My name is Joseph Boyden. Late last December I had a hard time wrapping my head around what a Cree Elder I’ve known and respected for 25 years told me when we spoke about the firestorm that questions concerning my ancestry had sparked in Canada over the holidays. This elder told me that I was experiencing a rite of passage. I wanted to tell him that I’d not long ago turned 50, and weren’t rites of passage something geared more toward the teenage years? But I knew to listen and not interrupt. He told me that what I was experiencing was actually a gift.
A gift? People I did and didn’t know were questioning my family’s history, our creation stories, our ancestry. People were questioning me as a fiction writer and a journalist and a vocal activist for Indigenous rights in our country as an honorary witness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Now, from these months of hindsight, I understand it was the perfect storm brewing. Last October I’d spoken up publicly to demand accountability by a university and its conduct in the treatment of a friend—and the complainants— embroiled in an ugly and horribly mishandled controversy that ended up sending shockwaves beyond literary Canada.
I’d also been especially vocal for the last years in speaking about Indigenous Canadian issues, all of them sacred, so many of them painful. I’d gotten involved in my own way in the last federal election and made my stance clear that the former federal government’s abysmal treatment of virtually all issues having to do with First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples could not continue. For the past few years, when the media came calling, whether it be the CBC or the Globe and Mail or a tiny radio station in the rural North with a listenership of 50, I was more than willing to stand up and be vocal. As an honorary witness, my personal mandate is to speak in my role as a writer and public voice about the dark clouds and frightening basements of our shared history and the abomination that was residential schools and the ongoing intergenerational tsunami of trauma.
I look back now and I can see that I took to this role with the zealotry of a true believer. And I wasn’t listening to the voices of caution, the voices of friends and elders and knowledge keepers and, yes, critics too. Take a breath. Let others speak. Be quiet for a bit. And if there was a third atmospheric disturbance in this perfect storm I speak of that consumed my personal life late last year, it was the thunderhead that had been developing in parts of Indian Country, questions I now understand had been circulating for a long time. Who are you? Who are your people? Where are you from and who accepts you?
My name is Joseph Boyden. I’m from a big family. I’m the sixth of eight full siblings whom I love dearly, with three older half-sisters from my father’s first marriage, whom I love just as dearly. In total, I have seven older sisters, one older brother and two younger brothers. My father, Raymond Wilfrid Boyden, was born in November 1897. He was a front-line combat physician in the Second World War and became, according to the stories of my family, one of the British Empire’s most highly decorated medical officers in that conflict. He was mentioned for the Victoria Cross numerous times in dispatches, and King George himself pinned the Distinguished Service Order on him at Buckingham Palace in 1945. My father died in 1975, leaving his wife to raise their eight children on her own.
My mother, Blanche Boyden, is one of five siblings. She is half-sister to the youngest three. Her oldest brother died in 1975. My mom became a teacher in 1951 and needed a birth certificate for the job but didn’t have one. When she applied and finally received it, she was surprised to see that up until that point, her family had celebrated her birthday on the wrong day. My mom tells me that she doesn’t know why. Maybe it’s just that they’re products of their era, but none of them speaks much at all about their lives when they were younger, or the people who raised them and who are long dead. Unlike a number of my siblings and me, none of them seems to have much interest at all in their cultural or genetic makeup. My mom’s generation, and my father’s, too, didn’t vocalize cultural or racial or religious identities that existed outside of a narrow Anglo and Christian mainstream.
Enter Uncle Erl, my father’s older brother, a First World War veteran, an artist, an actor and itinerant traveller, a gay, mixed-blood man living life the way he wanted to in a white world that could never understand him. I’m proud of my Uncle Erl. I wrote about him in an essay for Penguin Books the year before my first novel, Three Day Road, was to come out. This very magazine wrote a profile piece about him back in the mid 1950s, not long before he tragically and accidentally shot and killed an American tourist in Algonquin Park while posing for a photo for that tourist, Uncle Erl dressed as “Injun Joe” and aiming a rifle at the camera. In the ensuing trial, the shooting was deemed accidental, but my uncle couldn’t live with the guilt and died not long after.
