Views / Opinion

Joseph Boyden's indigenous heritage controversy part of 'broader structural problem'

In the current controversy there’s tension between how mainstream Canada defines indigenous and how the First Nations, Inuit and Métis do.

Governor General David Johnston invests Joseph Boyden as a Member of the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Nov. 17, 2016.

the canadian press

Governor General David Johnston invests Joseph Boyden as a Member of the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Nov. 17, 2016.

“Where are you from?”

It’s one of the first questions asked by indigenous people when they meet. It’s asked because kinship is defined by where people come from, and who their folks are.

Last week the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s Jorge Barrera released an investigation questioning Joseph Boyden’s indigenous heritage. Boyden is one of Canada’s most prominent writers on indigenous culture.

Much of the confusion surrounding Boyden’s heritage is the result of his own shifting story. Boyden has represented himself, variously, as Métis, Ojibwe, Anishinaabe and Nipmuc. He has also identified himself as Mi’kmaq in published quotes that he claims were the results of misunderstandings.

In the conversations around Boyden there’s tension between how mainstream Canada defines indigenous and how First Nations, Inuit, and Métis cultures do. Identity in these communities is complicated; kinship is viewed differently by different groups.

The controversy also brings to the surface deep issues of colonialism in Canada. Since the late 1880s the Canadian government has operated under a paternalistic statutory regime that, in seeking to categorize people as “Indians” for the purpose of control, imposes on indigenous people a Eurocentric notion of the nuclear family. Such top-down categorization inevitably leads to confusion over who’s in and who’s out.

And for an indigenous person raised or living in an urban environment, it can be a challenge to claim identity. One needs to decolonize one’s own story in a diaspora. By way of example, I’m Métis, and my family comes from Red River. Far from clinging to indigenous identity, my family has walked through the world with the privilege afforded to those who could “pass” as white. At the same time my grandmother passed on the tradition of jigging to my sister. My grandmother grew up around Métis culture in a way that her children and grandchildren have not.

Kim Tallbear is an associate professor of native studies at the University of Alberta. I asked her about indigenous heritage and the recent allegations against Boyden. “I’m not looking to call Boyden out and I don’t want to paint him as a bad guy,” she said. “I view him as a part of a broader structural problem.”

Tallbear, who doesn’t know Boyden personally, said that his shifting stories about indigenous identity are familiar. “It sounds similar to examples of ‘playing Indian’ that tracks pretty closely with stories from the U.S.,” she said.

Indeed, claiming indigenous heritage based on some long-ago, often unnamed relative has practically become a trope in mainstream culture. Actor Johnny Depp has done it, as has, more recently, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

In part, our current identity politics, which lends a certain moral gravitas to minorities, is responsible for this desire to pretend. And in Canada, which is finally approaching a desire for reconciliation, there are awards, scholarships and grants — real money — for peoples whose history has been marginalized by colonialism.

There’s a whiff of white supremacy to the idea that someone would appropriate indigenous identity as a shortcut to any kind of advantage. As if concessions to indigenous peoples were given freely. As if indigenous peoples haven’t had to fight at every turn to gain and protect what rights they have. As if racism against indigenous people were not a widespread, and increasingly acknowledged, reality.

After Maclean’s magazine labelled Winnipeg Canada’s most racist city in 2015, Mayor Brian Bowman took the opportunity to address the reality of that statement and announce a host of new initiatives aimed at providing training on the impact of residential schools and combatting racism.

The obvious question — how can racism and the desire for indigenous identity co-exist? — has a not-so-obvious answer. As mainstream settler society becomes more aware of the horrors indigenous people have faced — residential schools and forced removal from their homes, for starters — members of that society will go to greater lengths to avoid feeling implicated in such a history.

Tallbear said that indigenous communities talk about kinship in ways that defy mainstream assumptions. Tallbear, who literally wrote the book on native American DNA (it’s called “Native American DNA”), explained that the handful of genetic markers that confirm genetic ancestry of indigenous people harken back to ancient founders. So having indigenous DNA proves ancestry but not necessarily kinship in a community, just as a person may have German ancestry without any cultural ties to Germany. Boyden’s DNA markers are therefore irrelevant to the conversation.

All of this helps explain why it’s difficult for non-indigenous people to understand why Boyden’s indigenous ancestry is both fundamentally elusive and fundamentally important.

“I don’t feel like most people who play Indian are being deliberately disingenuous,” Tallbear said. She explained that many families claim a First Nations ancestor, and that in the U.S. it was very common for people to come up to her to tell her about  blood to indigenous people.

Conversations around indigenity aren’t about holding up ideas of racial purity; they’re about letting communities define themselves.