Over the holiday break, I was asked to host the @indigenousXca Twitter account, an account shared by different Indigenous activists, academics, and artists each week. I used that hosting opportunity to raise the question of author Joseph Boyden’s Indigenous identity—his “Indigeneity.” Raising this question inadvertently brought an Indigenous debate about identity and belonging into the non-Native media mainstream.
The Walrus magazine and its editor, Jonathan Kay, were among the first non-Native media to take notice of the Boyden issue a few days after it arose on social media and in an APTN news report. Kay wrote an article that was sub-headlined: “Attacking a man’s racial composition is never an entirely benign exercise.”
In that article, and in a subsequent appearance on CBC’s The National this Sunday, Kay focused on the issue of race, saying “I am troubled [by] the interrogation of someone on the basis of their racial ancestry.” He characterized the APTN investigation into Boyden’s ancestry as being “precisely about his genetic makeup,” and suggested that it would lead to a “DNA test mentality” in determining who could speak for Indigenous communities. On each of these three points, Kay is incorrect and shows a misunderstanding of the context of this Indigenous debate.
Two days ago I was given the opportunity to guest host at the Twitter account @IndigenousXca; it’s a shared account that each week is hosted by a different First Nations person. It’s a larger and more influential audience than I’m used to, and I chose to use it to bring out into the open what a lot of us Natives have been saying about Joseph Boyden privately, that we question his Native identity. What led many of us to think this is that the way in which Boyden has described his indigenous background is confused.
On his Speaker’s Bureau Profile, where you can hire Boyden to give his signature speech titled “The Aboriginal Experience”, Boyden is described as Metis, an identity he also claimed when he won the 2005 McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award and its $5000 prize. At Carleton University’s Voicing Aboriginal Stories conference, Boyden was described as Ojibwe. To CBC Aboriginal, he presented himself as Anishinabe and Nipmuc. APTN’s Jorge Barrera dug into Boyden’s lineage, and found nothing to substantiate any of these claims.