I urge you to read the Maclean’s piece about my uncle written before the tragedy. Despite the 1950s casual racist and sexist tone, the female writer paints the portrait of a fascinating man who did far more than play dress-up Indian for tourists. Uncle Erl’s story is the story of a person accepted by the Indigenous communities in which he lived, a man who was claimed by those communities as one of them, a gifted and contrary person who understood the natural environment and could sometimes decipher the dreams of the people who came to ask him and taught their children and always treated the people he loved with love and respect. He gave many gifts and was given many gifts. He spoke Ojibwe, always welcomed his visitors with a meal and a place to sleep and was a knowledge keeper who was widely accepted and sought out by many different Indigenous people for his wisdom. In their own words, the Ojibwe of my family’s home of Nottawasaga Bay and beyond made it clear to all that he was not a white man. He was one of them. The people claimed him.
Uncle Erl died years before I was born, and despite the sentence in the article where the author writes, “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,” I know his truth intrinsically. Just as he did. He knew who he was and he lived his life as openly and proudly as he could despite the strictures of early-20th–century Canada. He was a veteran of the Great War, a restless and gentle and incredibly smart soul who loved and was loved by his communities. My uncle, his younger brother—my father—and my mother have sacred stories of who we are that they carried and still carry. And I, along with all of my siblings and all our mixed-blood children and grandchildren, refuse to allow people who claim to act in some public interest to attempt to publicly shame us—the ones who are still alive and even those who are now dead—for their own motives. My family is fierce in our protection of one another. And we are proud of who we are.
I understand now more than I ever have, that a family’s history is sacred. I’m trying my best to learn the lessons of this rite of passage, this gift that has been given to me in the past year. One understanding I’m now able to begin vocalizing is that a family’s history, a family’s stories, belong to the family. It’s their right to share or not to share them with the world. And a family’s stories need to be viewed in their whole, in an appropriate way and by the invited viewer. The stories of our family are all carried with us, and in us. They should never be cherry-picked by strangers who then unfairly and poorly and unceremoniously pull them apart to dissect what they choose, small bloody parts of our parents’ flesh and muscle sliced away from our bone to be inspected under a public microscope by outsiders with questionable agendas. In part, this is why I’ve now decided to speak about my family, and myself, publicly.
I, along with others in my family who were so inclined, have spit into plastic tubes and sent our mucus off for DNA testing. And guess what? The verdict is: we’re mutts. Celtic DNA. Check. Native American DNA. Check. DNA from the Arctic. Cool. I didn’t know that. Explains my love for winter. Some Ashkenazi Jew? I love it. More scientifically minded family members than me have been exploring areas like autosomal DNA and mtDNA and haplogroups, and guess what? We are what our family’s stories have always told us we are. And then some.
Those who were most vocal in their arguments against me and my family over the holidays last year were adamant, though, that it wasn’t about DNA at all when they spoke about my right to call myself an Indigenous person. It’s about whom you claim, and who claims you.
My old friend, the Cree elder who originally told me I was experiencing a rite of passage and being offered a gift of learning, isn’t the only one to view my experience in this way. Over the past many months, I’ve visited with and have done ceremony with and spoken with many other elders and knowledge keepers. Their message has been so similar. This is a rite of passage you are going through. Go through it. What are you learning?
This is something I’ve learned: the Indigenous people who know me, have known me all my life, spoke up not just privately for me from the beginning but publicly too. The following statement was posted on social media back in January, from people I consider my family who are from Beausoleil First Nation in southern Georgian Bay:
“The Sandy family has been lifelong friends with the Boyden family going back to our many beautiful childhood summers on Beckwith Island [and Christian Island] on Beausoleil First Nation. We’ve known each other all of our lives. Some of us call Joseph Boyden our uncle or cousin. We all call him our friend. Our beautiful mother Bertha travelled down to New Orleans in 1995 to help marry Joseph and Amanda in Ojibwe. And we think it’s really cool that some of us show up in his first short stories. Joseph is one of us.”
Others who’ve known me for much of my adult life made sure to speak up last January, too. This is from a Moose Cree family from James Bay, people I consider my family as well:
“We are the Tozer family. We are Moose Cree and we have deep roots in the James Bay region called Mushkegowuk. The Cree side of our families go back centuries on this land. Joseph Boyden has been like family to us for over 20 years. It started when he came to the region as a teacher and has continued ever since. He and his family are as close to our family as one could ever hope. Our families are one family. He is our good friend. Our partner. A student and a teacher. He is family in every way that matters.
Along with Joseph, we had a dream of creating a camp for youth-orientated organizations wanting to get youth out on the land from our communities in the North to experience their homeland and learn how to connect with our natural world.
