What Two Indigenous Reviewers think of The Orenda

I wrote a blog post yesterday expressing my uneasiness with certain parts of  The Orenda and my concern that readers unfamiliar with Aboriginal history might think it’s all true. And sure enough, a reviewer in the Montreal Gazette has called for The Orenda to become required reading in all university and school history classes. Which would be great,  provided the people leading those discussions understand that the written history of what happened post-contact (particularly that outlined in the Jesuit Relations which Boyden relied on so heavily) is an incomplete and often culturally biased account.

So here’s a portion of what two indigenous book reviewers have to say about The Orenda: one is Iroquois; the other  Anishnabe.  I won’t reproduce either review in its entirety; they’re too long, but do click on the links. Both reviews are balanced, thoughtful, and reflective, and well worth reading for a slightly different perspective on this book than what you may have heard in the mass media.

First is a review by Hayden King in Muskrat Magazine. (You can read his entire review here.)

Christophe the Crow [the Jesuit priest] … becomes the protagonist, the doomed hero that reinforces colonial myths of savagery on the one hand, and salvation, on the other – ‘survival in the face of hostile Natives.’ Hostile is an understatement. The vivid descriptions of torture are excessive. I haven’t read a book as violent since McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Interestingly that was also a story about colonization, the violence reflecting a lawless, incomplete social order but also a comment on the universality of violence among humans.

“This is a contrast to The Orenda, where violence and torture is both the exclusive domain of the Indians and endemic in their societies since time immemorial. The inevitable conclusion is that Indians were really just very violent. It’s not a surprising conclusion considering that Boyden seems to rely heavily on travelogues (journals of Jesuits) for his historical information. This despite the obvious bias stemming from the interest Jesuits had in perpetuating tales of savagery among the Indians – it justified their own existence, after all. So problematic are these accounts of sadism, they’ve long been excused by critical thinkers, many academics, and Indigenous peoples themselves. The Haudenosaunee have insisted that some of the practices depicted in the book ended hundreds of years earlier.

“There are other tropes throughout. There is mystical Indian, reflected in a ‘magical’ Anishinaabe sorceress and to a lesser extent Snow Falls. Both can (or have the potential) to see the future and heal in inexplicable ways. There is also the child-like Indian, Hurons who are awe-struck anytime the French introduce something foreign: a crystal chalice, muskets, a clock. Finally there is the noble Indian, reflected in Christophe’s frequent caveat in his musings on their heathenism (i.e. these Indians are child-like savages but, oh Lord, they are as beautiful and stoic as the most impressive Greek statues). All of this is not to say the characters are one-dimensional. They aren’t. Snow Falls, Bird and others are complex, coming from a community with well developed culture, economy, spirituality, relationships, and so on. Yet their component traits resemble outdated narratives of Native people, which have been used in the past to justify civilizing policies.

“The consequences of these themes – the marginalization of the perspective of the Haudenosaunee, the centering of the Jesuit point of view and the cultivation of old tropes, specifically the savage Indian – amount to a tale about the inevitability of colonization… It’s a grim reality and a difficult book to read. At least it will be for many Native peoples. For Canadians, The Orenda is a colonial scribe and moral alibi.”

The second review appears on  An Onkwehonwe in Kanata, written by a Haudenosaunee blogger who loved Boyden’s earlier works but found herself disappointed by the way that the Iroquois are portrayed:

“For the first third, this book is a masterpiece. The narrative voice is strong, with evocative and poetic descriptions of our lands in the time before colonization really took hold, when this territory was truly our place. There’s enough detail about how the people lived and their traditions to satisfy my long-held fascination with the story of my relations. And at first blush, the character of the Haudenosaunee girl Snow Falls, who is taken captive by the Wendat warrior Bird, was dimensional to me because her feistiness and fierce spirit reminded me of my own daughter.  Her resistance was very real, knowing what the character of most Haudenosaunee girls is like. I really enjoyed her struggle to understand and deal with her captivity and how she matured into a woman despite her circumstances.

“However, as I got more into the book, my inner alarm bells started to ring. Beneath the beautiful prose the conflict between the Wendat and the Haudenosaunee is not explained beyond what the colonial history tells us….My people are relegated to being the monsters of whom everyone is terrified, whom Bird’s war bearers constantly test their mettle against. My people, who are such eloquent defenders of the Great Peace and the authors of the Two Row Wampum, are the bogeyman in the night, a horror story told to children to make them behave. This does not compute and I reject this idea of us. It’s a colonial idea and not worthy of a writer like Boyden.

“There was also the idea that Snow Falls and the Anishnaabe woman Gosling were ‘magical.’ While I have no doubt that Haudenosaunee girls aged 3 to 10 are magical, and I do believe in the medicine ways of the Anishnaabe, I really dislike the idea of making women ‘magical.’ To do so negates their humanity, makes them viewed as mystical creatures that cannot possibly be real. In this colonial culture, does this not reinforce our already-nebulous status? I found myself cringing whenever anyone commented or felt that these characters’ strong powers of intuition and empathy were magical, and this served to pull me out of the book.

“Eventually, I got tired of the endless descriptions of torture and the thrilling canoe chases and siege tactics.  It’s a boys’ adventure novel disguised in beautiful prose. I enjoyed the first third of the book much more than the last two-thirds. It is the set and setting of the stage that thrilled me and made me dream of the Old Days for three consecutive nights. I would fall asleep and have dreams of endless cornfields and the smoke of cooking fires and children’s laughter echoing through the trees. For this reason alone, I liked the beginning of the book. However, it is certainly not the novel I wanted to read when I first heard about it.”

