This blog originally appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network.
Joseph Boyden, author of The Orenda, is a figurehead in native literature and 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, and it's super confusing and suspicious.
When APTN award-winning journalist Jorge Barrera questioned all of this, 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 -- unfortunately, Indians like us don't get 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.
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.
When we start talking about what an Indian is and isn't, it can negatively affect our people.
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.
Boyden has the privilege to explain himself and be contrite. It seemed like a letter negotiating with himself on why he still "belongs" to indigenous communities.
The questions his identity raises are interesting and necessary, but if he's unwilling to have those conversations publicly, he's holding up progress.
If he's unwilling to work within our community to discuss the issue of identity, nationhood and race, the best thing he could do is give up any money he'd won under the assumption he was native. He could give up his seat at the table, too.
He should know 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.
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 sees 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 Boyden -- as people who are justified in their desire to ask questions.
Academics have been misguided when they talk about Boyden. 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 vocabularies and classism. At times 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.
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.
Paperwork is a white man's way of determining our Indian identity.
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 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 work every day to call myself a member of this community.
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 Boyden talks, I don't think he can even grasp the way I think about being an Indian, or the way many of us 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.
He mentions our beliefs in interviews like it's a novelty, a fun fact. You can't sell Indian like a souvenir. I work every day to call myself a member of this community.
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