Friday, December 30, 2016

Joseph Boyden: Identity a Sore Point

I will say it again, the greatest issue facing Indigenous folk is Identity.

I once put this statement on Twitter. Immediately I was challenged that its not identity; try to think about identity when you are without food. Meaning there are more immediate and tangible issues that are more pressing.  I understand the argument. Still I say identity is the most compelling the most dire of consequence to affect Indigenous people. Right there we start it off. With what do we call ourselves? Yeah I know, I'm Anishinaabe and other Tribes (see there again tribes?)or Bands call themselves by their original language title. Growing up I was Indian and also Saulteaux Indian. Now we are Ojibwe and Anishinaabe, Indigenous and First Natioins.  For a while we were Aboriginal. I never liked the term but used it to be in the correct at the time. I was so used to the term Indian that it didn't matter about its history and all that goes with it. The labeling of who we are is so important and it becomes an emotional debate. We are invested in making sure we know who we are and who our people are. Wouldn't you be if your whole existence was bombarded with Main stream social norms, customs, laws, polices, education system, intended to wipe you out?

Societies all over the world are fierce in protecting who they are and make sure pride is embedded in who they are. When individuals threaten to usurp who you are of course you are going to protect and fight the threat. While others attack with venom because they don't like your identity. Some of the ugliest wars and genocides have been because of the views against another's identity. 

So please have some understanding when we question the validity of an identity. It maybe wrong to judge but its a survival mechanism.

When speaking about Joseph Boyden and his crisis of identity we should have a little context as to why it is and issue to begin with. Our identity is vital. It defines a great deal of who we are and what experiences we share. It bonds us. I look at my ancestors and think about what they endured just for being who they were/are. Joseph Boyden has both critics and protectors regarding his identity.

I am not too quick to side with Boyden. I think about  the ordeals of our ancestors and what the Government, police and Church did to try and erase their identity. I think about my Mishoom - Grandpa. My Mishoom was a big man both in stature and standing. He was a bushman and contractor. He had men working for him and they in turn fed their families. He was a respected man. Yet this man was not considered a man in the eyes of  society. He could not walk into a licensed establishment and buy himself a drink.  He had to wait outside the pub and be at the mercy of a young white man to buy liquor for him. A thing we take for granted. The point is not about the buying of beer (as many would jump on as a bad thing) but rather where you are put in a position of embarrassment and subservient to others. Even when he was held in high regard in his own community, but outside the Reserve, he and his fellow Indians were not considered men or adults. My Granddad is an example of what our ancestors endured. This is just one small example of how it was different for Indigenous people. They endured so much; community displacement, enfranchisement, residential school, community pass system, "kill the Indian in the child" policies/laws, registration of status, racism-structural and societal, spiritual extinguish, language prohibition as well as child apprehension.

 The things our Ancestors and relatives went through is not just a piece of folk lore or just historical stories. But really its recent and even today that our relatives face the hardships of being who they are.

It does anger me when we have pretend Indians. Ward Churchill was a big piece of ugly identity theft. The thing that bothers us is because of the way we receive people; we take them at their word. That is who we are. Like when we took Treaty brokers at their word. So when we find out it is not true, we see they have broken a trust. So of course we are going to be hurt, upset and perhaps a little angry. Wouldn't you be angry if someone took advantage of your trust?

I know I have told this story before but it is significant and encapsulates the identity issue and in some cases crisis. While attending University I frequented the Native Student Lounge. I did go there to hang out and visit with other Neechies (slang for other Indians and friends). This one day a young man was there. So I started a conversation with him. One of the first things I asked was "where you from?" He replied with "Winnipeg".  This of course was not what I expected after all he was Indigenous. So I gave him a lecture. "I don't like that. We are all from somewhere. I mean where are your people, your parents are from. Its where to start if we have something or someone in common. So where's your parents from?" He said "I don't know... I was adopted." Bang! In my face! But he didn't say it like that. He was contrite, apologetic, and felt very sad looking. This experience humbled me. My arrogance of growing up in the community surrounded by a large family - immediate and extended. So it is a slap in my face for being a pious jerk. The identity relationships we enjoy are not privilege to all of our relatives. Many of our people are just trying to find their own home.  I remember the big controversy with Shania Twain. She identified as being Ojibway and good for her. She was raised from childhood by an Ojibway Dad and has Ojibway family members. So why couldn't she identify as Ojibway? Was it the DNA connection? I have a sister-in-law who is a registered Status Indian of Canada. She has no Indigenous Ancestry but is recognized as an Indian by the government of Canada.

Our identity has been attacked for many many years and in many many ways. So there are those out there that are now on a path to find and connect. We should all have a home to go back to.

