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Joseph Boyden: Who Are You, Really?

“I’m kind of confused by the question... I think that’s very much a White construct”

Without a doubt, it was our worst-ever show.  We never had a guest walk out on us before; the shitstorm that followed saw us branded all over the Internet as racially-insensitive bigots.  The author’s publicist swore never to work within us again, and insinuated that he’d try to pull us off the air.

All this happened because widely-feted Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden (Giller Prize, Member of the Order of Canada, etc) walked out of the studio when invited by host Ian Winn to discuss his First Nation origins.  We thought at the time – and still do – that it was a direct but fair question, given Boyden’s close association with First Nation matters.

As it turns out, we were the first to publicly raise the issue of Mr. Boyden’s origins, now given fresh impetus by an Aboriginal Peoples Television Network investigation by award-winning reporter Jorge Barrera.

In a case redolent of Rachel Dolezal, the American president of a N.A.A.C.P. chapter and university instructor in African-American studies who was subsequently revealed to be a white woman passing herself off as black, Barrera’s painstaking investigation raises significant questions.

The article concludes that Boyden’s indigenous heritage “has been an ever shifting, evolving thing. Over the years, Boyden has variously claimed his family’s roots extended to the Métis, Mi’kmaq, Ojibway and Nipmuc peoples.”

In another article, Montreal writer Robert Jago makes clear his own misgivings about Boyden.  “Boyden is very prominent”, says Jago, “and a darling of Non-Native Canada. When he takes on a topic of importance to First Nations people, he drowns out other indigenous voices.”  Jago says he is only bringing into the open “what a lot of us Natives have been saying about Joseph Boyden privately, that we question his Native identity.”

“It appears that Mr. Boyden has not been forthcoming about his indigenous identity, benefiting from a crafted ambiguity” says Hayden King, who himself traces his First Nations ancestry back through seven generations. “Mr. Boyden is just the latest”, he adds.  “Last year prolific scholar Andrea Smith’s claims to Cherokee ancestry were debunked. Before Ms. Smith were academics Susan Taffe Reed and Ward Churchill, writers Margaret Seltzer and Archie Belaney (Grey Owl), actors Espera Oscar de Corti (Iron Eyes Cody), Johnny Depp and so on. There is a long tradition of playing Indian.”

You can hear the entire unedited Litopia After Dark above, including the pre-show and Ian and Peter’s thoughts after the walk-out.  The video of the show was posted to Youtube, but removed after many hostile comments.

“The comments were deeply unpleasant”, says producer Peter Cox.  “Ian and I both felt under serious attack for so much as daring to ask Boyden to talk about his ancestry.  At one point, Boyden even claimed that he didn’t understand the concept… that it was very much a “White construct”.  Yet his reputation is based to some extent on being an authentic voice.  How is it wrong to ask him to talk about this?”

One good thing came of the abortive show, though.  Ian and Peter were so concerned by the allegations of racial insensitivity that they invited Dr. Leo Killsback, professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University and citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, onto a subsequent show to learn more.

“And that”, says Cox, “was one of the best shows we’ve ever produced.”

Photo by Camille Gévaudan

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