Joseph Boyden: From Frying Pan to Fire

On Twitter and in the media, the Joseph Boyden thing caught fire, was doused with fuel, and even more fuel. And as my eyes opened that much more to indigenous concerns, I could see Joseph Boyden turning on the spit.

Boyden has claimed indigenous ancestry for years, been awarded prizes set aside for indigenous writers, received praise and accolades, and has stepped forward and acted as a voice – and in many cases The Voice – of indigenous peoples. But his declarations of where he comes from and who his people are have been confused and changed many times. He does not seem to know what specific indigenous community he comes from and no community is claiming him. Not to mention some of the rather disconcerting things he’s said regarding his indigeneity, e.g. that he is a two-spirit person because he considers two geographic locations home, when in fact Two Spirit refers to a person’s gender not geography.

For over seven years now I’ve been tracing my Métis lineage back to the 16 and 1700s. A typical story, but mine nevertheless. My great grandparents were from Red River. I have Nakoda, Sioux, Cree, Ojibwe, French and Irish heritage. My research has opened a Pandora’s Box of excitement and concern. I don’t take a single aspect of this lightly. I don’t dare pretend that I’m part of a community or that I speak for indigenous people and one of my greatest fears is to offend any indigenous people in my search for identity.

My father, who is Métis, grew up not knowing much about it. He never asked and mostly was trying to avoid it because it seemed to only cause problems. On Prince Edward Island, where we lived from when I was two years old until I was 11, he would often get singled out as The Indian or The Frog. His brown skin, his French language… as far as fitting in went, it didn’t happen. I think deep down he was interested in his indigeneity, but was so disconnected in so many ways: traumatic childhood, drug and alcohol addiction, a general sense of fear and discomfort, that he couldn’t have even begun to know his identity, let alone search for answers.

I had begun the research into our history for my family. For my ancestors who had passed on. And for myself. I discovered this amazing matriarchal line of aboriginal women who married French men working in the fur trade. I discovered the true meaning of what it means to be Métis in terms of the Red River Settlement and how it is so often confused with small ‘m’ metis, as in mixed blood – not the same. It is a culture, a nation, with its own language, ceremony, art practices, etc. I spent so much time reading and searching, trying to understand what these women and men were like, how they navigated their lives and how much they must have sacrificed, especially the women.

During colonial efforts to move further west, many Aboriginal women were married off to European men to, among other reasons, create bridges between cultures to aid the fur trade. Researching and understanding these women has proved difficult amidst Canada’s tumultuous history. Sacrificing their own homes and families, they would travel with their husbands as translators to bolster imperial claims. These women were mobile and strong, bearing children and travelling with them into distant lands. They were midwives, seamstresses, freighters, nuns, artists. They took care of the camps, children, extended families and processing of bison: butcher and dry the bison meat, prepare pemmican, clean hides and cook; they were part of creating settlements and routes, playing instrumental roles in the growing global economy. Despite these experiences, we hear about them merely through the colonial/male gaze: in writings of authorities, Jesuits, explorers… and they are too often deeply negative.

Despite gaining all of this knowledge and uncovering mysteries of my family history, I don’t claim to be part of a community. I would say that although aware that my dad is indigenous, I grew up identifying as white. We were relatively poor. Always lived in rented apartments with wood paneling. Salted turnips and cabbage – the cheapest of veggies – were our idea of an amazing snack. I’m glad we didn’t have much money because I think that kind of experience has made me more sensitive to others, more empathetic, to strive harder and with more integrity.

It doesn’t seem like Boyden is or has been acting with integrity. I don’t know his truth but it doesn’t seem on the up and up. White people who I know are quick to say things like “he’s done a lot for the indigenous community”. I find that disheartening. The reality that indigenous people don’t need or want white people to speak for them is not an habitual thought, not easily accessible to white brains without really sitting down and listening to THE WHOLE STORY: to think of one’s self as a descendant of those who cleared the plains (re James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains) is scary to say the least and not something too many people are willing to own.

I hope Boyden says something soon.

Some people who’ve offered great insights into this discussion:

Kim TallBear, author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (2013), Associate Professor in the Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta

Chelsea Vowel, author of Indigenous Writes. A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada, Métis from manitow-sâkahikan (Lac Ste. Anne) Alberta

Zoe Todd (Métis) is from Amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton) in the Treaty Six Area of Alberta, Canada. Assistant Professor in Anthropology at Carleton University, Ottawa. Academic, Writer, Indigenous Feminist, Métis Advocate

Dr. Chris Andersen Interim Dean, Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta and author of Métis: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood

Jorge Barrera, Guild member, APTN reporter, winner of the 2012 J-Source Newsperson of the Year Award

Hayden King, Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation on Gchi’mnissing in Huronia, Ontario and director for the Centre of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, Toronto