At the crux of the controversy unleashed by allegations that Canadian author Joseph Boyden’s heritage isn’t as Indigenous as he claims is a question readers have to ask themselves as we consider his work: who has the right to tell Indigenous stories.
Recent allegations by the Aboriginal People Television Network (APTN) against Boyden claim that he has misrepresented himself as Indigenous. An author whose books on Indigenous peoples and history have garnered numerous prestigious awards, some of which are exclusive to Indigenous authors, Boyden has since denied the truthfulness of these claims. However, the allegations have raised controversy, mostly due to how much of Boyden’s career is based on his identity.
Over the course of his career, Boyden has been the recipient of grants and awards meant for Indigenous peoples. For example, he recently received $75,000 from the inaugural (Re)conciliation initiative for a film he’s making in collaboration with Métis filmmaker Terril Calder. He has benefited financially, personally and professionally — his place as a prominent author in the Canadian literary world is informed by his self-identification as an Indigenous person.
Boyden has also been a huge voice for Indigenous rights, speaking on issues like reconciliation, missing and murdered Indigenous women and the Dakota Access Pipeline. He has used his platform as a famous Indigenous author to be vocal on behalf of those who aren’t as privileged.
While Boyden’s identity has been scrutinized by members of the media, the heart of this controversy for me as a reader isn’t only whether he’s fraudulent, but more importantly, whether he has the right to tell Indigenous stories if his claims to Indigenous heritage are false.
Indigeneity and status are incredibly complicated issues that go beyond genetics and blood percentages. To simplify it down to those characteristics is to ignore the history of Indigenous identities being persecuted and policed by the state. So, to me — a non-Indigenous avid reader of Canadian literature — the only person who can confirm to the public if he is Indigenous or not is Boyden himself. His identity isn’t up to me, especially as a non-Indigenous settler.
But in conversations about Indigenous literature, it’s frustrating to think that the loudest voice belongs to someone who may not be Indigenous themselves. Settlers — meaning non-Indigenous people living on Indigenous land — can and should have a place in conversations about reconciliation and the role Indigenous literature plays in that, but their priority should be to listen, not to dominate and steer the conversation.
As a reader, it’s valid to feel conflicted about Boyden allegedly lying about his identity, because if it’s true, it sounds like he co-opted a history of violence and genocide for his own personal gain. However, readers of his work should know that he’s also been supported by several Indigenous communities who say that regardless of his Indigeneity, his work is important in the conversation about reconciliation.
Wab Kinew, an Anishinaabe author and politician, recently wrote an op-ed for The Globe and Mail saying that there’s room in Indigenous communities for Boyden. While Kinew isn’t excusing Boyden, he says that making “room in the circle” for others ultimately makes a community stronger.
At the end of the day, the only people who have the right to decide who gets to tell Indigenous stories are Indigenous peoples themselves and the only people who get to decide what it means to be Indigenous is, again, these communities. For readers outside of this community like me, the best that can be done is ask ourselves critically if and how Boyden’s Indigeneity matters to us when we’re reading his work.
And if it does, as settlers, the best way we can engage with Indigenous literature is to listen; listen carefully to the stories told by those who can and do offer them.
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