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Learning when to speak and when to listen

by Tyson Burger September 5, 2017
Learning when to speak and when to listen

Joseph Boyden controversy opens up a larger discussion about cultural appropriation

Joseph Boyden is one of the most celebrated Canadian writers to ever take pen to paper. He has claimed an Indigenous heritage throughout his career, and most of his work centres around this identity. Since the start of his career in 2005, with his debut novel Three Day Road, Boyden has won numerous awards, including the Canada First Novel Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award.

However, in December 2016, the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) discovered Boyden has no Indigenous heritage. APTN reported that even though Boyden has claimed ties to Métis, Mi’kmaq, Ojibway and Nipmuc communities throughout his life, they were unable to find any specific links to these communities. According to the report, “Boyden has never publicly revealed exactly from which earth his Indigenous heritage grows. It has been an ever shifting, evolving thing.”

Some of the things the APTN researched were his family tree and a book about the Boyden family that was published in 1901. After researching his familial claims and ancestry, the network learned that his inconsistent claims lead to a lack of concrete proof of his Indigenous heritage.

Boyden himself remained relatively silent after that, until the beginning of August when he responded to the allegations made against him by writing an article in Maclean’s. He said he’d taken a DNA test that showed he’s a “mutt,” and went on to list the results of the test. Boyden claimed these results indicated he is part Indigenous.

Prior to Boyden’s response in Maclean’s, an article from Vice News featured Métis writer Aaron Paquette saying that being Indigenous isn’t about DNA. He echoed a claim Boyden himself made on Twitter in his response to the controversy: “It is about community. It is about who claims you.” But who exactly claims Joseph Boyden?

In his Maclean’s article, Boyden vaguely claimed to have been “adopted by a number of people in Indigenous communities.” Robert Jago, a member of Kwantlen First Nation, was one of the researchers who questioned Boyden’s ancestry. In an article on Canadaland, he questioned the validity of being adopted by many communities, since the term “First Nations” refers to the many individual communities that make up the broader Indigenous community. “There is no person in Canada who is Indigenous without first having a national identity,” he said. In other words, you can belong to the Indigenous community in Canada, but you can’t belong to more than one of the individual groups that make up that broader community. Boyden claimed to be just that, which highlights his misconception around what it means to be Indigenous. If he misunderstood this key part of Indigenous identity, think about the other things he could have misunderstood and the problem with him spreading misinformation like this while claiming that he himself is Indigenous.

Some may say that, despite his questionable methods, Boyden helped raise awareness for Indigenous communities, but Jago refuted that claim in the same article for Canadaland, saying: “Being Indigenous is not a requirement to stand up for Indigenous rights.”

There seems to remain some uncertainty about whether Boyden was mistaken about his heritage or purposely deceitful. Regardless, this controversy opens up a larger, increasingly present debate about cultural appropriation. Although Boyden did spread awareness for Indigenous issues, there’s a potential his actions were harmful to the community as a whole if he took away speaking opportunities, money and cultural context from genuine Indigenous voices.

There exists a fine line between spreading awareness about relevant issues and being a part of the problem when sharing Indigenous stories without belonging to that community. This situation is about non-Indigenous people knowing—or at least being willing to learn—when it’s their turn to talk, and when it’s time to step aside and allow Indigenous people an opportunity to tell their own stories. This is a lesson for not only Boyden, but for all non-Indigenous Canadians who want to right the wrongs of their ancestors—myself included.

Graphics by Zeze Le Lin.

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