Author: Lenard Monkman
There are literally Indigenous youth out here who would love nothing more, than to shed their brown skin to become white. I’ve witnessed them talk and write about it. I have brown skin. I also have a great grandparent who was Scottish. I would never be able to, suddenly take that identity on. My brown skin would never allow it, and my family would think I’m ridiculous. After all of the adoption ceremonies and cotton swab DNA tests, Joseph Boyden has come out swinging and says that he will not be silenced. There is a lot of money to be made from him being able to take that identity on, but only someone like him would be able to pull it off. Most Indigenous people that I know that self-identify, don’t have to jump through the hoops that he has to take that identity on. He went through all of that work and couldn’t pull out some family photos? A lot of people wouldn’t dig into someone’s personal history when they know who your family is. If your family married out, denied, and lived anglo-christian lifestyles for X-generations, what is your connection?
When the Boyden story broke in December, I knew that it was going to be a massive. What I didn’t know at the time, was just how divisive the issue would be. For at least a month, we couldn’t escape the online discussions in the numerous articles, and through social media. I have seen both sides of the arguments. There are many non-Indigenous folks who have watched the narrative unfold and agree that he is, without a doubt, Indigenous. There are many Indigenous folks who think that he has done nothing more than appropriate an Indigenous identity to cash in on lucrative book deals and speaking engagements.
There is no doubting the fact that the man can write. We wouldn’t be talking about him if he couldn’t.
All of this has meant that Indigenous people overall, have become more divided. With many Indigenous folks, the Indian Act determines who is and who isn’t an Indian. Many of our people over the last 150 years have been systematically pushed away from that identity through residential schools and the child welfare system, only to see themselves on the outside looking in.
From a political standpoint, Boyden represents the challenge that is facing Indigenous self-determination, and our ability to decide who is a member. With ongoing rhetoric suggesting that we are nations, this discussion on identity brings a more serious matter to the forefront. How are we able to move forward in this country if we are unable to decide our own members?
There is no doubt in my mind that Boyden has done some great philanthropic work in and for Indigenous communities. I know that there are Indigenous folks out there who would disagree, but I think that any time someone uses their stature and platform to further the Indigenous cause, I see it as a win. Gord Downie was a perfect example of that.
Boyden is different though.
He has written throughout his career as an Indigenous person, taking up space talking about the plights that our people have faced. Has taken the steps to go through ceremony, name drop and eventually take the DNA tests to prove that he is a mixed-blood “mutt.”
The most troubling issue of all is the fact that there are many Indigenous people who have been completely caught off-guard by the whole conversation on what it means to be Indigenous. This needs to happen. As ugly as it has been, it is also an opportunity for Indigenous nations to sit down and decide who is and who isn’t a member of their communities. I am not talking about specific Indian reserves, but rather real Indigenous nations. We need to have internal conversations, while non-Indigenous Canada sits back and watches the drama unfold.
At the end of the day, it is not up to me to decide who is or who isn’t an Indian. I probably have as much or more Scottish blood as he has Indigenous blood, and I know that I would never be able to pull off that identity, no matter how many Scottish ceremonies or Scottish people vouched for me.
It’s not a witch hunt. It’s not a personal attack on the guy. There are ways to be a good ally without saying that you are actually an Indian. I see these people every single day.
So if he is indeed a self-identified Indian, is it safe to say that he is the most divisive “Indian” in Indian country.