The Boyden Problem

Joseph Boyden. Photo by Camille Gévaudan [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The 21st century’s own Grey Owl — also known as Joseph Boyden — has caused more than enough issues when it comes to Indigenous identity and positionality. Boyden is a British man infamous for falsely claiming Indigenous heritage and profiting from it.

Born to two non-Indigenous parents, Boyden has made numerous claims over the years of being Indigenous, without any strong ties to a community, a nation, or a people — yet he’s claimed status to multiple First Nations. Over the years, Boyden has claimed Indigeneity from such nations as: Attawapiskat, Wabigoon, Fort Albany, Moose Factory, and even claims Winnipeg (a city that isn’t even a First Nation community, mind you).

Boyden’s main claim to Indigenous ancestry and identity is through his Uncle Erl, whom he describes in his Maclean’s article “My name is Joseph Boyden” as “a First World War veteran, an artist, an actor and itinerant traveler, a gay, mixed-blood man” (not Indigenous, mind you). It is in his article that Boyden describes Erl’s persona, “Injun Joe”: a man who would dress up as an “Injun” (a very racist slang term for Indian) and pose in tourists’ pictures for money. This seems to be his claim to fame as an Indigenous person — why he has suddenly become an award-winning author under the Grey-Owl guise of being Indigenous.

Yet Boyden has also claimed to have taken a DNA test (as well as the rest of his family), but is only inclined to share the ‘results’ in his own article, and has refused to declare from whom the results came. His self-proclaimed DNA identity is as follows from his My Name is Joseph Boyden article: “And guess what? The verdict is: we’re mutts. Celtic DNA. Check. Native American DNA. Check. DNA from the Arctic. Cool. I didn’t know that. Explains my love for winter. Some Ashkenazi Jew? I love it.”

However, when it comes to the public opinion, many have their own ideas of whether or not his claim to an Indigenous identity is valid or not. A majority of Indigenous peoples say that he isn’t and never has been Indigenous — that he is a total Indigi-wannabe, profiting off of racist concepts, wrongfully portrayed ideals, and stolen stories. Yet many non-Indigenous Canadians believe that he is, and shame Indigenous peoples for not accepting him as the self-imposed white savior he is.

Now, what does this have to do with our beloved Trent University, the forefront of Indigenous Studies in academia? Well, it seems that Boyden’s incredibly biased novels have become woven into the newest INDG 1002 course.

Titled Critical Incidents in Modern Indigenous Life, the course sets out to “investigate and analyze five sites where Indigenous peoples are reinterpreting and reimagining their social, cultural and political worlds,” according to the course syllabus. One of these sites include one aptly titled, “Whose stories do we embrace: cultural appropriation in an age of decolonization.”

Many questions and concerns from Indigenous students were raised when Boyden’s book, Three Day Road, was selected as a mandatory reading. Students told to purchase this work of unjust biases and tool of mass profiteering (prices varying from $16 on Amazon, to a whopping $22 at our very own Campus Bookstore). It also came to be known that the racist concepts within the novel were held in high regard by INDG 1002 professor, David Newhouse. Indigenous students attending his January 28 lecture shared their total disgust when Newhouse claimed that Boyden’s perpetuated racist stereotypes put a “Cree lens” on war and the concepts of Indigenous spirituality — despite neither Newhouse or Boyden being Cree or carrying Cree teachings.

Yet it is our very same David Newhouse that wrote an article for the Toronto Star on the Boyden Problem. Newhouse wrote on four separate ways to claim identity: Indigenous ancestry, community membership, Aboriginal nation membership, and in accordance to the Indian Act and/or the Supreme Court of Canada. Yet Boyden’s way of claiming is none of the above. The most Boyden has in terms of membership is a claim to the Ontario Woodland Metis — their requirements for membership? Complete a vague membership form and payment.

That’s right. For a fee ranging from $25 to $45, you can gain a two to five year membership under one of three guises. The first being “Full,” which the application describes as “Any person of Aboriginal descent within the meaning of s35(2) of the Canada Act, 1982 but NOT a band member residing on a reservation”; “Youth,” defined as “Same as Full membership, only the applicant is under 18 years of age.” Finally, the cream of the crop: “Associate”, defined as “Non-Status Indians, Status Indians or Individuals with Band Memberships who live on a reservation.”

Buying his way into Indigenous identity with money made from capitalizing on his misleading Western concepts of Indigenous lives and ways of being, Boyden’s claim to identity has been refuted and denied by thousands of Indigenous Canadians while non-Indigenous Canadians consider him to be the face of Indigenous literature.

Even Newhouse recognizes this in his Toronto Star article, stating, “You will note that none of these ways (of claiming identity) involve asking non-Indigenous Canadians whether they consider him an Indigenous person. Their views are not relevant to the determination of his Indigenous identity, except in the case of the state rules, which have been mostly set by Non-Indigenous Canadians.” Newhouse then goes on to state the irrefutable: “his [Boyden’s] claim seems to have been accepted by Non-Indigenous Canadians on using the ancestry rules and he was treated as an Indigenous person. His claim has been disputed by members of the Indigenous community.”

All this connects back to Trent and the INDG 1002 course — a course taught and run by Newhouse. Why would he choose the novel of a profiteering racist to be part of the course’s mandatory literature? Why wouldn’t the required texts all be those of actual Indigenous authors, such as Thomas King, Richard Wagamese, Leanne Simpson, or even that of Trent’s very own Dawn Lavell-Harvard? Authors who know Indigenous ways of being and don’t promote such racist stereotypes?

This does raise a few questions, especially with this year being the first in which students require at least one INDG credit to complete their studies. Would there not be profit to be made on Boyden’s behalf? Especially when keeping in mind that the INDG 1002 course consists of about 100 to 300 students? And what about the perpetuated racism that’s being allowed to grow and expand in the minds of Non-Indigenous students on campus, who are unable to differentiate between the truth and racist ideals that are being promoted by their professor, who ought to know better? Trent University — why are you, a place of higher learning that claims to have a progressive Indigenous Studies department, putting money towards a course embracing a book that teaches lies?