My name is Hayden King. I am the son of Hayden (Sr.) and Carol. On my father’s side I am Anishinaabe, Ojibwe from my grandmother Eleanor and Potawatomi from my grandfather, Rufus. Through blood and adoption we can trace our roots back seven generations. But eventually threads of this lineage were woven together on the sandy shores of Gchi’mnissing, or Beausoleil First Nation (Christian Island), in southern Georgian Bay.
I offer this orientation as a matter of custom. Among Anishinaabeg, it is an expected response to the standard greeting-question, “Where are you from?” For we are a people of renewal, a people seeking each other out in our century-long reclamation of culture, language, family and identity. We are a people bound by our relationships.
But earlier this week, after years of unclear answers to this question from celebrated Canadian author Joseph Boyden, APTN reporter Jorge Barrera, supported by independent researchers, investigated the author’s claims and couldn’t find evidence of either Nipmuc or Ojibwe heritage. It appears that Mr. Boyden has not been forthcoming about his indigenous identity, benefiting from a crafted ambiguity.
Mr. Boyden is just the latest. Last year prolific scholar Andrea Smith’s claims to Cherokee ancestry were debunked. Before Ms. Smith were academics Susan Taffe Reed and Ward Churchill, writers Margaret Seltzer and Archie Belaney (Grey Owl), actors Espera Oscar de Corti (Iron Eyes Cody), Johnny Depp and so on. There is a long tradition of playing Indian.
While Canadians (and some indigenous people, including other Anishinaabeg) have responded to these findings regarding Mr. Boyden with support for the author, it is important to recognize that this kind of behaviour is also pernicious, in a variety of ways.
Firstly, it misrepresents indigenous peoples. When Mr. Boyden’s novel The Orenda was published in 2013, I wrote a critical review. For me, the work seemed detached from the claimed indigenous voice. Of course, while the diversity of indigenous peoples makes defining that voice challenging, it universally comes from our experiences as indigenous. Without that experience, results inevitably include inaccuracy and stereotypes.
Taking this further, consider some of the implications for public discussions on reconciliation. Is it the case that one of the pre-eminent indigenous voices in Canada is not indigenous at all, but a white Canadian speaking to other mostly white Canadians? And so we have yet another avenue to ignore indigenous perspectives.
Ethnic fraud, in general, takes up time, space and resources. In a Canada finally aiming to include indigenous peoples and offer limited restitution, there are grants and awards targeting those in the arts marginalized by colonialism. The list of brilliant and deserving but barely surviving indigenous writers and artists is very long. So when (already privileged) writers claim prizes for their performance instead of real indigenous peoples, the result is material harm as well as insult.
Ethnic fraud sabotages the necessary work of rebuilding indigenous nations. In his statements, Mr. Boyden has invoked Anishinaabe, Nipmuc, Métis, Two-Spirit and Bear Clan affiliations (this week he squarely identified as Anishinaabe). These terms are not hollow or symbolic. They situate individuals in a framework that requires obligations and accountability to communities. Misleading claims, void of embodiment, break tenuous indigenous social systems down even further.
Ethnic fraud alienates those struggling to find their identities. Indigenous identity has been fragmented by maze-like colonial categories. So this discussion is not easy. For those adopted or taken away from their communities, or those dealing with assimilation’s toll; there are the light-skinned and light-eyed, the tens of thousands raised in cities, and of course the utterly devastating insistence on blood quantum by the federal government. Many of the individuals trying to make their way back are all the more confused by the inconsistent and shifting parameters set by prominent ethnic frauds.
Taken together, playing Indian should not be ignored or excused but exposed.
Whether this column, the APTN investigation, the outrage on social media over the past few days – none of it is about envy, shaming or being #NativerThanYou. There are few Anishinaabeg (or Mi’kmaq or Métis) who haven’t struggled with their identity, certainly I have and continue to. The difference is that most approach the search for answers with humility and honesty – to do otherwise leads instead to appropriation, misrepresentation and ultimately causes real harm.
For Anishinaabeg then, in these bewildering times, asking where you’re from can be as much a greeting as a form of self-preservation.