In at least two previous posts, I have promoted work by Joseph Boyden. But, Boyden has claimed to be Indigenous based on doubtful and conflicting information. The most recent of my posts that highlighted his work were written after the controversy about Boyden’s heritage had come to light, but I was under the impression that there were still questions and possibly legitimate explanations (for example, it can be hard to track heritage when it may include people who were considered inconsequential or, worse, a thing to be hidden).
Though, in retrospect, I clearly should have waiting to see where things headed before promoting his work.
I am no longer comfortable with the idea of reading his books, particularly given that I had intended to read them to broaden my understanding of Indigenous life. I want real experiences, not ones imagined out of distant and dubious connections (it is, as a friend suggested on Twitter, cultural appropriation – he used a marginalized community to look cool). There are plenty of excellent Indigenous writers that we can read instead.
Despite his literary accolades, I encourage you to respect Indigenous Canadians by by reading works by Indigenous Canadians who are, in fact, Indigenous Canadians. And, yes, I am aware that some of the Indigenous community still supports him, but plenty are hurt, upset, and angry about this – my goal is to be more respectful of the community, not contribute to their frustrations.
I am also aware that non-Indigenous people are perfectly capable of writing about Indigenous people in a respectful way. Secret Path, for example, was created by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire. But, for this project, Downie never once claimed to be anything other then a guy who wants to help promote reconciliation (and, proceeds from the sale of Secret Path will go to The Gord Downie Secret Path Fund for Truth and Reconciliation via The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation).
Had Boyden been honest about his heritage from the start (before he started writing Indigenous stories), I wouldn’t have an issue reading his books. I might question if he really knows and understands Indigenous life, but I would still be fairly comfortable reading his books. But, he lied and he hurt a lot of people in the process.
On my Indigenous reading list right now:
- The Break by Katherena Vermette (in progress)
- Birdie by Tracey Lindberg
- Fifth World Drum by Anna Marie Sewell (poetry)
Edit (Jan 15, 2017):
After publishing this, I found an interesting article on the National Post that provided some useful information and made some good points.
First, with regards to being able to make a claim to be an indigenous person, David Newhouse, chairman of indigenous studies at Trent University, says there are four official ways:
The first is on the basis of indigenous ancestry, which requires evidence of genealogy either in documentary form, written form or oral form.
The second is membership to an indigenous community, which requires evidence of community acceptance or that one meets the criteria for a particular community membership.
The third is by claiming to be a member of an aboriginal nation, either a First Nation or a Metis Nation, which have rules regarding membership.
The last way is by meeting the state rules for being an indigenous person: either being entitled to be registered under the Indian Act or meeting the Supreme Court of Canada definition of Metis that is set out in the Daniels legal case.
Later in the article, it’s noted that Newhouse “… hopes Boyden will continue to write while exploring his heritage, but also create a forum for other indigenous authors like Wab Kinew.” In other words, reconcile by helping to share the indigenous voices and support platforms for other writers, particularly those who are indigenous.
Adam Gaudry, assistant professor in the faculty of native studies and department of political science at the University of Alberta, states:
If that’s what comes out of this, is a recognition that other indigenous writers should be at the front and that people should read a diversity of indigenous voices, I think that’s a very good thing
I hope that Boyden does this, if only because it seems a shame to loose the stories he’s created. But, as said above, I’m still choosing to not read his works as his heritage is still in question and still causing frustration and anger in the indigenous community.