From the archives: The double life of 'Injun Joe' - Macleans.ca
 

From the archives: The double life of ‘Injun Joe’

From the archives, Maclean’s 1956 profile of Earl Boyden


 

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...The double life of Injun Joe.....

The tourists at Algonquin Park think they’re meeting a real live redskin in a tribal tepee. Indian schmindian! He’s Tex Boyden, who reads the New Yorker, sips Martinis and makes his living selling beads to the white natives

Dorothy Sangster

When Erl Boyden was five years old, his Uncle Richard ** took him to a wild-west show in Ottawa and introduced him to Buffalo Bill.

Excited by tom-toms and war cries and trailing war bonnets, little Erl fell in love with Indians on the spot. He took to cutting out pictures of Indians, improvising Indian costumes, collecting Indian souvenirs. His bedroom in the old Boyden home on Mackenzie Avenue, in the shadow of the Parliament Buildings, became a litter of bows and arrows and buckskins. His most treasured possession was a five-foot cotton tepee his aunt Bertha O'Donaghue sent him from New York. The Last of the Mohicans was his favorite book and he and his two brothers saved their nickels to see Broncho Billy Anderson on Saturday afternoons at the neighborhood movie house, and Custer's Last Stand, a stage show that came to Ottawa's Grand Opera House in 1907. School bored young Erl—his thoughts were elsewhere. He saw himself as a white boy who by his knowledge of hunting and outdoor lore is adopted by an Indian chief and given a place of honor in the tribe.

Boyden is sixty years old now, but he's still playing Indian. All summer long you can find him sitting beside the highway at Dwight, a small resort town 160 miles north of Toronto on the road to Algonquin Park, under a sign that says, “Ugh! Indian Souvenirs!"

Tourists know him as Injun Joe.

The toy tepee has changed into a real tepee. The buckskins and tomahawks are spread out on counters for sale. The child is a man who refuses to put away childish things. "Haven't you guessed? I'm a case of arrested development, Peter Pan in a war bonnet." he says. Erl König Boyden— he was named after his mother's favorite Schubert song— has been soldier, sailor, artist, stage designer and Jack-ofall-trades, but says the proudest day of his life was the day he met Buffalo Bill.

Finding your heart's desire and making it pay is an ambition unrealized by most men. Boyden, unburdened by squaw or papoose, has managed it. He won't name figures, hut admits he makes enough money in the four summer months to travel for the rest of the year. From June to September cars line up at Injun Joe's door, full of tourists eager to buy his stuff and beg his picture, for curiously the boy who dreamed of becoming an Indian has grown up to look like one. With a skunk nuzzling his neck and a couple of dogs skulking in the background, black-haired Injun Joe. dressed in faded red shirt, rumpled jeans, beaded moccasins and a feather headdress, can catch the eve of a tourist speeding by at sixty miles an hour.

Injun Joe is quite frankly out to catch the eye. It appears that many tourists, especially American visitors to Canada, have an idea that Algonquin Park is a mixture of Valhalla and Coney Island. They think of it as an amusement park, complete with hot dogs, scenic railway, and possibly a small skirmish between rival Indian tribes in full war regalia. When they discover that Algonquin is not. and has never claimed to be anything but a magnificent primitive forest and game reserve they can’t help being disappointed. They hurry past the beautiful lakes, stare apathetically at a few deer nibbling soda biscuits at headquarters. and settle down in a fine public campsite for a spot of fishing. But inevitably the day comes when they realize their holiday is over and they haven't spent all their money.

In Injun Joe's eyes, the most pathetic sight in the world is a tourist returning home with money in his pocket, the sure evidence of a successful vacation being —as everyone knows—that you come home dead broke. He believes he is doing the world a psychological favor by sitting beside the road where it can't miss him.

He says: "They come here and buy armfuls of stuff marked ‘Algonquin Park,' they take pictures of what they idiotically believe to be a real live Canadian Indian and away they go into the wide blue yonder, happy as larks. Who am I to spoil their fun? Next year more tourists will arrive, similarly bathed in gloom and burdened with filthy lucre. Ah well, as the French observe so truly, c’est la vie!"

