Keep Telling Their Stories, Joseph Boyden
I was angered at the public assault on Joseph Boyden earlier this year, but I couldn’t contain my contempt for his detractors well enough to render a sensible, expletive-free post at the time. It was completely senseless; an out-of-nowhere campaign to tarnish a man’s reputation and douse a career focused on telling the stories of Canada’s indigenous people to the widest audience possible. I hope those responsible were read the riot act by elders in their communities for their slanderous mischief, which invited such negative attention upon the community of indigenous rights advocates.
For those not familiar with the issue, Joseph Boyden is a highly acclaimed Canadian writer of books whose protagonists are indigenous. His books have won national awards and garnered him a lot of attention as an advocate of indigenous rights in Canada. My favourites among his repertoire are Three Day Road and The Orenda. They are highly recommended reading, whether you care specifically to read books with indigenous protagonists or not. They are stories about people that are phenomenally well-told.
At the beginning of this year some prominent folks from the indigenous community took issue with Joseph Boyden’s profile as such a fierce advocate for indigenous rights. The problem in their minds, as far as I could tell, is that Boyden isn’t one hundred percent indigenous and, as such, he shouldn’t have been so vocal in his advocacy. I could never really understand the logic behind their grievance with Boyden, but I imagined they were trying to suggest it would have been better if only fully indigenous people were so adamant in their advocacy for indigenous rights; that only fully indigenous people ought to have a public profile as indigenous rights advocates. Or something like that.
On the same logic I imagine they are fuming that Gord Downie of iconic Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip, and as blue-blooded a white guy as it gets, has become such a champion of indigenous rights. I say this reluctantly as a black man (with a white man’s mind), but white folks listen more attentively when a prominent member of their own community speaks to them with an eye to moral persuasion. Certainly, experiential voices are more authentic, but when you are fighting to win over a slice of the finite moral landscape among the white throngs, all voices allied in the fight are helpful. It is quite clear to those not driven by seething rage that Boyden was using his profile to help in these efforts, not to steal a spotlight away from others in the fight.
Boyden always maintained he was of mostly Celtic blood with indigenous ancestry somewhere in his family tree. In Canada, the English tried to exterminate this country’s indigenous people and for most of our history, folks who could pass for White were not waving flags to show their pride at having mixed ancestry. Boyden’s story of a lost, mixed heritage is a common story in Canada. My heritage is the same (though the lost ancestry in my case is black American). At an early age, when Boyden discovered his own indigenous ancestry, instead of hiding it he embraced it. He’s made a career and become a public figure thanks to that early act of embracing his indigenous heritage. Other than Boyden’s notoriety, this is a fairly pedestrian reality in Canada. I have a fair-skinned, auburn haired friend I’ve know for thirty years who just found out she has Metis in her ancestry.
It seems for a small faction of resentful figures Boyden’s success and notoriety was a pill too bitter to swallow given their work for the cause. So, they called him a fraud, a poser, accused him of shape-shifting in a head-dress for publicity and cash. The insinuation, although not stated, was that his success came at the cost of a real indigenous person’s success, which is completely absurd. It was this country’s version of the “birther issue.” Except the figure under attack wasn’t a would-be political oppressor vying for the most powerful political office in the land. Boyden is an artist and vocal champion of indigenous rights. Those responsible for stirring this pot seem like a petty lot, more angry that Boyden gets to go to all the good parties than anything else. It was a sad, pointless row; one clearly rooted in professional resentment.
I am glad Boyden has decided to respond in his own words, and I hope it puts an end to the shenanigans to sandbag him. I also hope the sordid affair has done nothing to discourage Boyden from avidly pursuing his next project, and the other projects delving into the lives of the indigenous subjects he has in store for us down the road. I and countless others anxiously await these for years to come. On that point, I do wish Boyden would stop being such a do-gooder for indigenous causes and stick exclusively to writing his extraordinary books so we wouldn’t have to wait as long between each project.
It struck me then, and it still does now, that this whole ordeal was a product of professional jealousy. It had very little to do with people trying to air a legitimate grievance of a wrong done to the community. It is beyond reprehensible that the target of the savage attack is an artist and advocate, not some corporate or political cretin throwing their power around to the detriment of the indigenous community. It casts those responsible for the sabotage campaign in such a poor light. I will never read Robert Jago again without thinking about how petty his attempt to sandbag Boyden was, which is tragic because Mr Jago has, in other cases, had things to say which need to be heard and taken seriously.
Boyden’s books have been responsible, in my own case, for helping to identify with indigenous voices because I just don’t have any other way of doing so. I have no indigenous blood, nor do I have close friends or family who are indigenous. It is difficult for me to obtain more than a superficial glimpse of life through their eyes. Paying attention to the news or media does not allow us to connect in more than a shallow way to an identity we do not share. There is always an agenda and the view is too easily tainted by our own intellectual filter.
Stories are always a better way to subtly shift the view than is canvassing the news with an eye to empathy. Stories more succinctly hold up a mirror to ourselves; the identification with a marginalized protagonist makes it far more difficult to deny the humanity of those disenfranchised in our real lives, which perpetuates systemic barriers to their progress.
As a mode of throwing the moral depravity of the oppressors in their face, a story humanises the oppressed and makes it more difficult for the reader to walk away from that encounter and still repudiate their existence. You read a story about a homeless man and it becomes difficult to simply breeze past them as you take a break at work the next day. It is a far more effective way of getting people to recognize the many wrongs we are abetting by our quiet indifference than is the tack of using public admonishments or finger wagging to stir our moral compass into proper alignment. Accusations and blame, even if deserved, rarely provoke the intended effect of opening consciousness among the dominant group because the mode of discourse, that of polemic, is too hard for most egos to bear. The guilt or animosity triggered by the condemnation hardens a mind, puts it on the defensive, and for that reason it is a less effective way to change the view about certain pernicious social realities.
This is the real power of fiction and other narrative accounts, especially where the subject is the marginalized, forgotten, or disenfranchised in a society. Having readers living the lives of a well-crafted, disenfranchised protagonist allows them to experience the pain and suffering of another human being whose tragic experiences are difficult to imagine. That their marginalized existence is a by-product of structures in our society becomes evident, and is undeniable, as we see them come crashing down upon a novel’s protagonist.
If done well, and done right, stories are the truest way to identify with those who do not share our own identity. Stories come to us, straight into our hearts, bypassing our intellect, and because of that, the tragedies or injustices in the lives they depict are less apt to be so easily dismissed. They will resonate. Boyden’s stories and characters centre on the issues and lives of this country’s indigenous people, and they have resonated.
As a colonizer there is no better way for me to know what the indigenous fight is about than to read their stories so I can truly understand on a deep level that it isn’t just a political issue, it is a real battle for a way of life. I have a better sense of what that way of life is because of Boyden’s stories. Yes, there are other voices, other stories, and other storytellers – Boyden never claimed to be the lone voice for the community. Those eager to attack his character made that claim on his behalf; perhaps those among the colonizers appointed him as a spokesperson. That is what we do. We love our caricatures, our reductions.
The blame for that does not lie with Boyden. If there was concern that Boyden’s profile was monopolizing the dialogue the effort should have instead been aimed at pointing us to other stories and left at that. I would have greatly accepted the gift. When they attacked Boyden, a fierce advocate for indigenous issues, I stopped listening and lost plenty of respect for those who otherwise advocate for a just cause. They need to focus on what they legitimately seek and leave ego-centric personal grievances out of the public domain because it has not served they or the community for whom they advocate well at all.