Smagnis Says: This raises a number of significant issues as Government formulates policy impacting on the lives of those who live on reserve. Whose voice is being heard? There are too many convenient Indians.who seek status or self declare for personal gain. They use this to hunt or fish,get a government job or one with a resource company. They then become a statistic that Government and Industry can point to as having a representative workforce and the progress they are making. The real issue is that these convenient Indians become point spokeperson in the formulation of policy impacting on real Indians. In this particular case of Joseph Boyden, I accept his right to our Spirituality but I would be more convinced of his sincerity if he were to turn down the awards targetting Aboriginal authors. These people never lived on Reserve nor bare the skin color of an Indian so they really don`t know what it is like to be discriminated against or the conditions endured on Reserve. Indeed, these convenient Indians almost always tell the stories Canada wants to hear about itself.
So true, Carla…Whose voice is being heard??
APTN National News
Three Day Road author Joseph Boyden’s uncle went by the alias “Injun Joe” and wore a headdress while selling drums made of tin cans wrapped in birch and other “Indian” items to tourists from a shop near Algonquin Park in Ontario.
A Maclean’s article in 1956 titled, The Double Life of Injun Joe, reported Earl Boyden “may look like an Indian, think like an Indian and spend most of his year among Indians, but as far as he knows he hasn’t a drop of Indian blood.” The article said Earl Boyden’s father was a “well-to-do Ottawa merchant who traced his family to Thomas O’Boyden in Yorkshire” and that his mother was “Irish.”
Earl Boyden, who died in 1959, appears to have embraced Indigenous culture to the point where the local Ojibway would refer to him as “not a white man,” according to the article.
Over the years, Joseph Boyden has referred to his uncle’s “Ojibway ways” and once told an interviewer that he saw parallels between himself and his “Indian uncle” Earl.
“Just like my Indian uncle, I had a taste for the road and for adventure,” said Boyden, in an interview with Penguin Books for a reading guide accompanying Three Day Road, his breakthrough novel which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize. “At the time, I didn’t recognize the parallels between my uncle and me.”
The nephew eventually discovered something his uncle did not know—Indigenous ancestry hidden somewhere in the Scottish and Irish branches of the family tree.
Boyden has never publicly revealed exactly from which earth his Indigenous heritage grows. It has been an ever shifting, evolving thing. Over the years, Boyden has variously claimed his family’s roots extended to the Metis, Mi’kmaq, Ojibway and Nipmuc peoples.
The nature of Boyden’s ancestry claims caused an undercurrent of concern within some segments of the Indigenous community as the author’s prominence as a spokesperson on Indigenous issues grew.
“I’ve heard of people questioning his background…. It is because of his public comments on Aboriginal issues that people started to question, ‘Who is this guy?’” said Russ Diabo, a policy analyst from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, which is having its own struggles over the issue of identity and membership. “If an individual is claiming Indigenous ancestry or Aboriginal ancestry, normally they should be able to trace back their kinship or genealogy to their community….It gets dicey without being able to show a clear connection to a community. Pretty much everybody knows, if they don’t know you they know your family, you can trace back to someone you know.”
Author and politician Wab Kinew, who defended Boyden’s last major novel, the Orenda, during CBC’s Canada Reads contest, said Boyden’s contribution to Indigenous communities and the general national dialogue on the relationship between the state and the original peoples should not be forgotten amid questions of ancestry.
“I myself have been curious about Joseph Boyden’s ancestry but at the same time I recognize that he is a part of our community by virtue of the relationships he has formed with many people,” said Kinew, who is a Manitoba NDP MLA. “I think for many people who find out about their Indigenous ancestry later in life, there are a lot of questions about how do they belong. I think the way he has gone about giving back to the community, particularly in the James Bay region, taking kids to hunting camps, doing some philanthropy in some other areas and to highlight up-and-coming writers, giving them residency, they are all signs he is giving back.”
The issues of Boyden’s ancestry surfaced on Twitter Thursday evening when the @IndigenousXca account fired off a series of tweets raising questions about the author’s identity claims. The @IndigenousXca account is shared on a regular basis by Indigenous thinkers, writers, journalists, researchers and academics. Robert Jago, who is from the Nooksack Tribe in Washington State and whose family is registered with the Kwantlen First Nation in British Columbia, posted a video outlining Boyden’s various ancestry claims.
