The Orenda by Joseph Boyden: an “historical” review

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.

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23 Responses to The Orenda by Joseph Boyden: an “historical” review

  1. ruthseeley says:

    Boyden is a beautiful writer and a compelling storyteller, but this post and the points made by the two indigenous reviewers in your other post make me very uneasy. I remember talking to two First Nations friends in Vancouver about Boyden and Louise Erdrich. Both had read Erdrich and didn’t like her work – for no real reason it seemed, although they were keenly aware of the fact her father was of German ancestry. And then they asked me (I wish I could say it was carefully, but the only careful thing about it was their attempt to hide their sneers), which First Nation Boyden was a member of. Things deteriorated rapidly when I said I believed he had Metis heritage but not Metis status. And by that I mean, they were offended by someone writing about indigenous culture who hadn’t grown up in that culture, and I was speechless with fury at what I thought was the old ‘appropriation of voice’ argument being trotted out again but in a sneaky and dismissive way. My bottom line on the conversation was that they were saying neither was ‘native enough’ to be writing about native people. But the things you’re mentioning are egregious errors of fact indicating nowhere near enough research and it surprises me. I thought history had evolved to the point of taking it as given that the American Revolution and the War of Independence were, in fact, the same event.


    • Peggy Blair says:

      I think the problem, Ruth, is that a lot of the old-school historians took the Jesuit Relations (which Boyden relies on) as being completely accurate, even though at the time they were debunked by contemporary historians (like Baron de Lahontan) as being exaggerated to gain credibility for their missions.

      There is an interesting doctoral thesis out of Duke University, for example, that points out that every ritualized torture scene depicted in the Jesuit Relations followed a crucifixion narrative and ends with a deathbed conversion; one particularly graphic account of a child being tortured has a crown of thorns being placed on her head.

      Lahontan, who wrote in the late 1600s and early 1700s of his account of travels in New France writes that he’s read “the work of the Monks and they are greatly Exaggerated.”

      I think the general consensus these days is that the primary goal of the Iroquois was to take captives who they could adopt, and that those they did not adopt were dispatched quite quickly, rather than tortured endlessly. Interestingly, there are no torture accounts in the English colonial documents of the same time period when it comes to the Iroquois, and there were people like Peter Schuyler who fought beside the Iroquois, as the Iroquois were first Dutch, and then, English allies. Schuyler reports on their warfare often and again, makes no mention of the kind of ritualized torture we see in the Jesuit Relations. So there’s a context to this stuff that’s missing in The Orenda, and that’s what troubles me.


  2. Roger Theberge says:

    I am quite surprised that Boyden would take the Jesuits writings at their word ( even though he was educated at Brebeuf). Also he seems to espouse publically and vocally causes in favour of native rights. One should really put the question to him rather than assume one thing or another…he must have more than enough contacts within native groups whereas someone would have raised this issue with him


  3. Roger Theberge says:

    He is closely associated with Idle No More….


  4. Peggy Blair says:

    He was asked about it in an interview and said this:

    “Getting to know the history as implicitly as I feel I have, I realize that things like torture — Iroquois-Huron torture of each other — was certainly a fact of life, but it wasn’t an everyday occurrence at all,” said Boyden. “It was something that happened rarely, but when it did happen it was done in an honouring way.” The Iroquois people, while great warriors, also created the Great Law of Peace and had a sense of diplomacy during battle. They didn’t necessarily want to kill if they didn’t have to, he said.

    “I wanted to get that in because I was warned by everyone, by the elders, by historians, ‘Don’t paint the Iroquois as some kind of blood-thirsty savages. Make sure that they’re complex and fair in their dealings,’ and I hope I did that.”


  5. Selina Young says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this Peggy. My book club is currently reading The Orenda and having these views factor into our discussion later this month will be very helpful. Any further reading you could recommend before I host my book club discussions?


    • Peggy Blair says:

      My most recent blog on Iroquois “torture” might be helpful to you in evaluating the torture scenes. And I’ve posted two indigenous reviews in the post immediately after this one, that are pretty interesting too. Have fun at your book club!