The Orenda has been long-listed as one of the forty books on Canada Reads. Last year, one of the shortlisted books was Hugh Maclennan’s The Two Solitudes. I think there are two solitudes developing around this book, based on two very different perspectives. Wouldn’t Canada Reads be a great place to have this important discussion about our shared history?

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7 Responses to What Two Indigenous Reviewers think of The Orenda

  1. Roger Theberge says:

    Hi Peggy
    Very much enjoyed reading your thoughts on the Orenda. I have been seeking info on different points of view ever since I saw a comment on amazon criticizing the book’s presentation of the Iroquois.
    My first question would be: how does Boyden respond? You also mentioned that in your 1977 encyclopedias the Iroquois were defined as bloodthirsty savages. What about the entry under Huron? As a French speaking quebecer, it is no surprise to me that the Iroquois are portrayed thus; my ‘petite histoire’ in grade school highlighted the saintliness of the Jesuits, the goodness of the Hurons and the cruel nature of the Iroquois. My father who is a historically minded man, was quick to point out the falseness of this version.

    I would be very interested to know if Boyden has been asked about his presentation of the Iroquois and what his response was.


    • Peggy Blair says:

      I don’t know the answer to that: I haven’t seen any comments in the press/media, but in his Acknowledgements, he refers to the historical research he did, so I’m guessing he believes the Jesuit Relations were accurate. See my comment in response to Ruth Seeley’s comment on my post of my historical review of The Orenda where I point out that the JR accounts of torture were all variations on the crucifixion. (I no longer have the Grolier encyclopedia, but I’m sure that the entry on Hurons would have said something about them being allies of the French.) Baron de LaHontan, by the way, who was a French observer who learned Alonquian and wrote extensively about the Aboriginal people he’d met writes that the “Monks” exaggerated their works, and that most of their deathbed conversions never happened. (When you think about it, the claim of deathbed conversions is a hard one to refute :-)).


  2. Lawrence Day says:

    Demonizing the enemy salved the colonial conscience indeed, but there is more too it than race and religion.
    First contact in Wendake is Estienne Brule in 1610-11 while Brebeuf arrives in 1626 at the same time that Amantacha and Brule are in France.
    Trying to return on Richelieu’s grand 100 associates fleet it is captured and they are taken to London. Louis Amantacha they believe to be the “Prince of Canaday*”. He, Marsolet and Brule are returned on board the Kirke/Huguenot ships
    so Amantacha can finally go home–his trip was only supposed to be a year.
    But Champlain confuses necessity with treachery, or pretends to,
    So Brule is blamed for losing Kebec in pure propaganda and ass-covering.
    1629-1632 Amantacha and Brule are in Wendake and Brebeuf in France. When he returns in 1634 Brule has already been murdered two years earlier. His death is grossly exaggerated by Sagard.
    The JR are not reliable but neither are the “official” Richelieu-era revised histories which were taught in Quebec schools from 1633-1962 and even Champlain was further doctored in English translations. His 1632 volume is Richelieu dedicated and dubious compared to his earlier stuff before the censorship although that also contains falsehoods.
    Many French now are also eager to know their actual history.
    All Richelieu’s enemies were demonized or trivialized or written out of the story.
    Many books were burnt in that era, even Jean Nicolet’s.
    Only the lies were permitted.
    It is disappointing to learn you have been lied to, but it does give some treasure in being able to understand. one’s history.
    The antidote to imposed myth is in checking the primary sources.
    They become progressively more available as old French archives are being digitized.
    Just last year we learned of Champlain’s 1574 Huguenot baptism.

    Champlain dies in 1635 and the fall of Huronia is another generation in the future, so the timeline in The Orenda is historically impossible, not that it matters because it is fiction.
    But maybe it will help us see the many fictions that are contained in the books that were claimed to be histories.

    * This is googlable, In 1628 English history was sung not written but there is a modern rendition.


    • Peggy Blair says:

      Agree. History is often revised, and continues to be so (look at the Canadian government’s insistence that the war of 1812 was a major conflict, for example.) Thanks for the feedback and for dropping by!


  3. Steeplejack says:

    The final climatic battle was interesting to read because the French mission’s buildings are clearly based on Ste. Marie Among The Hurons. Which was entertaining so far as it went, but the place never came under attack by the Iroquois. The French abandoned it first, and burned it to the ground themselves before hiving off to Christian Island in Georgian Bay


    • Peggy Blair says:

      Interesting. Another commentator pointed out that the meeting between Champlain and the Jesuit couldn’t have happened, as Champlain had died in 1632 and the fall of Huronia was a generation later. I know how hard it is (writing about Cuba) to get all the details right, but the readers always find your mistakes! Thanks for dropping by!


  4. It’s very sad that you can’t admit that the tribes in North America were as bloodthirsty as their counterparts all throughout humanity. Their counterparts being EVERY HUMAN CULTURE.

    The DID engage in torture… this isn’t a matter of cultural bias or misrepresentation in the Jesuit Relations. They warred on one another, committed genocide (the Haudenshaunee obliterating the Wendat 1649) … etc.

    If you assert that the Relations lied… do you have any evidence? What happened to the Jesuits that were brutalized and murdered? Are you saying they WEREN’T brutalized and murdered?

    Sorry, you don’t get to pretend that the indigenous peoples from hundreds of years ago in North America were all peaceful. The continent was entrenched in conflict and cruelty… just like European peoples experienced all throughout Europe. Just like Asians and Africans.

    And yes, Europeans came and brutalized the indigenous peoples. Absolutely. They should not have.

    But you’re living in a fantasy if you think Native Americans were categorically peaceful.


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