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The Identity Crisis

Boyden's given new meaning to the age-old question "who am I?", and for Indigenous people the answer has more impact than ever.

After ringing in the New Year with more Boyden articles than fireworks, I think we’re at a place where we, as Indigenous people, can finally call it: he’s not Indigenous. I know some of you really like his books, but that’s not the end of the conversation we should be having.

What does it mean to be Indigenous and carry that identity? I have First Nations blood on both sides. My mom’s Mi’kmaq from Listuguj and my dad’s Mohawk from Akwesasne. In the eyes of the Canadian government I am a status card caring Indian. And yet I haven’t lived what could be labeled the 'modern Indigenous experience', if there even is such a thing.

To complicate matters, my dad’s side of the family can trace their name back 300 years to three settlers, all boys, who were taken from Massachusetts by the Mohawks of Kahnawake. They were raised in the community until adulthood and then asked to leave. My dad likes to joke that we were the first exiles of Kahnawake.

One of the three boys rejoined settler culture, but two of them couldn’t. By this time they were Mohawk. Settler lifestyle no longer resonated with them so they packed a caravan and headed west to Akwesasne. It’s there they were accepted and legitimized by the community.

AGA
At the AGA AFN last summer with Richard Powless

Although the Mi’kmaq side is less complicated, my grandfather, whom I’m told had a Swedish father, didn’t look “Native.” He always described himself as “a Mi’kmaq man” but didn’t have to. And in the era of the pass system, not looking Indigenous had its advantages. He was the guy everyone asked to buy booze because it was illegal for an Indian to purchase alcohol at the time.

You couldn’t tell I’m Indigenous by looking at me: I’m just kind of nebulously ethnic looking. Add that to the fact that the Mohawks and Mi’kmaqs are mortal enemies and that I was never raised on reserve and you get this convoluted identity that’s summed up pretty well by my Mohawk name, Kanatakeron: “between two towns.” Growing up in cities had its advantages, but I missed out on some things. I never learned either of my Indigenous languages, I didn’t participate enough in ceremony, and I had mostly non-Indigenous friends until my twenties.

Now, I don’t take issue with the content Boyden’s chosen to focus on. Boyden’s a good writer, and there are plenty of other non-Indigenous authors who put us at the center of their narratives and do a worse job. That being said, now that his identity’s been called into question, his novels do appear more tokenizing. So I think we can safely say he did benefit professionally and financially by “playing Indian.”

What I definitely take issue with is the fact that he’s given so little back to the communities he’s created his career around. His book tours don’t stop in the communities he writes about. His relationship with the people of these communities seems non-existent.

In fact, Boyden’s taken from Indigenous people in the form of commissions and the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award. And I would suggest, if he does intend on “joining our circle,” he should return the money and award it to people who legitimately qualify.

Standing-Rock-1
At Standing Rock, visiting the Sitting Bull monument

 

Let's remember, however, that Boyden doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Vine Deloria Jr. spoke of the phenomenon of falsely claiming an Indigenous ancestor in the US (almost always a Cherokee princess) in his non-fiction book, Custer Died for Your Sins (1969). The question of how Boyden was able to pretend to be Indigenous for so long only complicates the minefield that has become indigenous identity since this revelation.

We’re living in an era of self-identification. Boyden’s identity was as easy to fake as it is to check a box on a job application. He was never asked to prove his ancestry to institutional administrations, and countless individuals in government, art, and education have repeated this process.

Programs designed to help close the socioeconomic gap between Indigenous peoples and their non-Indigenous counterparts have become box-checking bonanzas, and it’s unclear whether apathy or political correctness on the part of institutions is the culprit. What’s obvious is that there’s no incentive for institutions to fact check their diversity hires.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why the political correctness would be there. We’re not so far removed from an era where people with actual Indigenous ancestry chose not to identify themselves as such. I recall meeting a historian in a bar once. She told me that her grandmother, who recently passed away, revealed to the family on her deathbed that she was Indigenous. This isn’t an uncommon story.

You can’t blame people like the historian’s Granny for hiding their identity. Unlike the people who falsely self-identify now, they existed in a time where residential schools imagined Indigenous people as a permanent under-class, Indian Agents demanded they asked permission to leave their communities, and law-enforcement saw cultural practices as criminal offenses. They came from a time where survival was a constant struggle and dreams were for people with fairer skin.

So I understand where the anger I’ve seen on social media is coming from. The people who kept their identity and proclaimed it through mass discrimination and racist government policies, went through it so this generation could dream in all the ways they weren’t allowed to. And to have these dreams stolen again by another white man; it’s upsetting.

I’m humbled by what my ancestors went through so that I could exist today, in this context. I’ve benefited from every advantage non-Indigenous people take for granted in this country. I haven’t lived through decades-long water-boil advisories, intergenerational trauma from residential schools, or inadequate housing, childcare, healthcare, and education. I’ve experienced racism and discrimination based on my identity, but not like my ancestors or peers who grew up on isolated, underfunded reserves.

Boyden himself has finally joined the conversation on his identity. His silence on the matter until now was the first time in recent memory he hadn’t served as an authority on an Indigenous matter. But the comments he made during his CBC interview only cast more doubt on his identity. He framed his Indigeneity as the stories his family told him. And for a kid who’s struggling with who he is, yeah that’s fine. Let him “play Indian.” But for an author who’s benefited from what’s essentially an identity costume, that’s not okay.

He still doesn’t think that he’s done anything wrong, he hasn’t made a real apology, and his comments seem targeted at a white audience who could care less about the identity politics of the Indigenous Nations of what they call Canada.

YOU'RE HOME
Where is Your Real Home? by Meky Ottawa

And, as Lee Maracle stated on the CBC Radio Panel hosted by Anna Maria Tremonti, the topic of his Identity is, “between Joseph and [the five or six Nations he’s claimed]… otherwise we’re overstepping on their sovereignty.”

Indigenous Nationhood and community is inherently tied to the discussion of our identity. What’s been labeled by Canada as “the new relationship,” a Nation-to-Nation relationship, is at the center of this issue.

However, if I were to tell most non-Indigenous people “I’m not Canadian I’m Mi’maq and Mohawk,” or that “I’m Canadian, Mohawk, and Mi’kmaq,” they’d probably give me a profoundly confused nod.

Through the Boyden saga, one thing has crystalized: most non-Indigenous people seem to think we’re one big tribe. There is a criminal lack of accessible information and education regarding Indigenous peoples and Nations in this country and the reason is obvious to any one who knows the atrocious, bloody history of colonization. We’re not taught Indigenous history in school to hide the crimes of the Canadian government and the Crown. And if the “New Relationship” is going to mean anything, this conversation must start in mainstream education.

So who are we? No one can answer that in the span of an article or interview. I think we’re still discovering it ourselves. And Indigenous identity needs to be looked at as an ongoing conversation. We can’t stop talking about it once the Boyden thing is over.

Dan Isaac is a Mi’kmaq and Mohawk writer born in Ottawa, raised in Vancouver, and living in Montreal. He holds a BA in creative writing from Concordia University, works as a freelance journalist, and is published regularly in The Nation Magazine.

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