I’ve been thinking a lot about Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, since I read it a few months ago. It’s been getting a lot of publicity; it was long-listed for a Giller Prize, it’s on the long-list for Canada Reads; Boyden seems to have been interviewed everywhere. Let me say what I liked about the book first, before I outline my uneasiness with it.
Boyden is a master at world-building. He draws us into the story and keeps our interest. He creates characters who are sympathetic. And he makes them, and the story, believable.Which I guess is the crux of my problem. There are people reviewing this book who think the history is accurate; that it’s an important depiction of what happened following “first contact” between First Nations and Europeans.
Now, this is my area of expertise. I have a doctorate in Aboriginal law and history. I worked with Anishnabe and Iroquois communities for decades. I’ve published dozens of articles about Aboriginal history in peer-reviewed journals. I wrote a book called Lament for a First Nation that sets out the history of Indian-white relations from first contact. So I know some of this stuff pretty well.
In The Orenda, a Huron chief adopts an Iroquois girl who has been taken captive: she becomes one of the main characters. That caught my eye right away, because the adoption part seemed a little backwards. The Hurons certainly took captives, but it was the Iroquois Confederacy that was known for adopting and assimilating their prisoners. By the mid-1600s, one of the missionaries estimated that almost two-thirds of the Iroquois Confederacy’s population were adoptees from nations the Iroquois had warred with.
This may come off as quibbling. But the Iroquois in this story are described as brutal; their violence graphic and relentless. And that’s not fair. Although the Jesuits rarely mention it, the French were just as brutal: this was the era when prisoners were drawn and quartered or more often, set on fire at the stake; in one of their reported raids, they threw Iroquois children into the flames. The Iroquois didn’t torture or kill everyone they went to war with; they adopted thousands of their captives as full members of their communities. They were actually astonishingly skilled peacemakers.
I know that the graphic violence in Boyden’s book came directly out of the Jesuit Relations (these were a series of reports sent to France by the Jesuit priests who lived among the Indians.) But the Jesuit Relations, not surprisingly, reflect a European perspective. There were things the Jesuits didn’t notice or didn’t understand because of their own cultural biases. There is not, for example, a single mention of clan mothers in the entire Jesuit Relations. The Jesuits looked at Iroquois women and assumed they weren’t important, that they lacked power.
And in that context, what bothered me perhaps most about The Orenda is a scene that depicts two Iroquois warriors encountering the Iroquois girl (the Huron captive) during an attack. They are immediately (and I mean immediately) sexually aroused and grab her, planning to rape her.
Rape is about power. The Iroquois were a matrilineal, matrilocal society. Clan mothers appointed the chiefs, or sachems; they could also remove them. Women owned all the property. When a couple married, the husband became part of the wife’s clan and moved in with her mother. Custody of children was held by the women. No decisions could be made at the Grand Council without it been first referred to the women’s council. In other words, women held all the power. Not only did Iroquois warriors not rape women, a number of European explorers and missionaries commented on this fact because it surprised them. It didn’t square with the way European men treated women, who were legally non-persons and had none of these rights.
I can see from the Acknowledgements section that Boyden consulted with Conrad Heidenreich and relied on a book by Bruce Trigger. I know their work well. They’re extremely highly-regarded historical geographers. (Both have testified as experts in support of Iroquois rights.) I am sure that they provided accurate information concerning the kinds of lodges the Hurons lived in, what they ate and what they wore, how they hunted, etc. I don’t argue with those details; as I said before, Boyden constructs a world that’s all too believable.
But I’ve already heard from some Iroquois friends who are angry and frustrated at what they feel is an overly simplistic and stereotypical view of the Haudenosaunee. They want to know why it’s only white reviewers being asked for their opinion , and why there are no Aboriginal people on the book panels. I think they have a valid point.
(In another chapter, an Anishnabe medicine woman living among the Hurons masturbates a Jesuit priest without his consent. Given the fact that a medicine woman’s role historically [and to this day] was to teach tolerance and respect, I would like to know what the Anishnabe think of the story.)
In 1977, when I graduated from Mount Allison University, I won the Grolier Prize in Canadian History. My award was a set of encyclopedias: the entry under “Iroquois” said “blood-thirsty savages.” I really wanted to like The Orenda. I was excited to get the book but uncomfortable and a bit worried when I finished reading it. I’m afraid that readers who aren’t familiar with Aboriginal history — and there will be thousands of them: Boyden’s a popular author — will be left with a view of the Iroquois that sets things back forty years.