“Is Joseph Boyden actually Native, or is he playing Indian like his uncle Earl reportedly did?” tweeted Jago, whose research triggered a series of embarrassing stories about Conservatives during the last federal election. “Think of all the Native writing awards he won….Some are cash awards, for Natives only….And how many Native writers, thinkers, Residential School survivors have gone unheard because he’s colonized their public space?”
I’ve prepared a video to explore this issue some more. 30 pic.twitter.com/bMvrjTgKP8
— robert jago – indXca (@IndigenousXca) December 23, 2016
APTNNational News first contacted Boyden by cellphone on Dec. 15 to provide specifics on his ancestry, but after twice agreeing to be interviewed he refused and issued a statement that remained vague on his Indigenous roots while suggesting the evidence was of a “personal” nature.
“Over the last few decades I, along with some siblings, have explored my family’s heritage. We’ve uncovered and traced a fascinating and personal genealogy, a genealogy often whitewashed of our Indigenous ancestry due to the destructive influences of colonialism,” said Boyden, in the statement. “While the majority of my blood comes from Europe and the Celtic region, there is Nipmuc ancestry on my father’s side, and Ojibwe ancestry on my mother’s [sic].”
But it wasn’t always Nipmuc—a nation of people who once occupied Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island and who first came into contact with Europeans in the early 1600s—and Ojibway.
According some of his earliest interviews following the publishing of Three Day Road, Boyden believed his roots were Mi’kmaq and Metis.
In a 2005 interview with the New Scotsman, Boyden said his father was part Mi’kmaq.
“We never discussed it, but he was part-Mi’kmaq,” said Boyden, at the time.
That same year, in an interview with the Quill and Quire literary magazine, Boyden is described as having Mi’kmaq somewhere down his father’s lineage, along with Metis ancestry.
Three years later, in September 2008, Boyden’s ancestry is described three different ways. In The Globe and Mail that month, Boyden is described as having Mi’kmaq and Ojibway ancestry through his father and mother’s families. In the Toronto Star, Boyden is referred to as a Woodland Metis with Irish, Scottish and Ojibway ancestry. A promotional blurb announcing a Boyden appearance at the Winnipeg Writer’s Festival described the author as a Canadian with “Irish, Scottish and Metis roots.”
In 2009, during an interview with Toronto Life magazine, Boyden appears to have dropped the Mi’kmaq reference for good.
“My family is Metis. I’m a mixed blood of Irish, Scottish and Ojibwa [sic],” said Boyden, at the time.
In the same interview, Boyden suggested he’s linked to a First Nation band, but never revealed the name.
“My experience with First Nations communities across Canada is that they’ve always been extremely welcoming, especially when the band is not my own,” he said. “The Cree up in James Bay, the Ojibway in different communities than mine.”
Boyden would maintain the Ojibway-Metis claim for several years while sometimes using the broader term of Anishinabe—a grouping that includes culturally related peoples like the Ojibway, Odawa, Potawatomi, Oji-Cree, Mississaugas and Algonquin.
It wasn’t until about 2014, in an interview with Walrus magazine, that Boyden began to say his father’s ancestry included links to the Nipmuc. The next year, in an interview with CBC’s Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild, Boyden revealed he discovered Raymond Wilfred Boyden’s Nipmuc heritage by reviewing Nipmuc membership rolls.
“He (Raymond Wilfrid Boyden) had some Nipmuc blood from the 1860s, the last roll done in Massachusetts of the Nipmuc people my father’s family was on,” said Boyden.
The Massachusetts government commissioned three reports in the 1800s on Native American tribes in the state which included the names of each tribal member. The last report, by Commissioner John Milton Earle, was submitted in 1861. Earle’s report, which is available online, lists four individuals with the last name Boyden: Deborah Boyden, 50, is listed as a widow, Nathaniel A Boyden, 22, is listed as single, Charles William Boyden, 21, also listed as single, along with a Joseph W. Boyden, 16, who is listed as “boy.” All four are identified as Dartmouth Indians. The report said the Dartmouth Indians belonged to the people of the Wampanoag Tribe which today is known as the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe—The People of the Dawn. The Wampanoag are a people distinct from the Nipmuc.
The Earle report
According to Cheryll Toney Holley, a Nipmuc tradition-keeper, genealogist and historian, the Boyden last name is not a Nipmuc name, but it’s possible the “father could have inherited the blood from a female ancestor.” APTN provided Holley with several maiden names of women in the Boyden family tree from the 1800s and she said none of them seemed connected to the Nipmuc.
