Is Joseph Boyden “Grey Owling”?

I’m reluctant to pass judgment on questions that have been asked recently about whether he’s overstated his Native heritage since my own blue eyes have made me somewhat suspect

One lazy afternoon, I recognized the voice of Joseph Boyden being interviewed on CBC Radio. For fun, I decided to call in and pose a question. Full disclosure: I consider Joseph a friend. We’re not best buddies i.e., we never donated organs to each other. But we’ve book-toured together, and in a crowded room we’d make the effort to find the time to chat and fill each other in on the latest literary gossip. 

There’s a complimentary blurb by him on the cover of my novel Motorcycles And Sweetgrass. He’s invited me to his home in New Orleans, and I’ve invited him to mine in Curve Lake, but we’ve never been able to take advantage of those offers. I have it on good authority that New Orleans is a bit more exotic than my small First Nation community, but exoticism is in the eye of the beholder, as is identity.

My question was one that is frequently posed to me as a First Nations author: “Does everything you write have to do with Native themes?” There was a pause. I could almost see him going through all his current projects in his mind before saying with a laugh, “Yeah, I think so.”

Cultural identity is one of the most volatile and controversial topics in First Nations communities. The Holy Trinity of Aboriginal identity: Who are you? Where did you come from? Who are you related to? Indigenous cultures around the world have similar issues – the Sammi, Maoris and the original peoples of Australia, for example. 

This is fast becoming the year of two things ironically linked: Canada’s sesquicentennial and sorting out who can call him- or herself a NAFNIP (Native Aboriginal First Nations Indigenous person). I say ironic because one of Canada’s bedrock policies, one that has been around nearly as long as the country itself, dealt with the control, classification and gradual dissolving and absorbing of Native identity. A result was that many of us were advised decades ago, if we for some reason were picked up by the authorities, to eat our Indian status card. And under no circumstances should we confess our Indigenous identity. White was right. Red was dead. Life in Canada was colour-coded.

In fact, it seemed non-Natives had better luck and more success being “Indians” than we Indians did. Witness the success of Archie Belaney, later named Grey Owl. And then there was Buffalo Child Long Lance, a Black man (with some theoretical Native blood), born Sylvester Long, who grew up in the American South under Jim Crow laws and found it much better to be Indian. In 1928 he wrote a fictionalized autobiography about growing up as a Blackfoot in Montana, and appeared in several movies as such.

Times have changed. 

So many people now want to be Native, you have to wonder what the appeal is, what with the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, high rates of diabetes, bad water, racism, subpar medical care and education. A cynic would say romantics embrace those they perceive as underdogs a realist would say the exotic is always appealing. This kind of fetishizing happens in many cultures. 

Rachel Dolezal comes to mind. She’s the woman who worked for the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, who was outed as white in 2015. 

But back to Boyden and the questions that have been asked recently about whether he’s overstated his Native heritage. I am more sympathetic than most of my literary and political colleagues and will leave the condemnation to the Aboriginal Ancestry Assessors (AAA). I don’t know enough about his family and personal history, apart from what’s been written elsewhere, to have a solid opinion. 

Personally, I’m reluctant to pass judgment. My own blue eyes have made me somewhat suspect. I was once told my name had been used 1,000 miles away to insult somebody in an argument: “You half-breed Drew Hayden Taylor Metis wannabe!” I guess that’s almost as good as appearing as a clue in a crossword. Another time I was asked if I’d been adopted by a Native family. 

Some are complaining that by posing as an Indigenous person Boyden has stolen the opportunities and voices of Native writers (and their potential prizes). But as devil’s advocate (though there is no devil in my culture), I remind you that two successful, renowned Canadian writers have maintained that who you are should not limit what you write. 

At a discussion about cultural appropriation, I heard noted Cree playwright Tomson Highway say, “For me to tell you what you can or cannot write based on the colour of your skin is in itself a form of racism.” At a writers’ conference, I heard W.P. Kinsella (yes, I realize the irony of quoting Kinsella) say something to the effect of “I don’t have to have committed suicide to write about it.” Two logical arguments.

Still, there’s more to writing about the Native community than just having a good imagination – or a few drops of Native blood. To play the Indigenous card you need to have walked the walk and personally dealt with scars left by several hundred years of colonization. There is a bond between individual and community forged by experience and history. I have it on good authority that one of my great, great grandparents was Irish, yet I have yet to read any James Joyce or feel it necessary to drive all the snakes out of Ontario. My cat is one-eighth Persian.

I know Boyden is an avid moose hunter, frequently trading the swamps of Louisiana for the muskeg of James Bay. That’s more than I’ve done. I’ve hunted at Shoppers Drug Mart for hair mousse. His talent for making the traditional Native hangover soup, though, is unknown. He probably puts shrimp in it.

It’s a complex issue. 

Joseph Boyden may or may not be “Grey Owling.” If he is, what a loss to our writing community. But he may be making the most of what he believes to be true. As I recall, it was standard practice in the American South to relegate anyone with even a drop of African blood in an otherwise Caucasian body to second-class citizenship. 

I remember hearing an elder say to a friend of mine once, “If you have one drop of Native blood in you, I consider you my daughter.”

In the long run, I don’t know what this means for Boyden. As things stand, he’s already a hell of a lot more successful than most Native or Canadian authors. Should he cut his losses and start writing about Canada’s Celtic diaspora, or continue in the Aboriginal literary mine, wary of critical cave-ins? 

I hope he weathers the storm. A lot of ugly things have been said about a nice man. The term “wannabe” is used a lot in our community to refer to people who wish they were Native. On occasion, though, you meet someone who could be called a “shouldabeen.” I’m just sayin…. 

Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright and novelist from Curve Lake First Nation near Peterborough. | @nowtoronto

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