And so he spreads out on his counters such varied tourist bait as pennants and postcards, deerskin purses and moosehide moccasins, beaded belts, porcupine quill table mats, carved wooden animals, clay peace pipes, birchbark canoes, sweetgrass baskets, hand-carved leather saddles. feathered dance bustles, corn-husk dolls, and small Indian drums, decorated with painted thunderbirds. which give out with a dull thud when beaten by small boys on the warpath. Injun Joe makes the drums himself, a simple matter of punching the ends out of discarded tin cans, wrapping the cans first in birchbark and then in rubber from old inner tubes, and lacing the drum together with white cord which he buys by the pound in Toronto. Last year he sold fifteen hundred drums, priced from seventy-five cents to three dollars.

Boyden figures he makes forty percent of his stuff himself, twenty percent is supplied by private entrepreneurs, and forty percent is made by Canadian Indians under the supervision of the Indian Affairs Branch. He is discouraged by both the quantity and the quality of native Indian handiwork, which he attributes to indifference on the part of the Indian and exploitation on the part of the white man.

"Indians would do Popeye in plastic if that's what the public wanted." he says. “They're just not interested in making fine quill and beadwork anymore. You can't really blame them, when they're offered fifty cents for a quill box it's taken them two days to make." Boyden never argues with Indians over the price of anything. If he needs what they're selling he buys it for whatever they ask, although he can’t help wondering sometimes why an Indian will hire a taxi for ten dollars to bring him eight dollars' worth of sweet grass.

Sweet grass grows three feet high on the Indian reservation at Parry Island, and is a staple in Boyden’s business. A mysterious plant whose fragrant odor is best brought out by being wrapped in damp towels and stored in a dark place, it twists easily into attractive baskets and table mats. Bill Ellerington, the game warden at Dorset, has successfully transplanted sweet grass a few miles up the road at Goose Lake, but Injun Joe has no luck with it at Dwight, and buys what he needs ready-cured at four dollars a pound.

Another of his staples is birchbark. He uses from five to eight tons of bark a year, mostly for small canoes, key cases and framed mottoes that Injun Joe himself might take to heart, like "A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss” and “East is East. West is West. Home is Best.”

When he has the time, he gathers bark himself, locating a good birch line and going into the woods by full moon in June or July. He cuts the bark with a sharp knife and lifts if off carefully, leaving a protective film to ensure the tree won’t die.

Two or three full-blooded Ojibway women furnish Injun Joe with his best quill and beadwork, but most of his Indian friends bring him raw materials for his own use. For instance, a Mohawk who carves paddles recently turned up with a piece of red-cedar driftwood, unusual east of the Rockies, which he had picked up on the north shore of Lake Superior. And a Saulteaux Cree dropped by one day with an exotic white otter pelt. Injun Joe is not permitted to sell pelts, but he can keep them for decoration or use them in his work. He bought this one for a hundred dollars and put it away with his few private treasures marked “not for sale.” These include several beaded paint pouches which a squaw on the Peigan Reserve near Lethbridge sold him because she had turned Mormon and “didn't want any pagan reminders about”; two primitive cooking jars which a couple of Crees up Abitibi way traded him for his rubber boots one wet winter, and a magnificent war bonnet made of two hundred eagle feathers, each feather representing a scalp, that Joe claims Chief Blackfoot presented to him on his deathbed. Some years ago, hearing that the old chief was sick in a Gleichen, Alta., hospital, Boyden dropped in to see him, bringing fruit and smokes and staying to talk over the old days out west. It seems the chief took a liking to Boyden, and when he died he left him his proudest possession, the war bonnet his father wore to sign the peace treaty after the Riel Rebellion.

Sometimes a couple of Indians bringing Injun Joe sweet grass or birchbark will stay over for a few days in his tepee, an added tourist attraction. Their host makes them welcome, supplies them with free meals and drops in occasionally for a chat. He speaks fair Ojibway, poor Sioux, and can make himself understood in other tongues. Meeting him for the first time Ojibways tell each other “Ktiween Sliogosluimi” (“not a white man”).

Many Indians believe that Injun Joe has prophetic powers. Some have traveled all the way from the Finger Lakes, in New York, to ask him to interpret their dreams. Sometimes he is called on for more practical help. For instance, when the Rama Reserve near Orillia needed some tepees for a fair. Chief Alder Rose went up to Dwight and got Injun Joe to construct them. Joe moved down to the reservation for a week and made six large canvas tepees, each one attached to the ground by seventy-two pegs, with appropriate Indian symbols on the flaps. Boyden learned how to make tepees from the Sioux tribe in South Dakota on one of his buying trips.

