Arguing About Native Identity, A Good Type of Trouble

We need to keep speaking about Native identity because it’s healing something, and if something breaks it doesn’t belong like the Joseph Boydens.

It’s been interesting to see the endless coverage and attention that Joseph Boyden has received concerning his Native identity. ‘Outing’ someone’s identity is always ugly business, and this specific case has further complicated First Nations identity and authorship. So many people are unapologetically opinionated on Boyden, but silent when it comes to the closest members in their communities, who seem to have loose connections, or none at all, to the Native identities they claim. Why are we outing Boyden, but not everyone else? Are we cleaning house or what?

Every other month there is a new memoir, editorial, novel, or panel concerning Native identity, liminal spaces, traumatic history, and how indigenous identity has shifted in contemporary and academic discourse. The ugly secret is that people writing these books and articles, and people having these conversations, are sometimes identifying as Native American, but refuse to specify their tribe, lineage, or history. We gossip about these people behind closed doors, or respectfully stay silent when they say problematic or dubious things. Why are we so comfortable discussing Boyden, but we’re too scared to name more names? Or even confront these other people?

I don’t know.


I do know people need to pay their mortgages. Some of us have money and time invested in our community members. Some of us have vouched and vetted these members and can’t afford to risk our ethos with some disrupting and ugly truth.

I also know it takes a certain type of person to call someone out. It takes a type of heartlessness to tell someone they aren’t Native. Adversely, opening oneself up for scrutiny by standing up against a person who’s deceiving a whole community or readership takes heart as well.

Ultimately, it’s important to note that it is the deceiver’s fault this ugliness falls upon our communities. It is his or her wrongdoing that devolves the work we’re doing to promote First Nations literature and education.

After Boyden, so many criticized the critics and leaders among us for being too hard and discerning about identity. So many people were quick to proclaim any slight against Boyden as lateral violence, or colonialist rhetoric. Honestly, the only thing that seems wrong to me is a person who would rather vigorously defend Boyden from Native people than let a conflict be disruptive and inclusive.

The trouble Boyden brought to our communities is good trouble. It asks us to look within ourselves and define what being Native is. Race, yeah—it’s a construct, but our brothers and sisters with a certain pigment, they deal with the realities of that construct. I know that pain, and all of these thoughts and feelings are going to follow us and our children and their children. Right now we’re one part of a conversation that is ongoing and changes with each generation. Is identity performative, formed, physical, intellectual, spiritual, or integral? If it’s everything, what weight do we give each distinction?

I don’t know.

The only thing I know is that silence used to be the motto in my family. Before my mother went to school for social work, she lived in relative silence concerning her pain, her abuse, and her Native identity. After she was given permission to speak, through knowledge, she became an unstoppable force in our community.

Some of our elders passed onto the next world in silence, because residential school hurt them beyond language, beyond articulation. They were told not to speak. So, today, when we speak so loudly and articulately about the issues of Native identity, abuse, exploitation, colonization, and wrongdoing, sometimes it’s ill received, discouraged, even. I say, let’s keep talking.

I’m sorry if I’ve essentialized us in this conversation—I’m not sorry for saying there’s something universal about our pain, about our compulsions to stay quiet.

If there is someone in your community selling their book, speaking on your panel, or telling you the Native experience, when you know there is something amiss in the way they tell their truth, don’t be afraid to open up a dialogue. It is not wrong to question each other; it’s wrong to think we can’t bear these conversations.

Our communities are strong enough to handle these things. Our communities are even strong enough to bring these people in, who are burdened by their own deception and shame. We’re strong enough to bring them in and let them witness our brilliance, capacities, and love. Let’s keep speaking, because in all its discomfort and ugly, it’s healing something, and whatever speaking breaks, it doesn’t belong in our culture.

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island. Her work has been featured in Carve Magazine and Yellow Medicine Review. She is Saturday Editor at The Rumpus and she’s a proud IAIA graduate.