Sunday, January 29, 2017

‘Do you think Crazy Horse checked his warriors’ status cards?’ The fight over Joseph Boyden’s Indigenous heritage

December 27, 2016
by Tristen Hopper

Following the explosive allegation questioning Canadian author Joseph Boyden’s Indigenous identity, debate surges in aboriginal circles over whether Boyden is really one of them.

“Do you think Crazy Horse checked his warriors’ status cards before the Battle of the Little Bighorn?” read a fierce defence of Boyden posted to Facebook Monday by Maurice Switzer, a former director of communications for the Assembly of First Nations.

Ernie Crey, chief of B.C.’s Cheam First Nation and a prominent Indigenous commentator, struck a similar tone, calling Boyden a victim of “envy” and “identity cops.”

“The worst thing this guy (Boyden) could be guilty of is identifying too strongly with us, and I’ll take it,” he said by phone. 

Bemoaning similar instances of bloodline scrutiny, Crey said “if they persist in this line of approach, many of us are going to end up taking mouth swabs and sending them off to a DNA lab.”

A lengthy expose by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network published Friday dug into Boyden’s genealogical background, finding no records to support the author’s various claims of having Metis, Mi’kmaq, Ojibway and Nipmuc ancestry.

Boyden is arguably among Canada’s most famous Indigenous authors. But most notably, the APTN found evidence from the 1950s showing that Boyden’s uncle Earl — who ran a souvenir shop under the alias “Injun Joe” — explicitly dismissed any claims to aboriginal heritage.

In response, Boyden said in a statement on the weekend that he had “mostly Celtic heritage,” with traces of Ojibwe and Nipmuc, an Algonquian nation from Massachusetts.

He said that he has mistakenly said he was Metis, which is traditionally applied to descendants of French traders and trappers and indigenous women in the Canadian northwest, when what he meant was he was of “mixed blood.”

“I don’t believe anyone should ever be made to feel shame in their identity,” said the Scotiabank Giller Prize winning author, who was was an honorary witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Since the article’s publication, other curious examples of Boyden’s unclear heritage have come to light.

In a Monday post, Rebeka Tabobondung, the editor of the Indigenous publication Muskrat Magazine, said she asked Boyden what his home nation was at a writers conference several years ago.

Boyden replied “Wasausking First Nation” — Tabobondung’s home nation. “I later asked a respected community geneologist what his connection was and she said she didn’t know,” she wrote.

Robert Jago, a blogger who uncovered much of the evidence cited by APTN, found a NUVO magazine interview on Monday in which Boyden incorrectly uses the term “two spirit” to refer to his love of living in both New Orleans and Ontario.

“There’s something called the ‘two-spirit person’ in a lot of First Nations cultures … meaning somebody who is never completely in one physical place,” Boyden said.

The term “two-spirit” is actually used to describe sexual identity; the two “spirits” are male and female.

Suspicions of cultural impostors are particularly high in the Indigenous community because accused pretenders seem to emerge so often.

“Why are so many of our most famous Indigenous (people) … not Indigenous?” read a Friday Tweet by Metis Chelsea Vowel, who writes on the blog âpihtawikosisân.

Boyden critics were quick to draw parallels with Grey Owl, a British-born environmentalist prominent in the early 20th century who fraudulently claimed aboriginal heritage.

Twenty years ago, critics were also questioning the Indigenous identity of Ontario-born country singer Shania Twain, who used her Indian Status to move to Nashville without a visa.

“The native community is much more apt to see impostors than another community,” Dean Chavers, director of the U.S.-based native scholarship fund Catching the Dream, told the National Post by email.

For the Cherokee nation alone, Chavers said there are dozens of fake tribes and potentially millions of Americans falsely claiming status. “Jobs are the leading cause of people assuming an Indian identity,” he said.

Both in Canada and the United States, it’s also common that a family’s claim to Indigenous ancestry will turn out to be nothing than a rumour sparked by portraits of a particularly swarthy great grandparent.

Forums for genealogical websites abound with people expressing confusion that their DNA test or genealogical search turned up no rumoured evidence of Mohawk, Mi’kmaq or Sioux.

And Chavers told the National Post he has a friend who believed her whole life she was Cherokee, only to discover following a DNA test that she that was 89 per cent English and 11 per cent Scandinavian.

However, Switzer dismissed the scrutiny of Boyden’s background, calling the controversy a case of “cultural one-upmanship” brought about by the “racist system of ‘Indian status.’”

Switzer has said that the idea of “blood quantum” did not exist before colonialism, and in an interview Monday he defended Boyden, saying the author has not “traded off whatever Indigeneity he can trace.”

“He is just a damned fine writer who has done a great deal to raise the profile of native issues, and who happens to believe he has some Indigenous heritage,” he said.

Ernie Crey, in turn, dismissed the fear that somebody would purposely pretend to be aboriginal to enhance their public profile. Often, he told the National Post, it has been the reverse: Native peoples taking on European identities to avoid stringent Canadian social and legal barriers against aboriginals. 

Nevertheless, critics have noted Boyden’s increasingly political public persona. Boyden delivers paid speeches about Indigenous issues, is a regular editorialist on aboriginal policy and makes frequent appearances as the native voice on political panels.

And as APTN noted, Boyden’s sister Mary works as the aboriginal liaison for Goldcorp.
“It has been conversation among Native people for years — who is this person? Who does he belong to?” wrote Audra Simpson, a Mohawk anthropologist at New York’s Columbia University, in an email to the National Post. 

Simpson said that the question is not driven by a need to measure blood quantum, to see Boyden’s status card or to critique his appearance, “it is simply a matter of kin … it is not shameful to ask who you belong to.”

What was “disturbing” and “egregious” about the whole Boyden controversy, wrote Simpson, was how willing the author is to “take up space” in literary circles and frame the political debate around reconciliation. 

“Like his claims to identity there is no end to what he will do or say, it seems in our name,” she wrote. “There is nothing innocent, or confused about talking about, or speaking for and speaking over us.”

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