If Injun Joe is good at making things, he’s better at selling them. Jack Lloyd, the game warden at Huntsville who drops in for an occasional game of cribbage, says, “This guy can sell anybody anything. I’ve watched him talk people into a ten-dollar purchase before they knew what was happening.”

Boyden's selling technique is based on the conviction that the faster he can talk the slower some people think. Explaining a totem-pole design, for instance, he informs tourists that the bear at the bottom stands for the family, the owl on top for the clan, the frog in the middle for the enemy clan, impotent between family and clan. If they look dazed, he clinches his sale by shrugging, "Of course, to understand the totem pole one must see it through Indian eyes.”

Once in a while he misjudges a customer. One woman, seizing the first pause in a filibuster on Indian masks, bade him curtly, "Relax, Chiefie! All I want is a fifty-cent canoe.”

In their idea of an Indian, tourists divide roughly into two groups: the romantic and the practical. The romantics think of every Indian as a noble red man who stares into the sunset with folded arms, like the Last of the Mohicans. Similarly, every Indian girl is a dark-eyed princess ready to hurl herself into the nearest rapids rather than yield to a rival chieftain. The practical tourist expects all Indians to sell blueberries regardless of the season, and to have magical powers of prophecy concerning the weather.

After Hurricane Hazel ripped the roof off Injun Joe’s shack, a car stopped at his door and half a dozen tourists stared at the damage in amazement. "But surely you knew it was coming?” they said.

Boyden estimates that about forty percent of his clients are American, another forty percent Canadian and the rest of European extraction, mostly German, Polish and Ukrainian. The Germans are usually familiar with Indian lore, having read Karl May’s German series about a mythical Apache called Winnetou. According to Injun Joe May’s hero is borrowed down to his last eagle feather from Winnetou the Apache Knight, an American classic by Anna Benziger, but he’s careful not to tell them this.

Some New Canadians come away from Dwight with new respect for the linguistic ability of the North American Indian. During his travels, Boyden has picked tip a smattering of half a dozen languages and surprises foreign-born customers by greeting them in their own tongue. A German couple chatting as they examined moosehide jackets happened to mention the word Stuttgart within his hearing. ‘‘Achi Stuttgart!" interrupted Injun Joe, and forthwith launched into a song in praise of Stuttgart in the spring, all in German.

Because of his sign "Ugh! Indian Souvenirs!” it’s inevitable that half the tourists who stop at Injun Joe’s place ask him what Ugh means.

Joe tells them, poker-faced, "Ugh is what the Indian said when he first saw the centipede—'ugh! hug!’ ”

He’s especially gleeful if the questioner happens to be a woman buying a basket, for women buying baskets drive him wild. They pick up a basket, lay it down, pick it up again, study it, stare at it, turn it upside down and then decide they don’t want a basket. Another of his headaches is the woman who has made up her mind to spend sixty cents on a present for Aunt Emma. She'll buy anything, just so it's sixty cents. The perfect gift, at seventy-five cents, doesn’t interest her.

On the other hand, women are suckers for anything with a “mood.” Whenever a woman hesitates over a piece of shapeless driftwood. Injun Joe catfoots to her side and murmurs, “But that’s a mood piece! Surely you feel it?”

And, sure enough, she always does.

If the wood has some recognizable shape, he tells her, “Now this piece reminds me of Rheims Cathedral.”

"Of course,” she responds, fishing for her purse.

His single failure in the driftwood department dates back to two years ago, when a nervous little woman got out of a car, searched his counters unsuccessfully for a piece of brown driftwood about fourteen inches long in the shape of Dodo, her departed Pekingese, and left as sad as she came.

Over the years, Injun Joe has received dozens of letters, half of them scrawled on birchbark, from women whose husbands don't understand them. They tell him they too have the soul of an Indian and that together they could make beautiful music. One divorcee turned up in person, complete with blanket, prepared to bunk down in the tepee at a nod.

On another occasion, a middle-aged American woman pursued him with such determination that he was forced to invent a squaw, Minnie, for his own protection.