Identity is who we are. So if your identity has been savaged for an extended period of time, what do you expect to happen? Confusion? Safe guarding and paranoia? Exclusion and confirmation? Exploration?

The one thing we do as Indigenous folk, we celebrate our heroes. We look for them. Look at the professional sports leagues; we search out our relatives. For example ask any Canadian who Stan Jonathon is and they will know right off. Maybe not the kids anymore but the kids will tell you who the best goalie in the NHL is. That's right the best goalie right now in all of the world is a Neechie, Carey Price. So its not like we are looking to knock people of their stools, its quite the opposite. But we have no patience for the pretender, the liar.

There are so many categories and sub-categories to who we are. The identity of who our people are is one of the first items we identify with and perhaps family being first. The whole identity of our people can be complex as well. We are Indigenous but we are also Ojibway, Cree, Sioux but more so we are Anishinaabe, Nêhiyawi-, Lakota, Innu, and so on. Not only do we have so much labels but we have others putting their stamp on who we are or should be. In our own communities we have differences of opinions as to who we are.   The Metis for example are fighting hard about who they are and who should identify who is Metis or just "mixed blood". Crazy.  My wife and her family have so much Indian blood and are Metis but don't rely on a quazi-political organization to identify who they are. They just live knowing who they are. At the end of the day we still know who our people are and for those looking for their people, we are willing to help.

So if someone wants to claim Indigenous heritage with no context (family community) we may be forgiven if we want to look closer.

As my wife says it must be good to have a whole country to go to. Where a whole country speaks your tongue like Germany, England Russia China France Romania and just about every country in the world. The countries where colonial rule has made them the majority are the exceptions; Mexico Brazil New Zealand Canada United States Australia. These are the countries where the Indigenous people are no longer the majority speakers. Its very important to us to know where are home is. We are like any other Nation, we want a home to always be able to go back to.

There are many links in this post highlighted in blue which can further examine the nature of Indigenous identity and many of the issues related. Just click on the links if you are interested. Miigwetch.



  1. Saulteaux is a french term meaning "people of the rapids"
    "Indian" is quoting a lost man, columbus had no idea where he was and landed in the carribean. We are NOT Saulteaux or indians

    We are Anishinaabe and Ojibwe is our native tongue.

  2. Anishinaabe are like all other peoples in wanting to cling to their identity. I grew up proud to be Mennonite. We were hard working people, persecuted and chased all over Europe for upsetting the status quo. We would not fight when attacked, but believed that God required us to live at peace with all men. We spoke low German and had our own version of borscht and perogies. I am still proud to be Mennonite, but have come to understand the danger of tribalism in which we identify too strongly with our group. It sometimes blinds us to the narrowness that can creep into every cultural group. Pride of heritage can morph into a feeling of superiority. We are better because we have more educated people in our tribe. We are better because we lead a simple life (we don't even use electricity or drive cars). We are better because we are more generous in giving than other groups. And on it goes.

    It is human nature to separate ourselves from others by our language and culture. In and of themselves they are not bad and often are worthy of celebration. However too often they are used to exclude. I understand the hurt of the Indian people and the need for identity, but I don't think that a strong feeling of personal value will come out of the language we speak or the traditions we practice. It only comes out of a recognition that God gives us value as individuals who he created in his image. Once we understand this our tribalism disappears and we begin to identify with our fellow man whatever his language or culture. We can share each others burdens and care for each other as Christ taught us to. Then we can walk tall and confident in who we are no matter what others will say about us or think.

  3. Of course everyone is proud of their heritage or at least they should be. There is a link to our ancestors and our way of life shared. The identifying with others is good in that we know we all have joy and pain. Still there are differences and we should also embrace those differences.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Sorry I don't know what i did but I accidently removed your comments and that wasn't my intention. Was trying to respond. Your points were well taken about taking peoople at face value and how it may be wrong to challenge an identity when a person is not of that race - in this case Indian. I am sorry i removed your comments. Steve

    1. No problem.

      To reiterate, I wrote about how I, as an Anglo suburbanite, have no business trying to determine who is or is not Indigenous. We can probably recall the recent case of the woman in Montreal who was denied a tax exemption because the cashier said she didn't "look" Indigenous.

      Hence I take claims of Indigenous identity at face value. Unfortunately, the problem with that is that con artists like Ward Churchill can claim to be Indigenous, and decry any non-Native who calls them out on it as racist. After all, who am I to judge who is or isn't Indigenous?

      Hence I'm not sure what somebody like me could do when Joseph Boyden starts spewing the way he does. Unforturnately, it seems like it would have to be up to actual Indigenous people themselves, much like what the good folks at APTN did with their expose.