It was from there that we created the Camp Onakawana project about two decades ago. Joseph has been involved from the beginning and is a big part of that as a teacher, a fundraiser and a strong voice. More than 800 children and youth visit the camp from all across the North each year. And our young people love to come here. Camp Onakawana is a positive place and a beautiful place. We are proud of what we have built and what we continue to build with our brother.”
And certainly another powerful gift has come from other Cree and Ojibwe families who’ve traditionally adopted me both in Ontario and Manitoba, from Wabigoon to Wasauksing (where both birth and traditional family live) to Winnipeg to Sagkeeng. Being adopted in this way comes with responsibilities and obligations. It’s a true act of love and of protection that is just as important as blood bonds. Lisa Meeches is one of my sisters. When the storm was at its loudest at the very beginning of 2017, she spoke up for me and of her desire to protect me and my work. Lisa wasn’t afraid to stand up for me. She knows me. I’m her brother, after all.
Many years ago, a man I consider one of my greatest life teachers gifted me with one of my traditional Anishnaabe names. I believe that I continue to learn how to grow into the name he gave me. It’s a good name, and he was a good, good Anishnaabe man. A great man. I was one of the few who wasn’t birth family whom he asked to visit him before he passed away. I share this because learning and reading and hearing his stories taught me so much about speaking and writing my own.
I was made an honorary witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission a few years back. It is one of the big honours—and responsibilities—of my life. I wasn’t chosen for my blood quantum, or for my bloodlines at all. I was asked because I’ve focused and will continue to focus my life and my career and my voice on trying to bring attention to Indigenous issues in this country, especially the history and traumas created by Canada’s residential schools.
I’m learning in all of this to let go of the hurtful words publicly thrown at me and instead hold on to the words that mean something. Two of Chanie Wenjack’s sisters told me not to worry because they know who I am, and I know who I am, and that they know I’m an Indian because someone who isn’t couldn’t have written the words I did about their brother. Another friend said she knows I’m Indigenous because Indigenous people wouldn’t be bothered treating a white person so badly. Donna Chief from Wabigoon lost her birth brother Joseph tragically and told me I am now her brother and she claims me, and you’ll have to go through Donna if you want to get to me.
I began writing at the age of 12 or 13, horribly angst-ridden poetry about pain and about my search for the different threads of my identity. I turned to punk rock at 15 and cut my hair into a mohawk to honour that part of me in the most physical and awkwardly teenage way I knew how. When I began writing my first fiction in my mid-20s, they were imagined stories from the real country and people who are a part of me, and that I remain a part of. When my first novel won the only Indigenous prize I’ve ever won, I split the winnings evenly with the other four shortlisted writers as a way to say thank you for including me in their community. All of these experiences, I realize, really are amazing gifts that I’ve been given.
For a long time now, often in this magazine, I’ve written about environmental and social and personal issues that impact Indigenous peoples and communities, many of them communities in which I lived and taught in the mid-1990s on the west coast of James Bay, including Moosonee and Moose Factory, Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Attawapiskat. I consider this country my adopted home, and there are many people in these communities who consider me family and whom I consider family. They are my community, and I am a part of theirs. But like in any great extended family, I have no doubt there are plenty of people on the west coast of James Bay who either have no idea who I am or don’t think of me as one of them. I get it.
And this leads me to questions I’ve been contemplating a lot as I navigate this recent rite of passage and try to answer to those who are asking who I am. If I am accepted by people in Indigenous communities, if I have been traditionally adopted by a number of people in Indigenous communities, if my DNA test shows I have Indigenous blood, if I have engaged my whole career in publicly defending Indigenous rights as well as using my public recognition as an author to shine light on Indigenous issues, am I not, in some way, Indigenous?
When I found out that my first novel had been accepted for publication in 2003, I was asked to write my short bio for the back cover. I thought long and hard about what it should read. I’ve always been very careful to represent myself and my family properly. My bio reads: Joseph Boyden is a Canadian of Irish, Scottish and Metis roots. That’s it. One sentence. A sentence I wrote back in 2003 and had been contemplating and exploring all my life.
When I wrote that bio I was—and remain to this day—an enrolled member of the Ontario Woodland Metis, a community thousands strong who recognize me as one of them. My mother has told me she is of Scottish and Ojibwe ancestry from Georgian Bay. My father’s people are traced to Massachusetts, and the Boyden name appears on the Earle Report. A number of years ago, one of my siblings found a Boyden Mi’kmaq clan in Newfoundland. We were thrilled, although we later learned we were unrelated. Such is the complicated process of learning a family history.