  6. amaya green says:

    This blog is so helpful, thank you. I haven’t read the novel but every review I’ve read keeps mentioning the violence and the torture (by the Aboriginals) and that was enough to make me doubtful. Really? More murderous, raping Natives? Do we really need to read about that again? Hasn’t Hollywood done enough damage? I found his other novels overly fascinated with violence, which–sorry to be so reductive–explains why male reviewers love him. He is a man’s man. I’m not really interested in historical fiction but I am fascinated by the way that Boyden has got a pass—so many other writers would have been criticized for wading into Aboriginal history, but his few drops of Native blood have been enough to make him an authority. I know he’s spent plenty of time in Native communities, so he MUST have known that a lot of Aboriginal people would dislike this book, w/ its familiar tropes. So thank you for your measured responses (more measured and well-informed than my own . . .) And congrats on your own work!


    • Peggy Blair says:

      Thanks! I understood that it was only Boyden’s uncle who was Metis, and that his parents were white (I could be wrong), but I think that the good thing about all of this is that not that long ago, if a white, urban author had written a book that put forward a book dominated by Aboriginal characters’ first person perspectives, he or she would have been slammed for appropriation of voice. Instead, because of Boyden’s background, people are focusing on the book itself and having an important discussion about Canadian/First Nation history and stereotypes. Thanks for dropping by!


  7. Rob Pecora says:

    Having just finished the Orenda, I can certainly appreciate your concern that it’s verisimilitude (along with Boyden’s self identification of Native ancestry) might force the thousands of readers unfamiliar with aboriginal history to misconstrue it as unequivocal in its historical authenticity. As a high school teacher of History and Native studies, it is exactly this critical analysis of bias that I personally find intriguing and most relevant to students. I show films like Apocalypto, Black Robe and The Mission so that students gain an appreciation of the historical and cultural context created through the same sort of “world-building” you ascribe to Boyden, with the caveat that all of these works, like the Orenda, have been both lauded and chastised. Indeed, when I came upon sections in the Orenda featuring the use of “Captain Clock” as well as the written English language as a means by wish the Jesuits attempt to captivate the Wendat’s fascination, I was immediately struck by the similarities to Black Robe. The reason for the seeming duplication I assume is the reliance of both authors on the same primary source – the Jesuit Relations. To audiences that notice the replication of these scenes in Black Robe and the Orenda without bothering to fact check, however, one might seem to confirm the historical accuracy of the other. And even if we do accept their authenticity as rooted in a primary source, we then need to question the authenticity and bias of the source as alluded above. The subtle vagaries involved here are tricky to say the least. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the small window on the First Nations featured in the Orenda, and am optimistic that by spotlighting them, healthy discourses such as these will entice people to learn more about Canada’s aboriginals and marginalize them less.


    • Peggy Blair says:

      I think as long as there are teachers like you who can point out to students that historical records are no more accurate than contemporary ones and are subject to the same issues of subjectivity, bias and even occasional use as propaganda, the book can be a great learning tool. There’s a tendency for people (and courts) to assume that because a document is old, it’s accurate without examining the context around it. But even contemporary accounts of important events can be outright lies engineered to promote a certain agenda (like Colin Powell’s insistence that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq); history is full of similar examples. In that sense, this kind of book can be useful in a classroom for sure. Thanks for dropping by!


  8. Dear Peggy,
    I recently finished reading “The Orenda” for my book club, and, after reading it wondered about the historical accuracy of the book. The book turned me inside out, both because of the physical violence depicted, and also the arrogance of the Jesuits towards indigenous practices. I felt that if the book was going to be so violent, it should also be accurate. In my googling to investigate this a bit, I came across your blog. I wonder a couple of things.

    In my reading of the book, I didn’t see the Wendat as being any less violent towards the Haudenosaunee than the other way around. After the comment that you posted on March 8 where you talk about Boyden’s response to the comments about his imbalanced portrayal of the violence, do you feel differently about the book?

    Also, I appreciate that you pointed out the violence of the Jesuits towards the First Nations people, since this is something that didn’t come across. However, I didn’t see the Jesuits as being any less violent in many ways –I felt a constant sense that they had the aim of obliterating the aboriginal culture.

    Along these lines, as a lay person in this field, I actually didn’t get a sense that these people were violent all the time. I did feel like the book itself was extremely violent, but not just in the physical sense. This feeling was partly because of the feeling that I had that the Jesuits were constantly attacking the First Nations culture around them, through words and thoughts.



  9. P.S. Have you seen this discussion of the violence. And if you have, has it affected your view of the book?


    • Peggy Blair says:

      I think the complex protocols involved in negotiations involving the Haudenosaunee and First Nations tend to get forgotten because the Jesuits focused on the violence which they often embellished for their own ends. You get a much better sense of them in the New York Colonial Documents, particularly when Peter Schuyler (who the Mohawks called Quider, or Brother) was the Indian Commissioner, as he was fluent in Mohawk, English and Dutch, and grew up in Albany, where interactions with the Mahicans and Mohawks were regular and respectful. I have no comment to make about The Orenda than what I’ve said here previously: it’s been wildly successful and if that gets people discussing our shared history, I think that’s great. Thanks for dropping by!


