Who gets to speak on behalf of the Indigenous community?
The white mainstream media 'want their palatable Indians, rather than real ones'
As an Indigenous writer who spends a fair amount of time on social media, it was hard not to notice the conversation regarding author Joseph Boyden's Indigenous identity — or lack thereof.
The conversation hasn't faded — it's ramped up. And now it has turned. What began as a questioning of Boyden's identity (he claims Nipmuc lineage on his father's side and Ojibway on his mother's) by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network has morphed into a measuring of white mainstream's reaction to it. But the root issue remains: who gets to speak on behalf of the Indigenous community?
Boyden is the award-winning author of Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce and The Orenda — books that focus on Indigenous milieus and characters. In 2005, he won an award at the Anskohk Aboriginal Literary Festival, which was created to showcase the diversity of writing by Aboriginal authors. I was there with my sister to accept a posthumous lifetime achievement award for our mother, Bernelda Wheeler.
The room was full of Indigenous writers I knew, and one who I didn't. That's when I first met Joseph Boyden. He said he was Métis (he has since said he was incorrect). I took him at his word. Who was I to question it?
Boyden went on to write subsequent books, won a multitude of mainstream awards and became a media darling. If Maclean's or the Huffington Post wanted an Indigenous voice on matters such as the Kelowna Accord, Truth and Reconciliation Commission or missing and murdered Indigenous women, Boyden was their guy.
The problem, as it turns out, is that he isn't that Indigenous: a detail that was long suspected in the Indigenous media arts community. A standard question upon meeting a person in our culture is, "Where you from?" Boyden's answers have always been nebulous and to date, no specific Indigenous community has claimed him. By his own admission, he's mostly Celtic and is oft quoted as saying, "A small part of me is Indigenous, but it is a huge part of who I am."
This begs the question: how small a part? Now, I don't want to participate in a witch hunt or, as one Globe and Mail scribe inappropriately referred to it — a lynching — but I would like to know.
My response to APTN. <a href="https://t.co/zAzH9duTYy">pic.twitter.com/zAzH9duTYy</a>—@josephboyden
My mom was Cree and Ojibway with a smidgen of Assiniboine, Scottish and French, my dad was Irish and English. I would never do an interview about the Irish Republican Army because I'm one-quarter Irish.
Do I think Boyden should stop writing Indigenous stories? No. That ship sailed in 1989, when many of us Indigenous writers gathered to discuss appropriation, specifically in response to W.P. Kinsella's work and attitude towards Indigenous issues. In the end, we decided we couldn't stop anyone from writing what they wanted and our best strategy would be to write our butts off to get authentic Indigenous voices out there as a counterpoint.
Let Boyden write about Indigenous stuff and all the power to him. But he shouldn't be winning awards or seeking grants earmarked for Indigenous writers. And he shouldn't be presented as an authority on Indigenous issues.
Boyden should also probably recuse himself whenever mainstream media tries to put him there, especially in light of his open letter to UBC in defense of former professor Steven Galloway. On the one hand, Boyden supports a professor fired for alleged sexual misconduct, and on the other, he waxes on about the need for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. That incongruity, and tensions associated therein, likely accelerated this debate.
I can understand the allure of Boyden in the mainstream media. He's a nice guy, he's articulate and yes, as the Globe and Mail put it, he's a kind face. One that the mainstream finds palatable.
It will be interesting to see how Boyden's standing in the Indigenous community plays out, and whether the mainstream media continues to go to him as a voice of our community.
In truth, I feel bad for him. If Kinsella were alive and as defiant as he was in this day of social media, he'd be vilified.
But as I sit back and watch the white mainstream media cling to their friendly face with condescending statements in his defence, I can't help think that the irony is too bald for them to see. They want their palatable Indians, rather than real ones.