Friday, 13 November 2020

The Orenda by: Joseph Boyden: Who Has the Right To Tell Stories about Indigenous People?

Content Warning: this post will be discussing racism and colonization against Indigenous people, as well as graphic and negative depictions of Indigenous people in literature. 

 Before I begin, I would like to direct your attention to a fabulous blog post from Dani @ Dani Sallyann: Joseph Boyden, an Anishinaabekwe's Take. Dani is Indigenous, and can explain the controversies surrounding Boyden a lot better than I can. I would encourage you guys to give that post a read first. 

The Orenda is a book by the famous Canadian author Joseph Boyden. It was published in 2013 and is apart of a trilogy depicting the lives of the Huron Nation of Canada during the 17th century, a time in which Jesuit priests from France came to Canada to attempt to colonize and convert Indigenous people to Catholicism. I will say that everyone can make a personal decision as to whether they want to read this book or not. However, this book has a lot of extremely graphic content, and so the content warnings are as follows: 

- war, major violence and major body gore 

- de*th and d*sease impacting Indigenous people

- attempted conversion to Catholicism onto Indigenous people 

- on page s*xual assault and r*pe

- pr*datory behaviour onto minors 

- t*rture 

- racial slurs used against Indigenous people 

*And probably more that I have forgotten. Seriously, this book is not for people with weak stomachs. Also side note, but I read this book not by choice for an Indigenous literature class, and we were given no content warnings whatsoever so I had no idea what I was getting into. I think English professors need to get into a greater habit of providing content warnings to their students. It keeps everyone more at peace. But, that's a discussion for another day. 

So now to the book review/discussion portion of this post. My professor actually selected this book for us to read to have a discussion surrounding the author's identity of a white man writing about Indigenous people. Joseph Boyden is a famous Canadian author, and he is actually popular because of his Indigenous literature. He has won many awards for his books depicting the lives of various Indigenous nations. I myself, before my course, actually assumed that he was Indigenous because of his reputation. The problem is, that Boyden is white. He has claimed in the past to have distant Indigenous ancestry, though he has turned up no proof of any ancestry. For all intents and purposes, he is a white man. 

In my class, we discussed at great lengths about who has the right to tell stories. Now this may be a conversation you have heard already, through the Own Voices discussions that have been going on lately. Many argue that people have the right to write whatever they want within reason, which seems to make sense. The problem is, when white people write stories about a community that they don't belong to, then generate all kinds of fame and awards from said stories, and said stories also happen to be very gruesome. 

Boyden writes Indigenous bodies in the worst ways possible. By this I mean that his Indigenous characters are put through the most terrible conditions imaginable. They are tortured, killed, or scarred for life. Now Boyden is writing about time periods in which these things sadly did happen to Indigenous people. It is a reality that many Canadians wish to forget, but it is important to talk about. However, I am beginning to find a problem with white people who continuously write negative stories about BIPOC people. Why do BIPOC characters always have to be put through the ringer? Why do they always have to die? Why can't a BIPOC character have a happy ending? 

I understand that this is an extremely complicated issue. Because on the one hand, we need stories that depict the harsh realities of being an Indigenous person in a colonial space. But do we really need white people writing them and generating fame because of it? Some Indigenous people do not see a problem with Boyden writing their stories. In fact, Boyden has been adopted into the Ojibway nation as a spiritual brother. For more information, see: this article. It is extremely important that we respect each and every Indigenous person's opinion on this issue. Boyden does research his novels. He seeks counsel from many Indigenous nations. If Indigenous people choose to support him and teach him more about the people he writes about, we as non-Native people can absolutely not fault them for that. But that doesn't mean that other people's concerns go unnoticed. 

I also would like to mention that oftentimes bi-racial people are hounded to "prove" their identities to certain races. I have had experiences myself of not feeling white enough, or not feeling brown enough. I don't think that it is any of our rights to invade the privacy of bi-racial people and force them to pick a side. The problem with Boyden lies in the fact that he has claimed many nations as his Indigenous ancestry, only to go back on those claims, be ignorant to the customs of certain nations, and flip-flop between nations. I think this takes away from the diversity and sense of community between each individual nation. 

