The Struggle For Joseph Boyden
I didn’t want to write this.
There are enough Joseph Boyden stories and opinions out there already.
But here goes…
We grew up in public housing during our early years. My parents were young students.
My mother is a warrior woman. She fights. She works. I remember her red hair blazing in the sun as we picked the harvest of a small garden. She was the one who encouraged my father to dig deeper to discover his own cultural roots.
He had been farmed out as a child, taken. Raised in a white home far from his original family. It took him decades to return. He ran from an American war he thought was unethical, refusing to be drafted. He ended up back in Alberta, his birthplace.
He did discover his roots. He discovered his family again. To be more accurate, he recovered.
His mother is Cree from Goodfish First Nation and Red River Metis – a great grandaughter of the Gabriel Dumont family, that genius of a general; master at developing what we now call guerrilla warfare; defender of culture and rights against a government and corporation that wanted the land of his people. His father was Cayuse and served in World War II, special to the President.
But like most recoveries, there was a cost for my father and our family. Uncover enough pain and for a while the world will only look like pain. He and my mother divorced. I didn’t see him again for 20 years.
My step-father is also Cree and Metis. His great aunt was Senator Thelma Chalifoux. He was hurt badly as a young boy and for a time lost the ability to speak. It took him many, many years to learn to read again. He also learned that the people who can harm you most are family, and that lesson also took a very long time to recover from.
My own life as a mixed blood child was both marvelous and terrible.
Days spent in the warm sun gathering tadpoles, wandering waist deep along the shoreline of a big, beautiful swamp. Listening to the birds, watching hatchlings emerge from their shells, learning the plants, observing the insects as they buzzed and skittered and swam. Evenings bundled up in snow gear, lying on my back, watching the dance of the Northern Lights, my ancestors, watching over me. Breath rising like a soul yearning to join them.
There was also fear. There was pain. The inherited legacies of Residential School, of Scoops, of alcoholism, abandonment and abuse. Those evil fingers digging deep into our generations, trying to twist peace into perpetual pain.
I was beaten up at school, I was described as rugged. I was always angry and sad and wanted to disappear from the world so completely. But I always smiled.
I was a lonely child through most of school. I didn’t know how to communicate the hurts my step-dad endured, how he unwittingly put them on us. I didn’t know how to talk about my father leaving, about the emptiness that stayed. The feeling of unworthiness.
I didn’t know how to talk about the terror we sometimes felt walking into our home – and how that was so confusing as with it also came so much real love.
As I got older, the “random stops” began. The police throwing me in the back of a cruiser as they ran my ID, telling me I fit a “description.” Sometimes they would let me go, no problem. Sometimes there was some roughing up first.
One time, my head was pressed into the concrete under a heavy black boot. A baton raised and a partner pulling the guy back.
“He’s not worth it.”
I hid out for a couple weeks in my basement apartment until the wounds healed.
After my kids were born. I cut my long hair. It was difficult finding employment and the random traffic stops made me worried for them. What if I was taken away one day while they were in the car?
If I stay out of the sun, my skin gets very pale with a smattering of freckles. I no longer get pulled over or stopped.
I was called a bum, a dirty Indian, a whore, a freeloader, a mooch, a crook, and so on. I still am, sometimes, but rarely to my face anymore. That’s just social media for you.
I have four sons.
Two are very pale, with sea foam eyes and hair like warm straw.
One looks like me.
And one is a beautiful, chocolate brownie, so full of life and excitement and curiosity.
Guess who I worry for most?
Sometimes my stomach clenches in pain at my worry for him.
This is a very long story, but there is a purpose.
I still have physical scars on my body from my experience as an Indigenous man in this place. I have worked my entire life to heal the inner scars. To stop the cycles of pain that we all inherit.
This is a very small sharing of my experience and it is absolutely not uncommon. I am blessed as I have found a way through. I have found healing. Many have not been so lucky.
And so that brings me to Joseph Boyden.
I don’t know his personal life. I don’t know his personal pain.
I don’t condemn him for playing Indian. It’s safe.
If you never have to face the actual discrimination and pain of inheriting an Indigenous identity, what cost is there in claiming one?
None at all.
Rather, there is access to awards and prizes, to praise and friendships with rock stars, Prime Ministers, to speaking fees and fame.
And if the story was that the system actually worked – that an Indigenous person made it through the struggle and earned these things – we would all be celebrating.
We were celebrating.
Then we find out it was based on a fantasy.
That’s what hurts.
We have asked: who is your family, who are your people, where are you from, who claims you?
But we didn’t ask: what was your struggle?
I don’t think struggle is the metric for someone to receive recognition or awards. There’s that old “more Indian than you” trope that I personally dislike – but to know that Boyden’s Indigenous struggle is basically that of trying to invent one…I think that may be something that deserves a moment or two of thought. There are Indigenous awards and grants for a reason: it’s an attempt to even the playing field after centuries of inequality. Taking advantage of that decent, sincere effort – taking the place of an Indigenous person who has “lived experience” of the wrongs we are trying to right – is no less than a betrayal.
I still maintain that Joseph Boyden can make amends, that he can find a place among some Indigenous community, but that does not excuse what he has reportedly done.
And what he has allegedly done is to perpetuate a grand theft on those who have already lost so, so much.
So we should ask: what is Joseph’s story? His struggle?
What generational pain has he had to work to heal?
Boyden has the dubious honour of representing this kind of doubt for all those who come after. These questions will now be asked as a matter of course.
And really, those who have suffered and endured deserve to know.