Minnie, he warned his lovesick visitor, was out berry-picking, but she would be back any minute, and she was intensely jealous. The visitor departed, but next morning turned up again with every intention of staying the day. Minnie wouldn’t like it. Injun Joe told her: she was gathering birchbark but she’d be back and when she was jealous there was no telling what she'd do. When the woman reappeared the third day he told her that Minnie was on her way home from Goose Lake where she’d been collecting driftwood, and on the fourth day he warned her that Minnie would certainly be in bad humor when she got home from cutting sweet grass among the snakes on Parry Island.

By now he was at his wits’ end to invent reasons for Minnie’s continued absence. He realized that even the most stupid woman was not going to believe in an absentee squaw forever. What could he do?

Suddenly, he had the answer. When his pursuer turned up on the fifth day he was just climbing into his car. Minnie, he told her, had been rushed off during the night to Huntsville to have her papoose in the hospital. He was on his way to visit her.

That did it. The American woman felt terrible about poor Minnie who had worked so hard right up to her confinement. She bade Joe a hasty good-by, checked out of her lodge and returned home. Next week the postman handed Injun Joe a large parcel from a department store in New York, containing two beautiful knitted layettes, one pink and one blue, and an expensive box of cigars for the proud father. He gave the layettes to an Indian girl who’d just had twins and choked over the cigars.

Now when amorous trouble threatens, he escapes into the crowded little room back of his shop that he calls bedroom, kitchen and workroom. Of his housekeeping methods he says. "I just throw my dishes into the sink and dive after them. The skunk drags my clothes under the bed at night and the place smells of dirty old shirts. Tourists love it— it’s so primitive.”

Here, late at night when the last cars have passed, Erl König Boyden likes to relax with a lukewarm Martini and the latest New Yorker.

Daytimes it's a different story. Injun Joe sits at his worktable, carving masks, stitching moosehide jackets with Indian thread (dried ligament of moose leg) or binding 180 white turkey feathers (imported from New York at $15.50 a hundred. plus duty) into red flannel for a war bonnet.

Half a dozen neighborhood youngsters usually crowd around him as he works, for all the kids from Dwight to Dorset know Injun Joe and like him. Hasn't he promised them another installment of their favourite story. The River of Bloody corpses and Dripping Tomahawks?

Because he's told them so many stories about Lexas, they call him Tex. Whether he's a real Indian or not doesn’t bother them much. "If he isn't, he sure ought to be," says one of his staunchest admirers, fourteen-year-old Jackie Hawke.

Sometimes they don’t quite understand him. For instance, when Jackie observes sympathetically, "Hey, Tex, you’re getting your fingers all broken open sewing with that moose thread.” Tex admonishes lightly. "Now, Jackie, let’s not complain. These things are enjoyed for the sake of the Almighty Mammon."

But the next moment he is worrying over the baby skunk that has disappeared from the shack and may not know how to forage for itself.

Boyden is Indian in his feelings toward animals. He offers them shelter and affection and mourns over them when they come to grief. Tinker No. 3. which vanished last summer, was the third baby skunk he had loved and lost, linker No. I entered his life two years ago. when he almost ran over it on the way to New York. Unperturbed by its inclination to stink (he says. "It was only a baby") he took it along with him. In the hotel elevator, it crawled out of his coat and onto his shoulder, but since there was a Shriners’ convention on, nobody thought anything of it. The skunk was the life of the party. Back home again in conventional Dwight. Tinker No. 1 mysteriously disappeared into the forest. Tinker No. 2, presented by a sympathetic friend, developed stomach trouble and died after a three-hour operation by a Guelph specialist. When Tinker No. 3 vanished last summer. Boyden was disconsolate for days, lying on his lumpy couch with his face turned to the wall and refusing to speak to anyone. Friends say they have never known a man so fond of animals.

Joe says, "I have an affinity for animals. I like to study them.”

Once he tried to drown a mouse that was making itself a nuisance. He threw it into the lake but then, watching it cling exhausted to a reed, waded in fully clothed and took it home again. Other animals he’s sheltered include a chipmunk that loved brandy and milk: a strange grey "dog" that he bought from an Indian for two dollars (it turned out to be pure wolf, terrifying all the local dogs and hurling itself through a plateglass window one winter night at the far cry of a she-wolf); and a tame crow named Deacon that hated painted toenails. The bird would hide under blankets on the counter until a woman with painted nails came in, then he'd hop down and peck at her toes.