I thought The Orenda was an ok book. The violence freaked me out a bit, but I thought the story was well-researched and the prose was well-written. But I couldn't help but wonder at the back of my mind why Boyden is the poster-boy for Indigenous literature in Canada. His awards take away from Indigenous people who may be writing the same stories, but who don't get the same recognition. His stories are heart-wrenching, yet extremely upsetting. His identity cannot go unnoticed when reading and reviewing his literature. 

The main question of this post is: "who has the right to tell stories about Indigenous people? The truth is, I cannot answer this, because I am non-Native and have no right to tell anyone what they can and cannot write. But I do think that Boyden's fame has overshadowed Indigenous writers for too long. I think he needs to be more sensitive to the community that he writes about, and I think he needs to accept and recognize his privilege as a white man. Boyden is writing about some critical moments in Canadian history. But I wonder if we have moved past the need for white people to be the only storytellers of BIPOC people's lives. 

Have you read The Orenda, or do you know anything about Joseph Boyden? Who do you think has the right to tell stories about BIPOC people? 

Further Articles:

Emily @ Paperback Princess


  1. "But I wonder if we have moved past the need for white people to be the only storytellers of BIPOC people's lives."
    I have to admit I didn't know Boyden at all prior to reading your post, so I learned something. But regardless, you posed a very crucial question. On one hand, everyone should have the right to write a story, as long as they do their research and are respectful of the identity of those they write about. But while this can be true (to an extent) for fiction, it becomes problematic when we talk about nonfiction, also because of the thing you pointed out: there's fame and fortune to gain from it. So white allies should take a step back and use their visibility (if they have any) to boost BIPOC authors.

    Great discussion as usual 😀.

    1. Thank you Roberta! Bringing money into the question is very complicated. Because especially if the representation is not good, then white people profiting off of negative representation is just a big no.

  2. Boyden's a difficult one. I know that a lot of Indigenous people are angry at him, and see him as 'playing Native' - it's not my place to say, but some of his past actions are certainly concerning with regards to his intentions in claiming Native heritage.

    What I will say is that I read Debbie Reese's blog 'American Indians in Children's Literature' a lot, and she's very much of the opinion that we need to differentiate between #OwnVoices for Native rep., and #OwnVoices for *specific* Native rep - much like there's a difference between #OwnVoices Asian rep., and #OwnVoices Chinese rep. One is far more specific than the other, and the individual Native nations are just that - individual Native nations.

    Which leads to more questions re: Boyden's identity: What Nations or Peoples feature in this book? Are they any that Boyden claims heritage to? Or are they entirely different? Do members of those Nations or Peoples have any criticisms of the rep.?

    I know some people find those kind of questions pedantic, but I think they're quite important! Great post Em :)

    1. Wonderfully said, Cee! Different nations have different customs and cultures. To group them all together is to ignore their uniqueness.

      The Orenda features the Iroquois and the Huron nations. Boyden has claimed ancestry to a number of nations, including Metis, Huron and Ojibway. Obviously I can't judge whether the representation is valid. But I do think Boyden has not gone about his controversies in a very respectful way.

    2. Apparently he also has used two-spirit to describe himself in a very strange way in the past ( Two-spirit is a Native-specific gender ID, rather than something to do with geography. Some of his actions and statements are... odd. I think that's the best way to put it!

    3. For sure! I think sometimes he needs to read the room, so to speak.

  3. This is such a thoughtful discussion about this book and this topic, Emily! think my main problem with books/authors like this one or like American Dirt is that they get more recognition than actual own voices stories. It's like a story about POC characters is not valid or valuable unless it's written by and for white people.

    Sofia @ Bookish Wanderess

    1. Thanks Sofia! I saw American Dirt is in the finals for the goodreads choice awards and just... no. Who is voting for that book?!