Controversy over Canadian author Joseph Boyden’s Indigenous roots isn’t about blood
With debate growing ever fierce over the Indigenous ancestry of Canadian literary star Joseph Boyden, Indigenous academics and authors say anyone who thinks the matter can be solved with a DNA test is grossly misinformed.
Boyden, one of Canada’s bestselling authors, is now accused of ‘playing Indian’ to sell books and win awards, following a detailed investigation by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network into his vague familial claims.
“Do any Indigenous care if he gets a DNA test? Not really,” Métis writer Aaron Paquette said in response to some suggestions cropping up on social media and from non-Indigenous columnists. “If you shake the family tree of most Canadians who have been here for a few generations, an old Indian is going to fall out.”
“It isn’t about blood,” Paquette noted. “It is about community. It is about who claims you.”
Boyden’s celebrated works, such as his Giller prize-winning Through Black Spruce and The Orenda, are told from the perspectives of Indigenous characters and he has won awards and honours meant for Indigenous authors. For years, he has delivered paid speeches on Indigenous issues and filled seats reserved for native voices.
Now he is being asked to prove he has more than a tenuous claim to his celebrated Indigenous identity after the APTN investigation found no evidence to support his varying and broad claims, which over the years have included Mi’kmaq, Métis, Nipmuc, and Ojibway ancestry.
The report, written by reporter Jorge Barrera and published on Dec. 23, documents how Boyden’s description of himself has changed at different stages in his career, while withholding the precise community where his family has roots.
Boyden told APTN he and some of his sibling’s had investigated their genealogy and discovered it had been whitewashed to conceal small amounts of Ojibway ancestry on his mother’s side and Nipmuc on his father’s. His mother and uncle both told APTN he is the only one to possess evidence proving an Indigenous connection to their family.
My response to APTN. pic.twitter.com/zAzH9duTYy
— Joseph Boyden (@josephboyden) December 24, 2016
“I’m from a mixed blood background of mostly Celtic heritage, but also Nipmuc roots from Dartmouth, Massachusetts on my father’s side and Ojibwe roots from Nottawasaga Bay traced to the 1800s on my mother’s side,” Boyden wrote on social media after the APTN story was published.
He said he had caused confusion by using the casual meaning of Métis to describe his mixed blood heritage, and not its official meaning of a descendant of French settlers and Indigenous women of the Red River Colony. He suggested reporters who’d written he was Mi’kmaq had misheard the similar sounding Nipmuc, which he apparently never bothered to correct the half dozen times it appeared in print.
Boyden did not respond to a request for comment from VICE News.
Since the APTN article was published, a blogger dug up a quote Boyden gave to a New Orleans newspaper calling his explanation into question: “[I’m] Mi’kmaq on my father’s side,” Boyden was quoted in the 2005 interview with The Times-Picayune. “They’re an east coast tribe in Canada.” The Nipmuc Nation is from parts of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, while the Mi’kmaq are from Canada’s east coast.
Boyden said his deceased uncle Earl Boyden knew of his Indigenous roots, despite having denied any Indigenous blood in a 1956 Macleans magazine article profiling his invention of a character named ‘Injun Joe’ which he performed to sell Indian-themed knickknacks to gullible white tourists in Algonquin Park.
Muskrat Magazine editor Rebeka Tabobondung wrote on Facebook after the story broke that she had once asked Boyden what his home nation was and was surprised when he answered with her own, the Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound, Ont. “I later asked a respected community genealogist what his connection was and she said she didn’t know,” Tabobondung wrote. “I’ve since heard him claim ancestry from many other nations.”
Kim TallBear is a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Studies at the University of Alberta who has studied the role DNA testing has played in ideas of race. “Boyden’s understanding [of Indigenous identity] looks like a very white settler understanding, which is really telling,” TallBear told VICE News. Indigenous people are more concerned with what connections you have to existing communities and families than what percentage native blood you have, she said. “It is not about some long ago ancestor that you might or might not be able to name or prove.”
Playing Indian is colonialism, structural racism that appropriates & controls identity (like bones, land, DNA). Indigenous folks say “Stop!”
