out pictures of Indians, improvising Indian costumes, collecting Indian souvenirs. His bedroom in the old Boyden home on Mackenzie Avenue, in the shadow of the Parliament Buildings, became a litter of bows and arrows and buckskins. His most treasured possession was a five-foot cotton tepee his aunt Bertha O’Donaghue sent him from New York. The Last of the Mohicans was his favorite book and he and his two brothers saved their nickels to see Broncho Billy Anderson on Saturday afternoons at the neighborhood movie house, and Custer’s Last Stand, a stage show that came to Ottawa’s Grand Opera House in 1907. School bored young Erl—his thoughts were elsewhere. He saw himself as a white boy who by his knowledge of hunting and outdoor lore is adopted by an Indian chief and given a place of honor in the tribe.
Boyden is sixty years old now, but he’s still playing Indian. All summer long you can find him sitting beside the highway at Dwight, a small resort town 160 miles north of Toronto on the road to Algonquin Park, under a sign that says, “Ugh! Indian Souvenirs!” The tourists know him as Injun Joe.
The toy tepee has changed into a real tepee. The buckskins and tomahawks are spread out on counters for sale. The child is a man who refuses to put away childish things. “Haven’t you guessed? I’m a case of arrested development, Peter Pan in a war bonnet.” he says. Erl König Boyden— he was named after his mother’s favorite Schubert song— has been soldier, sailor, artist, stage designer and Jack-ofall-trades, but says the proudest day of his life was the day he met Buffalo Bill….
He says: “They come here and buy armfuls of stuff marked ‘Algonquin Park.’ they take pictures of what they idiotically believe to be a real live Canadian Indian and away they go into the wide blue yonder, happy as larks. Who am I to spoil iheir fun? Next year more tourists will arrive, similarly bathed in gloom and burdened with filthy lucre. Ah well, as the French observe so truly, c’est la vie!”
In the news release Boyden issued this past week in response to the swirling controversy, Boyden says that “My family’s heritage is rooted in our stories. I’ve listened to them, both the European and the Indigenous ones, all my life. My older sisters told me since childhood about my white-looking father helping his Indian-looking brother hide their blood in order to survive in the early 1900’s.”
That Indian-looking brother he refers to was clearly Erl Boyden. If Erl was trying to hide his identity, he certainly found a peculiar way to do it: he didn’t try to pass as white, but as Indian. And he himself denied that he had any Indian blood. Once again, from the 1956 Macleans article:
Erl König Boyden may look like an Indian, think like an Indian and spend most of his year among Indians, but so far as he knows he hasn’t a drop of Indian blood. His father was a well-to-do Ottawa merchant (in household furniture) who traced his family to Thomas O’Boyden of Yorkshire. His mother was Irish.
Erl’s statements about his non-indigenous ancestry, by the way, are supported by the APTN historical research.
So all we are left with is Joseph Boyden’s word that the records are wrong based on his family’s oral history. However, his own mother and her brother, Richard, told APTN that the family’s claim to indigenous ancestry wasn’t based on oral history, but on the research Boyden did. His uncle (his mother’s brother Richard) told APTN:
“He is the only one who obviously brought this whole situation to the forefront because of his interest in Aboriginal people in Canada, and his writings are certainly Aboriginal. He is really the one who raised this issue to begin with or indicated there was a connection,” said Richard Gossling, 82, who is Boyden’s uncle on Blanche Boyden’s side. “I am sure that Joseph has answers that we certainly don’t have because of his writings and whatever research he did.”
Joseph Boyden’s mother, Blanche Boyden, said her son has the answers.
“I don’t know much myself,” said Blanche Boyden, 86, in a telephone interview with APTN. “We didn’t keep many records in those days…. Joseph proved it and he got the papers and everything so there is no question about it.”
Blanche Boyden said the “key” was her grandmother, Blanche McInnes, who her son discovered to be Indigenous.
“Soon as I gave him the name McInnis, he had no problem with it,” she said.
Except that APTN established that Hector McInnes, Blanche McInnes’s father, wasn’t indigenous at all: he was of Scottish and Irish ancestry. There was one missing record: the ancestry of Hector’s wife, Kate Ellis. APTN couldn’t find records for Kate Ellis’s parents, George and Margaret Ellis. I found the record: it’s in the 1881 census records: they were born in England.
So let’s be clear: this isn’t about an absence of records. The archival records exist: they just don’t support Boyden’s claim to indigenous ancestry. This is not about “blood”: that’s not why this controversy continues: this is about honesty.
There are many individuals from indigenous communities who have stepped forward over the past month to report on Twitter that Boyden told them different stories about his background as well. For example, he told an acquaintance of mine from Cape Croker that he was from Wasauksing First Nation; he told the same thing to the editor of Muskrat Magazine. He told a leading Métis writer and lawyer, Chelsea Vowel, that his mother came from Cape Croker (Cape Croker is Saugeen Ojibway and a totally different First Nation from Wasauksing; as an aside, I worked with the Saugeen Ojibway for a decade as their lawyer on treaty fishing rights).
This article by Jesse Brown in CanadaLand reports only a few of the discrepancies. As blogger Robert Jago said this week, the stories are getting hard to keep track of.
But the claim I found most troubling was one that occurred during an interview Boyden had with Peter Mansbridge, where they talked about the writing process. Boyden told reporter Leslie Stojsic during the camera shoot that “his ancestors were from the bear tribe (Attignawantan) of the Wendat population.”
The Wendats are commonly often referred to as Huron — these are the people he writes about in The Orenda. But they are an Iroquoian nation, again, totally different from the Ojibway or the Nipmuc peoples.
In the APTN story that questioned his shifting identity, Jorge Barrera quoted from a statement Boyden provided APTN as follows :”My family is Mukwa Dodem, Bear Clan.” That’s a claim to being Anishnabe Bear Clan, or Ojibway, not Huron. As one of my indigenous Twitter friends, @redindiangirl pointed out, how can you know your clan if you don’t know your community?
In his most recent press release, Boyden says: “Children don’t go about consciously presenting identities; they just are who they are. And that’s how I was: a white kid from Willowdale with native roots. The Ojibwe family I grew up with in summers on Christian Island still call me cousin or uncle. The bad poetry I first scribbled as a troubled teen was about searching for my mother’s clan. For the last 22 years I’ve been a member of a Moose Cree First Nation family, active in their community….”
Spending summers in a First Nation community doesn’t make one indigenous or my daughter could claim to belong to a few different First Nations.
The Tozers, the Moose Cree First Nation family in Northern Ontario that Boyden has long befriended, clearly love the man and consider him family. No one can dispute their strong, abiding friendship; I wish had friends who were as loyal as they are.
But they can’t confer indigeneity on him either. That’s up to the community to decide. Anymore than I could have Australian friends stay with me each year and because we’re very close, decide they’re Canadian.
Following his interview with Boyden this week in the Globe and Mail, Mark Medley wrote as follows:
But also damning, to many, was the collection of quotes Mr. Boyden had given to the media over the years, which pegged his ancestry as Métis, Mi’kmaq, Ojibway and Nipmuc. Had he knowingly lied about his heritage?
“Never,” he said. “People are calling it an ‘ever-shifting identity.’ I have not [lied]. I have misspoken one time – well, not one time, a few times.” When asked about the discrepancies in his statements about his ancestry over the years, he replied: “What are the discrepancies?”
I’ve pointed out some of the times he’s “misspoken” and why his interviews this week don’t really answer the hard questions. Maybe in the future, he’ll provide some clearer answers.
NOTE: (January 15) A reader, Kelly T, notes in Comments, below, that I haven’t mentioned Boyden’s claim to be Métis. I had left that out deliberately, both in the interests of length and also since he retracted that claim in his December Twitter statement, saying he thought the term meant “mixed blood.” This is not unreasonable, as it is a common mistake, although I would note that Boyden wrote a book on Métis leaders Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont.
However, as Kelly T. points out, in an email to Métis writer/lawyer Chelsea Vowel, posted on Twitter, he told Vowel that his mother “was always told there was a Red River connection on her mother’s side.” This is at odds with what his mother and her brother told APTN, which was that they had relied on his research concerning their indigenous ancestry, and that the “key was Blanche Boyden’s grandmother, Blanche McInnes, who [Boyden] discovered to be Indigenous.” According to the 1881 census and APTN’s research, she wasn’t.
In his interview with Candy Palmater, Boyden indicated he used the term “Métis” as the federal government used it some twelve or thirteen years ago. However, Boyden claimed to be Métis in a 2005 Quill and Quire story, in a 2011 Nuovo magazine story, and in an interview in Macleans magazine in 2014.
He received an honorary degree from Nipissing University in 2009: the press release refers to his Irish, Scottish and Métis heritage. And finally, he confirmed he should be identified as Métis in an event last November, after telling Chelsea Vowel that he would no longer claim to be Métis.