  10. Peggy Blair says:

    You may find this new review of The Orenda of interest, Ella. Cheers, Peggy


  11. Martin Verhoeks says:

    I have read Joseph Boyden’s “Through Black Spruce”, which I thought was an excellent read and a great depiction of native Americans’ frustration and culture in present times. I started reading The Orenda and was fascinated by the story and the history described therein, but my problem is ( I haven’t fully finished it yet) the amount of similarities and “borrowed” portions of the Black Robe movie. I tried to discount this as a coincidence, but the similarities are just too obvious. For instance the scene where in the movie the Jesuit priest writes something to illustrate their “magic” by taking an account from one of the Native Americans and having this written account read out by the young Frenchman – an almost exact duplication of events exists in the book. The Captain Clock scene in the movie is changed to Captain of the Day in the book.
    I am sure that it would not have been necessary to so obviously borrow scenes from the movie and that a writer of Joseph Boyden’s caliber would certainly be able to use his creative genius to avoid a possible connection between his writings and a movie produced well before the launch of his book. Nevertheless, I am thoroughly enjoying the book although the enjoyment is slightly tainted for aforementioned reasons.


    • Peggy Blair says:

      Hi there,
      I don’t think Joseph Boyden borrowed from the movie. Instead, I think he (and the screenwriters) relied very heavily on passages from the Jesuit Relations, which depict events like this. I can’t honestly remember if the Relations described a situation with a clock, but the Jesuits certainly used other kinds of technologies and pretended they were magical. Both his book and the movie take the Relations as being accurate; I think they were rife with exaggeration and cultural misunderstandings but I suspect that’s the source of that description. Thanks for dropping by! Cheers, Peggy


  12. robert gault says:

    I find it interesting that overall the commentary on The Orenda centres on its historical accuracy and so little on its literary merit. No question the book is a cracking good story but I do not think it is great writing. Boyden’s device of using the three perspectives would have been much more powerful if we was able to form three distinct characters. I had great difficulty in discerning the separate voices. It seemed as if each of the perspectives arose from the same consciousness. It never worked for me and never developed beyond that of literary “device”. The voice of Bird and Snow Falls seemed to me to convey a very modern consciousness and apparent they did not stand alone as characters but were no more than that device concocted by the author. At all points I could not get passed my impression I was reading/hearing the author’s voice not that of the character. I don’t much care about its historical accuracy as I do not look to fiction for elucidation ( Nor do I rely on Hollywood). If I want to learn about a time/place I will go to the source not a work of fiction.


  13. Peggy Blair says:

    I found the three POVs a little confusing at times myself, probably because they were all first person; I often had to read forward a bit to figure out who was speaking. But I do think fiction can convey time/place effectively. Look at Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wraths for an example; hard to imagine any original source that could define that time/place as effectively as he does.


    • robert gault says:

      I think or would expect that if the three main characters actually had their own distinct voice it would be readily apparent and the reader would not have read forward to discern who was speaking. This is the flaw in the author’s ability to form character and ultimately the flaw in the book. I never got passed that I was merely hearing the author’s voice not the individuated voice of the character. Similar to “watching” an actor play a part rather than forgetting that I am watching an actor and am immersed in the character themselves.
      I agree regarding the value of an author such as Steinbeck’s ability to accurately convey a time/place but at the end of the day I am going to check the historical record rather than relying on an author’s, however replete with bona fides, perspective.
      My cynical self wonders, is Canada’s cultural elite, so desirous of a first nations success story willing to elevate such mediocre fiction to this esteemed level? Now that is patronizing!!


      • Michelle says:

        Unfortunately, I think you are right in that Canada’s cultural elites are willingly blind to The Orenda’s flaws. I also think that they are much more comfortable with the idea of Boyden’s ‘First Nations’ identity (ie. an upper-middle class guy from a suburb of Toronto) than they are with someone like Richard Wagamese. I wish there was more conversation about his wonderful books!


        • Peggy Blair says:

          I haven’t read Richard’s books but my author pal Chris Forrest has just mailed me one and I expect to get it any day. Can’t wait; I’m sure, from what Chris has to say, that I’ll love it.


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