Joseph Boyden is a prominent and popular Canadian author, having written many books and won numerous awards. His second novel, Through Black Spruce, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2008. He is also indigenous — or at least was believed to be until recently.
In an investigation spearheaded by Jorge Barrera of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), Boyden’s “shape-shifting Indigenous identity” was exposed. Boyden has claimed to have roots to various aboriginal peoples over the years including the Ojibway, Metis, Mi’kmaq and Nipmuc peoples. Boyden admitted to making mistakes in a recent interview for The Globe and Mail but the controversy continues.
Adam Gaudry is Métis and an assistant professor in the Faculty of Native Studies and Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. He has been quite vocal about the Boyden controversy, especially on Twitter. We spoke with him about Boyden, why the controversy is important, and what happens next.
The Gateway: So why is this issue such a big deal?
Adam Gaudry: There’s this phrase we use when we talk about indigenous identity and the expression is, “It’s not what you claim but who claims you.” And the “who claims you” part of that statement has been unclear for sometime. Behind the scenes, indigenous people have been having this conversation for years. Like, “Is Joseph Boyden really indigenous? What is his community?” This is something a lot of indigenous people feel quite strongly about. There’s kind of a long history of what U.S. scholars call “playing Indian,” which is where non-indigenous people assume a certain identity of indigenous people as a claim to indigenous land and cultures.
If Boyden never was aboriginal, should he have never been writing about aboriginal topics and cultures in the first place? Or is that open for anyone to write about?
This is a much-debated thing. One of the points that Robert Jago brought up on Twitter is that a lot of people in his community have trusted certain outsiders who have put in the time with the community. A lot of the time these are non-fiction writers, historians or academics. If you want to tell indigenous stories and you’re not from that community, you need the blessings of that community. You need to work with that community to ensure what you’re saying is accurate and reflective of their interests. Misrepresentation of indigenous people, even if unintentional, can have massive detrimental impacts.
We talked a little bit about it but why do you think people “play Indian?” Why is it beneficial for Boyden to claim he’s aboriginal?
I think there’s some people who do it for financial gain, to access university scholarships and such. I think the primary motivation though is people struggling with something that pretty much every one in the modern world is dealing with: “anomie,” or a normalization of normlessness. This loss of meaning. Cultures use to have much deeper meaning in the pre-modern context and we’ve been struggling in the West with an assault on meaning. We’re replacing deeper cultural meanings with material consumption. I think a lot of white people see indigenous cultures as holding much more meaning than their own. In their quest for meaning, they adopt indigenous personas because they see it as meaningful. It’s just a way for them to create that meaning for themselves.
If you were Boyden, what would you do next?
I think he needs to address the original Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) investigation. He keeps mentioning blood quantum which is weird because nobody who is criticizing him is talking about that. The issue that APTN raises is not that he has limited indigenous ancestry but that he doesn’t have any. According to that investigation, there’s no evidence that he has an indigenous ancestor. It’s not a “shades of grey” kind of thing but more like a “black and white” distinction. Plus, ancestry alone does not necessarily make one indigenous. What Joseph Boyden needs to do is either come clean and admit that he’s mislead people or address the substance of the APTN investigation and show how they’re wrong.