— Kim TallBear (@KimTallBear) December 29, 2016
The day before APTN published its story, the Twitter account @IndigenousXca—shared by Indigenous activists, writers, journalists and academics—began posting a series of pointed tweets asking if Boyden was really native or just following in the footsteps of his uncle’s ‘Injun Joe’ pantomime. The account had been handed over for the week to Robert Jago, an Indigenous activist in Vancouver whose research in the last federal election embarrassed a half dozen Conservative candidates.
“There are other people out there doing the same thing [as Boyden], some of them prominent,” Jago told VICE News in an email. “People don’t talk about them that much, because who are they hurting? With Boyden, he’s recently begun exercising a lot of poor judgement in how he behaves towards Indigenous people, and he’s been taking a lot of liberties in how he speaks for us.”
Jago said Boyden had insinuated himself into national conversations over residential schools, reconciliation, and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement as a voice representing Aboriginal people. “The list is long, but these things have made a lot of people say ‘enough is enough,’” he said.
An ancestral connection to Indigenous people doesn’t give Boyden permission to speak on their behalf, Jago said: “If you’re a member of a community, you’re a member of the polity and can represent it. If you’re a member of the race alone, with no ties to a community, then you’ve got an interesting conversation topic at parties—but that’s where the representation needs to stop.”
According to a Métis and Anishinaabe writer, who spoke to VICE News on condition their name not be published for fear of reprisals from the author’s friends in Canada’s publishing community, the whispers about Boyden’s ancestry grew louder after he wrote an open letter challenging the University of British Columbia’s firing of professor Steven Galloway, whose students accused him of sexual assault and harassment. “We’ve been having the conversations around Boyden’s identity and actions since he was first published, but that was an important tipping point,” they said.
“Joseph Boyden is indeed an Indigenous person, with a better claim than most.”
Award-winning Cree novelist Frank Busch, whose novel Grey Eyes featured a dedication written by Boyden, agrees the author’s defence of Galloway made him a target. “People have chosen to misinterpret and twist his words for their own agenda,” Busch said. “Joseph Boyden is indeed an Indigenous person, with a better claim than most, and has done more for Indigenous people, including myself, than all of his naysayers combined.”
Busch cited Boyden’s political and social advocacy, crediting the famous author for defending Indigenous rights during the Harper era and bringing national attention to the story of Chaney Wenjack, a young boy who died after running away from a residential school in the 1960s, in his collaboration with Gord Downie.
“I meet many people who don’t know what community they are from,” Busch said, pointing out many Indigenous people have been displaced from their lands by residential schools, forced adoption, and other government interventions. “It is not uncommon for people to say they don’t know where they are from, but know in their hearts that they belong.”
Métis author Aaron Paquette isn’t convinced. “What really put the nail in the coffin for me was Boyden’s own response,” Paquette said. “The appeal to authority, this appeal to emotion, all of these things on a very basic question: Who are you from? Who are your people? Who claims you?”
Relationships, community, responsibility
Where are you from? Who are your people?
If you can’t answer those, just be honest about it
— Aaron Paquette (@aaronpaquette) December 28, 2016
Paquette said Indigenous people ask each other those questions all the time, as frequently and casually as a handshake. So alarm bells went off for him, he said, when Boyden reacted with insult to what should have been straightforward questions.
“If he doesn’t have a legitimate claim to the position he is in, how much has he taken from those who do?” Paquette asked. “In an age of reconciliation and Joseph Boyden being one of the faces of reconciliation … I mean, what are we reconciling? It’s the idea of taking away from Indigenous people, right? Of occupying a space, a culture for your own benefit. And that is what we are seeing repeated.”
Paquette said some Indigenous people feel betrayed and angry, but most feel sorrow and compassion for the famous author. “If Joseph Boyden today stood up and said, you know what, this is where I went wrong. I am sorry. This is where I want to go right if you’ll have me. What do you think would happen? He would be welcomed with open arms. Because of what Indigenous people have been through in Canada, there’s obviously lots of room for forgiveness, for redemption.”
Cover: Photo by Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail