Joseph Boyden, Natives Don’t Get Pity

Joseph Boyden was recently scrutinized for lack of proof in regards to his Native roots. His apology letter sought pity for an error in a way.

Joseph Boyden, author of The Orenda and a figurehead in Native literature, was recently scrutinized for his lack of proof concerning his Native roots. Boyden has referred to himself as Celtic, Metis, Ojibway, Mi'kmaq and Nipmuc, which is super confusing and suspicious. When APTN award-winning journalist Jorge Barrera questioned all of this, Joseph Boyden wrote an apologetic letter that notes how, while he is only a “little bit” Native, he’s enough and he belongs. He stated that he only wanted to discuss the issue further in the “sacred and safe place” of a “speaking circle.” I’m sorry, Boyden, but if you are in fact Indian, you don’t get pity. We’re not allotted the luxury of pity.

When Indians mess up bad in the white world, our awards are taken away, and we’re not given a platform to apologize or elicit pity (with the possible exception of someone like Sherman Alexie). By the time we feel compelled to “speak our truth,” we’re already forgotten about or ignored.

His response was cringe-worthy because it was via Twitter, and it was entitled. He requested APTN to bring forth their “Elder in Residence to facilitate a “speaking circle.” Does he know a TV corporation might not have an Elder in Residence? And if they do, I’d go ahead and say they shouldn’t be bothered to coddle a successful author who was caught in some PR nightmare. Use a publicist like all Native and non-Native professionals do when they need a pivot or a spin.


I get that he wants to repair his relationships with Indian country and First Nations communities, but dialogue has to happen outside of a circle as well as in. We are contemporary Indians and we live outside of “traditional” spaces. We’re on Twitter and Facebook, and a lot of our dialogue on identity and authenticity happens in real time online, and not in some conference room with an Elder in Residence.

Joseph Boyden has the privilege to explain himself and be contrite. His explanation came across like a letter negotiating with himself on why he still “belongs” to Indigenous communities.

Why can't he man up and admit he’s flawed like everyone else? Writers are pretty much liars, even the people writing nonfiction. We frame a story with language that softens the blow, or hardens it, or dramatizes it. Writers lie to tell the truth.

He could easily give back or donate his award money, which was delegated for Native authors. He could start there.

He needs to stop trying to make this reconciliation with Native people altruistic, and just let this be ugly. Our conflicts are ugly, even within our own communities—within our own families. He’s somewhat perpetuating a stereotype by assuming the only right way to handle an issue is to sit in a circle with an Elder in Residence.

Let conflict be ugly, and if he's lucky we'll let him into our community to listen and learn. He doesn't need to stop writing, but he's got to stop trying to Hippy Native his way out of this.

The conversations coming out of this controversy have been labeled as necessary and sometimes troubling, because when we start talking about what an Indian is and isn’t, it can negatively affect our people who have been displaced and just want to know about their ancestors. A Native who doesn’t know who her grandmother was, but see traces of her in the shape of her own eyes, her skin, and her hands—she knows somewhere she belongs, and she’s searching. I still welcome people like that. They do belong, and so does Joseph Boyden—not as immediate members of our communities, but as people who are justified in having questions and wanting to know who their grandmothers are.

Academics have been so misguided when they talk about Boyden. They really go in talking about kinship in a very convoluted and grandiose way, like RZA when he talks about Wutang, Wu affiliates, and the 36 chambers. They talk about kinship like it’s a romantic and nostalgic thing based in belonging. Have they met any of our families? Seriously. They talk about belonging to their land and people as if that’s what defines an identity. Academics seem like the least qualified people to talk about identity, when they isolate Native community members with their scholarly vocabularies and classism. I’m speaking generally, and not to anyone specific, but they can be elitist in how they are more likely to cite an academic on identity over a tribal office worker or single mother on social assistance living on the rez. All these voices need to be included, because they’re all valid.

My relationship to my community doesn’t define how Indian I am.

My relationship to my Indigenous land doesn’t define how Indian I am.

My community is remote. My mother, my aunties, and my elders helped me become the woman and mother I am. In many ways my community has also betrayed me. In many ways my community is not good for my children. In many ways the government within my community has assimilated to the point where I don’t trust them enough. I left my community, but I take the people with me every day. I write for my people and my family. But that relationship is personal—mine, and it does not define how Indian I am. I am not more Indian for being on the rez, or for leaving it, or even if I never saw it.

My land is not my own anymore. After my mother died, a family member asked me to sign my entitlement over. She put the paper and pen in my hands as she was about to give me a ride into town to buy baby formula. She was the only person who helped me get into town for necessities besides social workers, and I needed her. So I signed it. I can’t go back to my home. I can’t live on the property I grew up on. That does not make me more or less Indian.

I honestly don’t know how I define being an Indian, but I know what it’s not. My mom raised me to dismantle oppressive forces to make things better for the people to come. I believe in deconstruction and decolonization. Paperwork is a white man’s way of determining our Indian identity. Romantic ideas about community, lineage, and ancestry aren’t always perfect means to an identity when Native people have been subjected to genocide and historical erasure.

The way Joseph Boyden talks, I don’t think he can even grasp the way I think about being an Indian, or the way we think about it. I mean, in interviews he’s defined himself as a bit of a “two-spirit,” because he likes to live in New Orleans and Ontario? That’s not how that works. Man, that is a very ignorant thing to say. He has a lot to learn, and I know there are patient people who can help him find a way out of the problematic rhetoric he’s using. I’m sure he could even find someone to help him better articulate and clarify his heritage, so that people who are searching to find themselves can find a better way to navigate identity within our communities. There’s a way to carry humility into our circles without being pitiful and suspicious.

Terese Mailhot is a graduate from the Institute of American Indian Arts. She’s Saturday Editor at The Rumpus. Her work has been featured in Carve Magazine, The Offing, The Toast, and elsewhere.