Holley said no Native American tribes in the state maintained membership rolls in the 1860s, but the Earle report was the last count executed by the government. She said Nipmuc members are listed under the Hassanamisco and Dudley lists in the census document.
“(The) Tribal rolls we have now did not begin until 50 or so years later,” said Holley, in an email to APTN.
APTN was provided with two separate research packages into Joseph Boyden’s family tree. APTN also tried to independently verify both research packages and asked a third-party to ensure the methodology was sound.
APTN was also shown a book available online published in 1901 about the Boyden family titled, Thomas Boyden and His Descendants. The book claims “Thomas Boyden is the ancestor of all who by birth have borne the name in America, with a few exceptions occurring during the last 50 years.”
According to the book, Thomas Boyden left Ipswich, Suffolk County, England, in April 1634, on the ship Francis and ended up in the Plymouth Colony of Massachusetts.
By working backward from the author Joseph Boyden and forward from Thomas Boyden, the root ancestor, it is difficult to determine where Boyden’s father’s side links into his claimed Indigenous heritage over roughly the last 170 years.
Joseph Boyden’s paternal great-great-great grandfather Gilmore Boyden married Anne McLean on May 22, 1844, in Ontario, according to marriage records posted on ancestry.ca. Gilmore Boyden’s son, Joseph Boyden, is listed as a 32 year-old with Scottish heritage living in Ontario in 1871, according to the Canadian census from that year.
Boyden’s claim of Ojibway ancestry through his mother, Blanche Boyden, are equally difficult to pin-point. Joseph Boyden has never provided any names of communities linked to his Ojibway roots, and, according to his mother and uncle, the author is the only one who has the evidence.
“He is the only one who obviously brought this whole situation to the forefront because of his interest in Aboriginal people in Canada, and his writings are certainly Aboriginal. He is really the one who raised this issue to begin with or indicated there was a connection,” said Richard Gossling, 82, who is Boyden’s uncle on Blanche Boyden’s side. “I am sure that Joseph has answers that we certainly don’t have because of his writings and whatever research he did.”
Joseph Boyden’s mother, Blanche Boyden, said her son has the answers.
“I don’t know much myself,” said Blanche Boyden, 86, in a telephone interview with APTN. “We didn’t keep many records in those days…. Joseph proved it and he got the papers and everything so there is no question about it.”
Blanche Boyden said the “key” was her grandmother, Blanche McInnes, who her son discovered to be Indigenous.
“Soon as I gave him the name McInnis, he had no problem with it,” she said.
According to birth records posted on ancestry.ca, Blanche McInnes was born on Nov. 10, 1889, to Hector McInnes and Kate Ellis. Hector McInnes is listed as a “fisherman” and Kate Ellis as a “fisherman’s wife.” Both are identified as living Meaford, Ont., which sits along Nottawasaga Bay.
Hector McInnis and Kate Ellis were married on Jan. 25, 1889, in Centreville, Ont. Hector’s parents were John and Sarah McInnis, according to the marriage record. Hector McInnis’ religion is listed as Baptist. Kate Ellis’ parents are listed as George and Margaret Ellis and her religion is listed as “Disciple.” According to ancestry.ca, the 1881 Canadian census lists Hector McInnis’ ancestry as Scottish and Irish. The document posted next to this information is difficult to read. APTN could find no information on Kate Ellis’ ancestry.
Blanche McInnis died on May 24, 1919, after giving birth to her second child. She was 28, according to a death record posted on ancestry.ca. She was married to Robert West Drysdale, who appears to have no immediate Indigenous ancestry in his family tree. Robert West Drysdale and Blanche McInnis had a daughter named Helen Elizabeth Drysdale, who Blanche Boyden said was her mother. Blanche Boyden said her father was Guy Gossling. Gossling’s first wife, Ella May Drysdale, was Robert West Drysdale’s sister, according to records on ancestry.ca.
APTN also contacted Boyden’s sister, Mary Boyden, who works as the Aboriginal liaison for mining firm Goldcorp and is part of the Eight Fire Solutions consulting firm, but she refused to provide comment and sent a terse email suggesting a story into her family’s background would “descend into a progression of lateral violence and gossip.”
In his statement to APTN, Joseph Boyden said part of what he knows about his ancestry was also transmitted through the family’s oral history.
“My family and I are keepers of a number of oral histories passed down to us from previous generations that speak both to our European and to our Indigenous roots,” said Boyden, in the statement. “I, along with other siblings, have also participated in many ceremonies performed by traditional elders and healers across the country. My family is Mukwa Dodem, Bear Clan. I myself have been given two traditional names in ceremony, one of them by my beloved elder and teacher Basil Johnston, a man who taught me much of my own history, and pride for and love of who I am.”
Two days after sending his initial statement, Boyden contacted APTN and provided a second statement without Basil Johnston’s name “in order to follow proper protocol.” Boyden has mentioned the renowned Anishinabe author, linguist and teacher from Wasauksing First Nation in the past.
Johnston died on Sept. 8, 2015.
Johnston’s family sent APTN a statement saying Boyden did spend “private” time with Johnston four months before his death.
“Our father admired Joseph Boyden as a writer and as an individual. Our father also encouraged those who were Indigenous to be proud Anishinabe and to be proud of their culture [sic],” said the family’s statement. “Basil Johnston’s family does not have any information about Mr. Boyden’s Indigenous heritage to comment further.”
Diabo said Boyden should be transparent about his heritage.
“If it’s a tenuous connection going back many year he should state that. He is being considered an Aboriginal writer and being asked questions about contemporary Indigenous issues and he is commenting on them in the media as an Indigenous individual,” said Diabo. “If his connection is tenuous, going back many generations, he should say it, he should say how far back. Anyone in that position should do that, because you can’t cash in on being Aboriginal and not show what your real connection is. There has been too much of that happening.”
Kinew said blood isn’t the only path to becoming part of an Indigenous nation.
“Going back to traditional times, Indigenous membership in Indigenous nations has always been a multifaceted thing that can include blood, but also adoption. It can include being brought into the community in ceremonial ways,” said Kinew. “On the one hand you want to have a way to ensure authenticity. On the other hand, if we have a culture police, identity police, we risk losing many people who should be part of our community and do so in a way that isn’t consistent with Indigenous tradition.”
Boyden has requested APTN organize a sharing circle with its Elder-in-Residence to create a “safe and sacred environment” for the author to answer questions about his heritage.
APTN responded by again inviting Boyden to participate in an interview. The author declined the opportunity.
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 inhas 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, including 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 one 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 be 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 “my 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.
Daniel Heath Justice: As I’m already well on record for my strong belief that Joseph Boyden gets way too much air time already and that he sucks the oxygen out of the Can Lit atmosphere, thus leaving precious little for other (and, to my mind, far better) Indigenous writers who deserve to be heard, I’m not going to spend a lot of time or energy on the latest controversy, other than to note a few key points that are getting lost in the discussion.
First, we have to pay attention to his decidedly minimal role in bringing attention to Indigenous literature as an impressive, innovative, and provocative body of work that’s been in development for at least three centuries in English, longer in Indigenous mother tongues. He is not the alpha and omega of Indigenous literature. He clearly knows little of the field, its critical debates, its analytical contours, its history and heritage; the main people he praises are the big names or the dudes who already get a huge amount of attention–you almost never see or hear him talk about lesser-known writers, emerging voices, literary histories, or Indigenous publishers, and when he does mention them its almost always in vague and tokenistic ways. As far as I can tell, he’s not an advocate for Indigenous writers, for the field, or for a broad community of Indigenous artists, except for himself and a small group of already well-known personalities whose name recognition, not coincidentally, also serves to show that he’s one of the in-crowd. I have yet to hear about him passing up an opportunity to speak at a high-profile event or sit on a high-profile board or committee, even when there are others who would be far more appropriate. He’s the great reconciler, the “Shining Bridge” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, John Ralston Saul’s dream made manifest…or not. Either way, he seems to exist in a representational vacuum, in part of his own making but largely created by a Canadian literary and media establishment that can only handle one Indigenous personality at a time, and almost always a straight, photogenic dudebro who tells the stories Canada wants to hear about itself.
Second, although admittedly an impressive stylist, Boyden’s beguiling style fetishizes violence and replicates savagist stereotypes. While his attraction to violent themes isn’t in and of itself a major issue, especially given how warfare is an important issue throughout the corpus of Indigenous literature, his relentless fascination with brutalized Indigenous bodies is very troubling, especially when you notice how consistent it is throughout his work. For all his stated commitments to the respectful representation of Indigenous peoples, his actual work is more committed to reinscribing violence on abjected Indigenous being. This doesn’t seem incidental or accidental.
Third, it’s vital to note some of the very troubling ways that Boyden has (or has not) dealt with open questions as well as critique, especially by Indigenous women about how he takes up space on issues about murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, not to mention how he handled/ignored critiques by women of UBCAccountable letter and its continuing aftermath with MRA trolls. And yes, how cagey he is about where he comes from and who his relatives are. Given my own position being raised outside of community and culture, I’m always quite hesitant to weigh in on other peoples’ identities, but some of his evasions are so troubling that they strain even my deep commitments to inclusivity. This really hit home for me when Terri Monture, Warren Cariou, and I were on a panel with him at Six Nations in 2014 to discuss *The Orenda* and its reception (an event that was fortunately recorded). I’ve since reviewed the video, and the slipperiness and evasions on display are incredibly disturbing, from a refusal to actually address questions about the writer’s responsibility to communities to what seems to be a blatant misrepresentation of Wendat continuity in the Georgian Bay region to mispronouncing the name of his supposed mentor, Basil Johnston, and a weirdly disrespectful discussion of his supposed traditional name, etc. A troubling and, in many ways, distasteful performance.
Fourth, *everyone* has complicated family trees–that’s the reality of being human, and for many if not most Indigenous peoples it’s especially an issue after five hundred plus years of settler-colonial occupation and active assaults on families, genealogies, etc. The issue isn’t about whether or not people have complicated histories but how (and whether) we acknowledge, honour, or contend with them, and how we also address issues of privilege, representation, self-presentation, and responsibility. No one should be shamed or dismissed for coming to a genuine heritage later in life, but neither should that engagement of identity come without accompanying and legitimate responsibilities to communities–of which there are many kinds, from land-based sovereign nations to pan-Indigenous urban groups and even trans-hemispheric collectives, to arts and cultural revitalization groups to small, unrecognized but deeply rooted families, etc. But each of these contexts exists in relation to real people, real relations, real histories, real experiences, real obligations.
For all my objection to Boyden’s work and self-representation, I do have a measure of sympathy for him, as I don’t think he’s an awful human being but is, rather, deeply invested in a story that clearly can’t keep up with his ever-expanding ambitions. It is less his identity than his behaviour that is the issue, and this is certainly not beyond critique, especially when he so actively evades reasonable and, thus far, quite generous questions from people he claims to represent. Given the deep violence of the colonial state against Indigenous being at every level, to ask about these things isn’t to engage in a witch hunt or ethnic policing, but simply to ask, “To whom do you belong?” or, more importantly, “To whom are you accountable?” These aren’t oppressive questions, and there are many defensible and even laudable answers. But if the only answer we get is, “Only to myself,” then that’s an issue deserving of scrutiny and concern. And the fact that he either can’t or won’t actually address the substantive issues is, I think, symptomatic of what’s wrong with this situation all the way through.
One question from a dear friend increasingly encapsulates this issue for me. In reflecting on Boyden’s statement to the APTN reporter wherein he insisted he was “Mukwa Dodem” but then declined to name his family connections due to these being a private matter, she asked something to the effect of “How can he know his clan but not know his community?”
Post-script: There are some pretty gutting commentaries coming out now on social media from adoptees and others who are trying to reconnect to their communities and relations and who feel that the critique of Boyden is creating a poisonous atmosphere for their own struggle. It’s perhaps understandable, but this is also why we have to be clear about what we’re discussing and remain empathetic on all levels, to see the human costs of all these issues–and not only the reputational cost for Boyden, though not ignoring him, either. It’s not only about him, but about the kinds of conversations we have about Indigeneity, belonging, and kinship, and how those help or hinder Indigenous peoples’ political resurgence and capacity to live in strong, healthy, self-determining ways in our own lands and waters (when possible) and according to our own ways and priorities. I’ve worked with many students who have come to embrace their Indigenous heritage and relations later in life, as well as those who had this knowledge and these connections from infancy; I’ve worked with a number of adoptees who’ve struggled to understand themselves and their place in their families, communities, cultures, and the larger world, including some who were never able to find out to whom they belonged or even what their nation was. And I have family members who can’t be enrolled–including half-siblings–and relatives who’ve been doing this work of reconnection for far longer than I have and to whom I still look for guidance. Not everyone has the benefit of a clear and transparent history and genealogy–there’s often a lot of work and struggle to find out what these connections are and what they mean. Identity is only one part of the discussion around Boyden right now, and to me the above matters are in many ways at least as significant, if not more so given how eclipsed they are by the discussion of heritage. In the end, how do we balance empathy with accountability, and grapple in ethical, empathetic, and honest ways with the imbalances of history, privilege, and power?)