For First Nations writers in Canada, the past two years have been bruising ones. In 2016, serious questions emerged about Joseph Boyden, a Canadian writer who has long claimed indigenous roots, but in reality has none. Then early this year, an editorial in Write, the flagship journal of the Writers Union of Canada published an editorial that flippantly suggested the establishment of an Appropriation Prize to encourage writers of all backgrounds to “imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.”
The editorial, by Hal Niedzviecki, quickly became a lightning rod for years of pent-up anger in the First Nations literary community over what they perceive as an attitude toward appropriation of indigenous materials by non-Native writers that blithely ignores their communities’ rights to intellectual property of the kind involved in traditional storytelling, iconography, and indeed the persona of the author him- or herself.
On CBC radio, Jesse Wente (Ojibwe) reminded listeners that stunts like this merely cloud the issue by employing “rhetorical arguments that conflate notions of free speech with cultural appropriation while disguising the very distinct histories of these two things.” Those histories are no joke for First Nations people, who know all too well the truth of Wente’s words: “We have to understand that cultural appropriation is institutionalized, it is the very foundation of what Canada is built on.”
Niedzviecki’s “joke” went over especially badly because it seemed part and parcel of the non-indigenous writing community’s rush to Boyden’s defense.
Many went so far as to argue that geneology is not as important as Boyden’s “enthusiasm” for Native issues. But, as Alicia Elliott observes in a recent article on the controversy, this sort of argument misses the point. For Elliott, as well as many other indigenous writers, the question is “why do these columnists and so many other non-Indigenous people care about blood quantum in Boyden’s case, but not in any other Indigenous person’s case? Why aren’t they lobbying for non-status Indians to finally be recognized by the Canadian government?”
For Elliott, the answer is simple. Boyden is a “good Indian.” Sure, he’s a wannabe, but he is the darling of the non-indigenous media and literary communities precisely because he doesn’t rock the boat. He speaks in generalities about reconciliation, a concept he reduces to a simple apology “we’ve made mistakes in the past.”
Boyden’s defenders also seem not to understand that the concept of “Indian Blood” that they are so quick to dismiss as insignificant in this case is really at the center of cultural appropriation. It is an idea that has its roots in a governmental policy of dispossession (blood quantum rules established in Canada’s Indian Act of 1876) with genuine membership in an indigenous community and all that it entails. With the Indian Act, indigenous women and their children had their status taken away for marrying non-indigenous men. Boyden’s detractors wonder why his supporters are so quick to excuse his lack of status and yet blind to the fate of some many First Nations people who have been denied their cultural heritage. Why should a well-intentioned fabricator of indigenous culture have more right to cultural property than a tribal member stripped of her status by arbitrary statute?
Then there is the issue of market share. Boyden’s fake traditionalism, supported by public acclaim and lots of press coverage, took away potential readers from indigenous writers rooted in their communities and cultural traditions.
The time has come to leave Joseph Boyden and Hal Niedzviecki to their own devices and to concentrate instead on the many more writers from First Nations backgrounds who have great literature to share.
Jesse Wente has offered a list of indigenous writers who readers ought to be reading instead of Boyden. Here are few.