On July 29, 2015 I attended a talk by Joseph Boyden at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I sat to the far right in a room with approximately 400 people of all ages but a mostly white audience. This audience hung on the words of Boyden who opened with a story about receiving tobacco for the talk, which made things to him “just right.” This opening performance about tobacco immediately caused discomfort in me. I wondered about his intention in this moment and how divulging such information to a white crowd would produce a specific kind of response. As I look back now, it is clear that this information - about receiving tobacco - positioned him as “legitimate” in the eyes of the white audience who sought to be proximate to an Indigenous person.
Boyden structured his talk in three parts signaled by the playing of a blues inflected harmonica and mouth harp meanderings. He read both on and off the page - short stories, personal anecdotes and pleasant jokes. He mentioned his current home of New Orleans many times and that it is a “dangerous” place where one could be robbed. He mentioned the Mardi Gras Indians. Made several jokes about a poorly written novel in his MFA program titled motorcycle boy. I watched a man close his eyes while Boyden played a short blues riff on his instrument of choice the other being a drum of course. All were captive to his voice as he spoke for over an hour with an inflected accent of unknown origin.
Speaking of his origins, Boyden mentioned “mixed blood” and “Anishinabe ancestry” many times but did not clearly state where he comes from. I am discomforted by this blurriness, as it has appeared in numerous other interviews and publications about him. As Boyden’s talk continued it became clear to me that the ways in which he performs - words and stories - are directed, pointed, to exploit this kind of audience, an audience that I am not a part of. (This idea becomes more and more forceful throughout the talk.) This is a predominantly white upper middle class audience who seeks to be proximate to an “Indian,” a safe “Indian,” with safe stories, safe approaches, safe smiles. I was aware beforehand that Boyden spent time in my homelands teaching and meeting with people, developing relationships. Throughout the talk he mentions James Bay and various people and communities in my homelands. These mentions came with more and more frequency and my slight discomfort turned into anger and resentment and a sick feeling in my stomach and feeling of exhaustion by the end of it. My visceral response came to a sharp point when he read a short story, a fictional short story of suicide, youth suicide in northern Ontario. There was a recklessness and irresponsibility to his selfish fictionalization of these stories; does Boyden speak for the youth of winipêkohk, for the youth of pîtipêkohk or ministikohk? I certainly cannot claim to. My answer would be no that no singular person can or should. Those stories belong to those families; they are not there to be mined, to be taken away for the benefit of others.
Boyden has become a willing representative. He has become a singular authoritative voice. He mentioned a few times during the talk that he was on the CBC radio program Q speaking on Indigenous issues. He mentioned that he was requested by Walrus magazine to participate in a panel about these things as well. I have seen his name in countless programs, magazines and publications. He is an award-winning successful author. People, and more specifically, Canadians, listen to this man when he speaks. It is how he speaks and what he speaks of that I am tremendously concerned with. Boyden has mined the landscape and people for content, names, histories and stories for his own benefit, to propel himself into those spaces where there is an audience, where he can be listened to, where he can be paid attention to. This happens while others with those actual experiences and knowledge are pushed out and discounted, ignored and silenced. The discounted stories are not the stories that Canadians want to hear.
In the talk Boyden mentioned “mixed blood” and “Anishinabe ancestry” many times. In other articles, he mentions Mêtis, Micmaw, but with no clarity on where he originates. I ask in earnest, is this not an important thing, where one comes from and who one is connected to? To know how you are connected is important to Indigenous communities and Indigenous communities situate themselves around you with this information. I do not know how to situate myself in this way towards Boyden because of the misinformation he has perpetuated time and time again. There has been a very problematic and extensive history of non-Indigenous people assuming the identities of Indigenous people for their own benefits. Because of these incidents, I have become protective of our ideas, our stories, our histories, our languages, our culture and lands and critical of those who desire to exploit these things for their own cultural, social and financial benefits.
Where one comes from is an important idea in contemporary Indigenous communities. Being able to locate and speak to where one comes from and her or his connections to that particular community is an exchange that situates a person and his or her ideas. When I am asked where it is that I come from, I respond with Moose Cree First Nations, even though I do not live there. My response immediately locates my family and I to those families and histories, but it is more complex that that - my family originates from many communities on the east and west coasts of James Bay and Hudson Bay, including Moose Cree, Pîwânak, Chisasibi, and in the bush near LaSarre. I also have relatives living in many other communities and cities, and I did much of my growing up in Timmins, Ontario. Although I currently do not live in Treaty 9 territory, I live in close proximity to our territory, and my identity is firmly rooted in the land, animals, families, history and language of that place, going back thousands and thousands of years. I speak and learn the language of that place. I continue to learn the history of it, so that future generations can learn it.
It is difficult for some Indigenous people to answer the question, “Where are you from?” due to the ongoing and historical effects of colonialism and specifically, residential schools and the 60’s scoop. So sensitivity becomes a necessary component of this vital question. But when one cannot answer the question, or responds to it in ways that are deliberately blurry - when asked by the Indigenous community – this signals to many of us that there are problems which need to be clarified. So, there must be a continued effort to ask these questions, however difficult the asking may be. Too much is at stake if we do not.