The only time Boyden injured an animal knowingly was in 1937 when a mountain lion in Toronto's Riverdale Zoo began to maul a four-year-old boy. Boyden. who was working as a commercial artist, happened to be nearby, sketching polar bears for an advertising firm. Hearing the child's screams, he leaped into the lion's cage and stuck his paintbrush in the animal's eye. Blinded, the lion dropped the boy. This act won Boyden the Royal Canadian Humane Association award.

Boyden usually spends the winter months in Canada, seeking out Canadian Indian crafts, and proceeds in early spring to Gallup or Shiprock in New Mexico to buy silver jewelry and blankets from the independent Navaho tribe. From there, he goes on into the Mohave country of Arizona, and on again into Paiute country on the border of Nevada. In northern California he finds baskets of close-woven sea grass. On the Big Crow and Cheyenne reservations in Montana he buys up beadwork belts and soft moccasins. T hrough the Black Hills of Dakota he wends his way to Pine Ridge to see his friends the Sioux.

By late spring, he has worked his way up to New' York, where he sees a tew new plays before proceeding to Toronto to visit briefly with his brothers, one a prominent surgeon, the other a busy accountant. May 24 finds him back on the highway, ready for another summer.

Erl König Boyden may look like an Indian, think like an Indian and spend most of his year among Indians, but so far as he knows he hasn't a drop of Indian blood. His father was a well-to-do Ottawa merchant (in household furniture) who traced his family to Thomas O'Boyden of Yorkshire. His mother was Irish. Young Erl was a precocious child with artistic inclinations. He went to private schools and enlisted in World War I. After three years overseas and a slight wound in the heel, he returned to Canada and enrolled in art school. He dreamed of being a stage designer, so after graduation he went to New York, where he landed a job as stage designer and bit player in a theatrical road company. In Broken Bow. Nebraska, the show folded, leaving the cast stranded, and it was here — in 1920 — that Boyden met his first real Indian. He was Peter Red Elk. a youth who dreamed of becoming a doctor. He took Boyden to meet his family on the nearby reservation. They weren't the dramatic stage kind of Indians young Erl had grown tip to idolize, but he found them wonderful people.

The depression years found Boyden sharing a fiat in Greenwich Village with a Polish artist friend, and painting. (Summer Idyll, one of his paintings depicting a tramp lounging in a boxcar, sold for three hundred dolíais and he heard recently that today it hangs in a Philadelphia art gallery.) Theatrical jobs were at a premium. so he signed as a steward on ships bound for Capetown. Sydney. Honolulu, Tahiti and the Philippines, earning extra money by painting portraits of fellow sailors. Back in Canada, he worked as a time clerk, short-order cook, commercial artist and stage designer for church theatricals. In Toronto he met another artist. Bob Henderson, and they decided to join forces. Hearing that the countryside up Huntsville way was beautiful, they hired bicycles and headed north. At Goose Lake, halfway between Huntsville and Algonquin, they stuck up a primitive shack and here they lived for seven years, painting, selling their work, and giving art lessons to summer visitors at a dollar a lesson, minimum five lessons. Winters, they headed south or west for adventure and comfort in an old jalopy.

“Those were the golden years." says Boyden wistfully.

Then Henderson married and moved back to the city.

Boyden, meantime, was turning into Injun Joe. With his flat hair and rigid features, he had often been mistaken for an Indian and when he erected a tepee at his front door it cinched the role. People stuck their heads in his door and asked: “Indian live here? What you got to sell?" Old Chief Sugar Brown from South Dakota; up in Huntsville with a wild-west show, wandered by and said it felt just like home. People who knew the old hangout at Goose Lake say it really looked like an Indian setup, with pelts nailed to the walls and Injun Joe in one of those fancy headdresses squatting in the doorway stitching moccasins. Soon he was making Indian souvenirs and lecturing on Indian crafts to summer visitors at a nearby lodge. Even then, he was probably making four thousand dollars a summer.

After Henderson left, Boyden got a new partner, Roger, and a few years ago the two men moved into larger quarters in Dwight. Last summer the partnership broke up.

This summer, Injun Joe will be in an imported adobe hut and stained-brown blockhouse which his friend Bill Ellerington. the game warden at Dorset, helped him build. A hundred yards away, at the old stand. Roger plans to give him competition.

“Maybe I'll have to serve corn soup, mooseburgers and firewater to drag them in this year," suggests Injun Joe.

It looks like an exciting summer.

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