Saturday, January 07, 2017

How indigenous does Joseph Boyden need to be?

The "scandal" that has arisen in literary circles recently over the indigenous heritage of best-selling and award-winning Canadian author Joseph Boyden is overblown, and actually not that much of a scandal anyway.
I've never thought he looked particularly aboriginal myself, but I never thought it important. His novels, generally on First Nations topics, stand up for themselves regardless, and have been generally well-received by the native community. Neither can it be denied that his tireless work for a plethora of committees and organizations in bringing the plight of Canada's native peoples to the attention of a wider audience has been any the less valuable whatever his heritage and racial make-up.
The whole "scandal" was cooked up by an Aboriginal People's Television Network (APTN) investigation into his background, which was probably more akin to muckraking than investigative journalism, and I am not sure what (other than sour grapes) initially prompted it. The report did not definitively prove anything, but was enough to throw doubt on Boyden's authenticity as an indigenous man. Boyden, who clearly self-identifies as indigenous and usually described himself as M├ętis or mixed-blood, has since come out to explain that, although his heritage is mostly Celtic, he does have some Nipmuc roots in his father's side and some Ojibwa roots on his mother's side. Sounds reasonable to me, regardless of whether or not there is documentary proof.
And what effect has all this had? Not a lot. All of Boyden's publishers, the book awards organizations, the film companies working on movies of his books, the native and grass roots organizations he has worked with over the years, have all without exception stood by him.
Which raises the question: what was the purpose of the APTN smear campaign against him? Boyden has become one of Canada's go-to people for comments on aboriginal affairs, and he does a very good job of it. Why would anyone begrudge him this, or his literary success, even if he is perhaps not as native as they? I would have thought that native Canada needs all the help it can get, from whatever sources available.

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