Some of my ardent critics labelled my identity as “shifting” last December. Some people—Indigenous and non-Indigenous—viewed it as an attempted character assassination. Others couldn’t hide their pleasure and jumped right in for the kill. Still others, friends included, were confused by it and what had precipitated it. That was the culmination of my own personal perfect storm. And it was one fuse that helped to ignite a much bigger perfect storm that’s been brewing in Canada for years.
What does it mean to be Indigenous in this country? Who gets to define it? Who gets to belong? And who gets to say who doesn’t belong? Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples aren’t some homogenous group who are all the same and see the world in the same way. There are more than 640 First Nations bands alone in our country, and cultures, politics, religions and worldviews are wildly different in a myriad of ways. And don’t forget about the hundreds of thousands of non-status First Nations peoples in Canada. And then when we include the hundreds of thousands of Metis peoples, and those who identify as Metis, we’re talking a sizable percentage of Canada’s population. The questions raised are important ones. And they have big repercussions for the country.
A wise Indigenous woman I know, Lee Maracle, who is deeply respected by Indigenous people in Canada and around the world has captured, I believe, the essence of how to begin answering these questions in a perfectly simple (but definitely not simplistic) way: it is up to the individual Indigenous families and communities to decide. If a family or community accepts you as a member, you are a member. And other families and communities need to respect that.
I will admit that I can still get really angry in regards to this rite of passage I’m going through. For months and months now, I’ve actively rejected the idea of writing a letter to Canada, to the world, to explain myself, to explain that my family’s stories about who we are, are just as sacred as any other family’s. A part of me remains that punk-rock kid saying f–k you to those who attempted to make me appear somebody and something I am not and then try to take away what I truly am.
For years I’ve always made it clear that a small part of me is Indigenous, but it’s a huge part of who I am. My trying to be careful and respectful seems to have incensed some people, people who claim that either you are all, or you are not at all.
I think one of the most important gifts for me is the reminder that I’m imperfect. I am not whole by myself. But I am made much more whole by my birth and traditional families. I am part of something bigger than me. And that is why I fight being dissected and sliced and diced and put under a public microscope. My own being is not big enough to live in the world acting as if I am complete. I am part. But I have been gifted the ability to speak and write stories. I am part of a bigger fabric. I don’t often know where these voices come from. But I’m meant to tell these stories. And I will not stop telling them. You don’t throw away something gifted to you.
My mother said this to me as she watched me struggle early last January: Joseph, we are people of the land. My family is fierce in our love and in our acceptance. We are mixed-blood people, mostly Celtic, but with Indigenous roots. My family is big enough, if you consider all of my siblings and their children and grandchildren, to be considered a decent-sized town by Canadian standards. We are our own community. And we also know that we are part of a bigger community. We are healers and teachers and warriors and unemployed and gainfully employed. We are who we are. We are a mystery and we are ridiculously obvious. We are a part of Turtle Island. And all of us, I want to believe, keep learning tiny bits each day about not just where we come from, but where we, and those who follow us, are going.
I know that we are moving through a complicated history, and I know that I do not speak for all Indigenous people. My dear friend and sister Tina Keeper reminds me that as an honorary witness, and an Indigenous person, I must always remember that there’s so much more to come in the unfolding narrative. What I’ve been asked to be a part of is a gift I’m fortunate to carry. I will never assume to speak for all, but I must speak my own voice.
There’s a mystery to and in my family, and I’m fine with that. But as an author, and as a husband, and as a father, as a person going through this particular rite of passage, I needed to at least explain this much about us, the blood and traditional people I love and will always fight for with my most ferocious heart. There is more to come from me. A lot more. My great big family, we’re far from being silenced.
This post was updated to include reference to Lee Maracle after she agreed to be identified.
MORE ABOUT JOSEPH BOYDEN:
- Author Joseph Boyden defends Indigenous heritage
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- Atwood, Boyden face backlash over letter about Steven Galloway firing
- How Chanie Wenjack chose Joseph Boyden
- Joseph Boyden imagines Chanie Wenjack’s final, terrible hours
- Why Chanie Wenjack’s story might finally get action
- Joseph Boyden’s seven love songs for Gord Downie