by Frank Larue
Joseph Boyden is one of the most successful native authors in Canada. His books, the Orenda, Three Day Road, Born with a Tooth, Wenjack, Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, A Mixed Blood Highway, Kiskwakew, Upronts: The Orenda, Northwords, and Outside the Wire have become best sellers, and he has been the recipient of several awards including the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and Canada Reads. He has also been celebrated by the media as one of the country’s best writers.
Lately though, not everything has been going his way. APTN recently questioned Boyden, asking him if he is truly native.
Years ago, when the future superstar Shania Twain was climbing the ladder of success, she stated she was native and was raised by an Indian father. The latter was true, but the same doesn’t go for the initial. There was no native blood running in her veins. APTN is wondering if Boyden will be another case.
Boyden has stated that his ancestry is one of mixed blood. “I’ve used the term Metis in the past when referring to myself as a mixed blood person. I do not trace my roots to Red River, and I apologize to any Red River Metis I’ve upset.”
Boyden may have critics, but he also has supporters. Manitoba NDP MLA Wab Kinew understands the problems of proving native ancestry without being able to connect with some native community.
“I myself have been curious about Joseph Boyden’s ancestry, but at the same time, I recognize that he is part of our community by virtue of the relationship he has formed with many people,” expresses Kinew. “I think, for any people who find out about their Indigenous ancestry later in life, there a lot of questions about ‘how do they belong’. I think the way he has gone about giving back to the community, particularly in the James Bay region, taking kids to hunting camps, doing some philanthropy in some other areas, and working to highlight up and coming writers – even giving them residency – these are all signs he is giving back,” Kinew told APTN.
Considering the reputation Joseph Boyden has built over the years as an author and someone who cares about native people, First Nation’s Drum wonders what has brought about the questions of ancestry?
“I’ve heard of people questioning his background,” Russ Diablo, policy analyst from Kanawake, told APTN. “It is because of his public comments on Aboriginal issues that people started to question ‘Who is this guy?”
The controversy won’t go away, only the calendar will resolve the situation. In the meantime, Boyden has another problem, which is also serious enough to derail his career.
Boyden’s short story Bearwalker has similarities to a story written by Ron Geyshick, titled Inside My Heart. Geyshick died in 1996, so he can’t discuss the matter; however, Judith Doyle, the woman who helped him compile his stories, told APTN:
“The stories formally share intimate structural details. They begin and end in exactly the same way – the turn of phrase, the cadence, the description, the characters. There’s such symmetry between the two passages.” Boyden stated he had heard the story from elder Xavier Bird in the mid-nineties in Fort Albany, and then again in Moosonee.
“I saw it as a type of modern parable, a Christian story, filtered through the distinct local experience and lens. It was a story that stuck with me.” It seems strange that a celebrated and respected writer, who has written 11 books – including award winners Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce – has been questioned about his blood and the sources for his writings. Respected literary critics in the United States and Canada have reviewed him, and most of the reviews were of a positive nature – the word plagiarist never being brought up.