Late last week, celebrity author Joseph Boyden’s indigenous background was questioned by both Jorge Barrera of the the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) and by an indigenous blogger, Robert Jago. The questions they raised created a firestorm of controversy on Twitter. The story hit the mainstream media yesterday, with stories on CTV, the Globe and Mail, and the National Observer, among others.
Boyden has become perhaps the leading Native spokesperson on indigenous issues in Canada. He has been interviewed hundreds of times, and has offered his views, among other things, on reconciliation, on murdered and missing Aboriginal women and girls, and on residential schools. No one in mainstream media, to my knowledge, has ever challenged his authority to speak on behalf of indigenous communities or has asked more than cursory questions about his background.
As part of trying to at least set out why this is a problem, I’d like to explain the controversy, and why it matters. Let me first clarify that I am not indigenous. My family has Scottish-Irish roots and my ancestors moved to Moose Creek, Ontario in the early 1800s. My father left Moose Creek after the war and later in life, taught in reserve schools in northern Alberta and B.C.
As a lawyer, I specialized in Aboriginal law on the First Nation side. I spent over twenty years working with primarily Ojibway and Mohawk nations and did my LLM and LLD in Aboriginal law and history. I wrote Lament for a First Nation, which traces the history of the Williams Treaties First Nations back to first contact. I spent the latter part of my legal career hearing cases of the physical and sexual abuse of indigenous children as an adjudicator with the Indian Residential Schools Process. So while I am an outsider — a settler– I am a relatively well-informed one with close connections to several First Nation communities.
Joseph Boyden has often referred to his native roots by discussing his Ojibway uncle Erl (“Injun Joe”) and his traditional Ojibway ways, including how he lived in a teepee in Algonquin Park. Late last week, Robert Jago, blogging as a host of @indigenousxca, released a series of tweets about Boyden, as well as a video that contained newspaper articles from the 1950s which said “Injun Joe” wasn’t really an Indian.
He included an excerpt from a 1956 Macleans interview by Dorothy Sangster with Erl Boyden called “The Double Life of Injun Joe.”
In it, Erl Boyden told Sangster he wasn’t aware of having any native blood, and said he only pretended to be an Indian so he could run his lucrative souvenir business: “Tourists come here and buy armfuls of stuff marked Algonquin Park, they take pictures of what they idiotically believe to be a real Canadian Indian and away they go into the wide blue yonder, happy as larks. Who am I to spoil their fun?”
Shortly after, Jorge Barrera published his story, Author Joseph Boyden’s Shape-Shifting Identity. In it, he pointed out how Boyden had at different times referred to being Mi’kmaq, Métis, Ojibway and Nipmuc, which are all very different nations. Despite conducting exhaustive research into Boyden’s background, including a review of archival materials and contacting a Nipmuc genealogist, Barrera was unable to find a connection.
In response to APTN, Boyden posted a statement on Twitter in which he said he had distant indigenous ancestry: Ojibway from Nottawasaga Beach and Nipmuc from Dartmouth, Massachusetts. He apologized for having referred to himself as Métis, however, saying that he had misunderstood the term to mean “mixed blood.”
He said that he could not recall ever referring to himself as M’ikmaq, but perhaps the interviewers had misheard him when he’d said Nipmuc, which is certainly plausible, as the terms sound similar, and the Nipmuc, a small American tribe in Massachusetts, is not well known in Canada. (Although, according to this article, Boyden was careful to explain to an American interviewer that the M’ikmaq on his father’s side were an East Coast Canadian tribe.)
Boyden also said that the uncle referred to in the APTN story had died before he was born, and knew he was Indian but hid his identity, as was so often the case in the 1940s and 1950s.
I found Boyden’s statement that his uncle Erl knew he was Indian but hid his identity a bit hard to swallow: after all, he lived in a teepee, called himself “Injun Joe,” and wore a war bonnet. It’s a bit like trying to hide the fact you are Jewish by wearing a yarmulke. But I don’t think it matters. Boyden clearly self-identifies as an indigenous person. And there is the rub.
What I have learned over the years is that self-declaration is one thing, but there is a reciprocal side to it, which is acceptance by the community with which you self-identify. Otherwise, anyone can claim to be indigenous based on little more than family gossip or wishful thinking.
I have been struggling to think of an analogy, and the closest one I can come to is with respect to religion. I cannot simply decide to be Roman Catholic, for example. There are steps I must go through first. I must be baptized, or the church has to agree to accept me through conversion. Once I am part of that community, I can rely on its ceremonies and its teachings, but I have responsibilities to it as well.
Since Boyden has yet to say something like “great grandmother X was from Y First Nation,” there is so far no indigenous community that has claimed him. Tracing one’s roots can be difficult in a world where the colonizers disrupted family ties, pulled children out of homes, scooped them and put them in foster care, and actively severed their ties to their communities. However, Boyden claims to have those roots; he has simply declined to provide them. As a result, indigenous people are still asking: Who are his people? Unfortunately, the statement he provided on Twitter doesn’t answer those questions.
For those rushing to Boyden’s defence, I would suggest they exercise a bit of care. We have to listen to what indigenous people are saying. As settlers, we hold enormous power. We have a responsibility to be cautious before we accord prominence to someone to speak about indigenous issues. As tweeter Tom Fortington said, it’s too much to put the entire burden of accountability on First Nations.
It troubles me, for example, that Boyden described himself in interviews as Métis for years, but now admits that he was wrong and that he didn’t know what the term meant (although he wrote a book about Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont). There is harm in this, because his misunderstanding was provided a national platform. In another interview, he completely misunderstood what it means to be two-spirited, and people were misinformed because he was mistaken.
I don’t think anyone can question Boyden’s passion or his commitment or his incredible talent or even his good intentions –that’s not the issue. Perhaps it comes down to respect. We do not respect people by taking away their voices. The First Nations people I met over the decades were always careful not to overstep. If they were asked questions about another nation’s world views or experiences, they deferred to those they considered better-suited to answer them.
According celebrity in such large measure to only one person to discuss pan-Canadian indigenous issues silences other indigenous voices. And if that one person is mistaken, or lacks authority, or worse, knowledge, we are more likely to misunderstand the things we need to know as we head down the difficult path towards reconciliation.
I will leave you with a Facebook post by Daniel Heath Justice who explains far more eloquently than I can why all of this matters. It’s a brilliant analysis, perhaps the best one I’ve read so far. It’s one of those indigenous voices I mentioned, shared with permission.