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What Colour Is Your Beadwork, Joseph Boyden?

He’s one of Canada’s biggest literary stars. But who is he really?
Photo by Canadian Press/Frank Gunn

My initial impulse was to call bullshit on the whole thing.

At first read, I thought the APTN piece was mean and cruel. I thought social media needed to chill the fuck out. It was confusing. Angering.

I started reading reactions to the pieces that surfaced and I wanted to send them to Joseph Boyden. He's a friend, not a close friend, but I could have called, texted or emailed. I didn't. At the time, I felt like I should, but I wasn't comfortable doing that and I was unsure why. As I watched all of this unfold in real-time, I realized how big this story had got and I knew he was going to see it, it was everywhere.


Let's start with this, Joseph Boyden has answered the questions that have been asked of him. He's been asked, "Who are you, where you from, who claims you?" His answer is, "A small part of me is Indigenous but it's a big part of who I am."

That's his answer.

For better or worse, here we are. He's said what he's said, it seems this is his final answer. He doubled down. Take it or leave it. A small part of him IS Indigenous, a big part of him FEELS Indigenous. This has sufficed for some, for others it has caused outrage. The APTN research published in the original article finds no proof of Indigenous roots, none. Let me repeat, there were no verifiable Indigenous connections found in the extensive research done by one of Canada's finest journalists, Jorge Barrera.

From the casual social media smart ass, calls for DNA tests have been loud. The brilliant work of Canada Research Chair, Dr. Kim TallBear (University of Alberta) rejects the call for DNA measuring of Indigeneity and argues being Indigenous is not just about you claiming identity but more importantly about community claiming you. I agree.

I'm not going to break this conversation down into whether anyone is 1/8ths or 1/64ths or 1/128ths "Indigenous blood." I'm not going to talk percentages. I'm not going to talk about status cards or the Rez because it's not about that. In fact, for those that have asked these questions of Boyden to hold him accountable in the Indigenous community, it's never been about that.


What is it about then? It's about his role in the Indigenous community. It's about how he got that role. It's about his responsibility in assuming the role he's playing in contemporary Indigenous issues. It's about his unwillingness to be responsible back to the community he claims as his own. Somehow, Boyden has gotten by without answering to the Indigenous community he so often speaks for/over. Claiming a community and then refusing to answer back to community concerns (of which there are many) is the real conflict here.

This was glaringly apparent in the past weeks when Boyden wrote the UBC Accountable letter in support of his long time pal, Steven Galloway, seeking clarity and fairness in the author's sexual harassment case. Dozens of Indigenous women called for Boyden to rescind the letter, citing the conflict of the alleged charges against Galloway and their parallels to the real sexual, physical and emotional violence that will no doubt be front and centre in the inquiry on MMIWG2SP. Boyden wants solidarity on the issues but so far, from where I sit, I don't see that solidarity grounded in relationships to the people leading these issues on the ground, in community.

There are more concerns. Most recently he's worked on high profile projects on reconciliation and has been vocal about the inquest into MMIWG2SP. Boyden's platform is massive, though it is one that's not been earned through his work on the ground, but rather by aligning himself with the right people at the right times. The public advocacy work that Boyden has been known for has been called his "good work in Indigenous communities." Not all of Boyden's good work has been his, much of his work is the work done by the people in the community he has positioned himself next to.


Ironically, or even cruelly, relationships and community are at the centre of this controversy. In preparing to write this article, while consulting with my circle of family, comrades, peers, friends, mentors and Elders, based on our conversations, it's clear relationships and community are carrying the heavy burden of this conversation. Friends of mine are fighting with each other, angry and confused. Many of my artist friends have projects scheduled with his name attached in one way or another—what happens to those? There are very real divides that have been created because of this controversy.

I think there are three camps that have developed here.

Camp one is full of people that have experienced a similar struggle to Boyden in terms of being uneasy in our identity. This issue hit so close to home, we initially remained silent and couldn't process the feelings and the conflict this conversation involves. When APTN ran Barrera's investigation, I'd bet a paycheck on the fact that most Indigenous people were in this camp first. I was. Some are still here, I am not.

Camp two is calling for people to leave him alone. Terms like lateral violence, jealousy and crabs in a bucket are being thrown around all over the place. Camp two is full of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples, some fans and some not, calling for this to pass. Most of the mainstream media coverage of the issue has been sympathetic to Boyden and many in the mainstream see this as an extension of the "dysfunctional Indian stereotype." This, of course, is the camp towing the status quo firmly behind them. Calling for this to pass of course only further entrenches colonial structures of power, privilege, and disfunction.


When wrestling with cultural identity, answers are always hard to come by, but make no mistake, there are always answers. Everyone comes from somewhere. Everyone has place.

The third camp is keeping the conversation alive by sticking to the original question, "Who the fuck are you Joseph Boyden?" I can see why they are continuing to press—his official response to APTN was ambiguous (ambiguity is a common thread running through this conversation), he has ghosted people online and not engaged with the community he claims to be a part of, and although I know for a fact people close to him have encouraged him to continue engaging in the conversation—he has not.

There's no doubt that personal connection to "who you are" can be tricky. I mean, how meta do you want to get? Let's go deep for a second.

Am I Anishinaabe if I don't speak my language—how can I be Anishinaabe without experiencing my relationship to this world through the fundamental experience of language and its teachings?

If I live/work in Vancouver or Toronto and I'm disconnected from my home territory—can I live an Anishinaabe existence (my teachings, songs and worldview are intricately tied to Treaty 3 Territory in Northwestern Ontario)?

I could keep going with these questions. It's complicated, heady stuff. Hard questions to answer, right?

When wrestling with cultural identity, answers are always hard to come by, but make no mistake, there are always answers. Everyone comes from somewhere. Everyone has place.


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In 2004, Paris Hilton was photographed in Beverly Hills wearing a pair of Mukluks.  I remember seeing the picture in a garbage tabloid that consistently graced my Kookum's (Grandma's) coffee table. I'm sure she stole these magazines from the hospital while doing dialysis for her failing kidneys.

As I thumbed through the trash mag, I saw the picture and I pointed it out to my grandma. She started in on a "fuck-laden tirade" about wearing mukluks in the summer in downtown LA, appropriation and the effects of "White women taking everything for themselves, including our men, and now, our fucking shoes."

At the time, she was helping me with my powwow outfit. My grandma taught me that at one time, our beadwork, quillwork and moose hide tufting placed us in certain geographies.

Our beadwork told our story.

Our beadwork named us.

Our beadwork put us in relation to each other.

I remember I had drawn up (what I had thought were) some pretty bad ass designs for applique and ribbon work for my powwow outfit. I showed them to my Kookum. She looked at my designs and laughed. "Who the hell are you?," she asked. "You have geometric Lakota designs on your shirt, Anishinaabe floral designs on your side drops and a teepee on your front breach cloth. You better learn more about who you are before you step into the powwow circle, you're going to look like a powwow clown out there," she closed. A powwow clown was not the look I was going for.


You see, Joseph, sticking with the beadwork metaphor, I couldn't just put any old designs on my powwow outfit because I thought it'd look dope or because my favourite dancers wear certain items. I wanted to dance with a full eagle bustle, I wanted to blow an eagle whistle during Grand Entry, I wanted a bear claw necklace worn over my bone-beaded breastplate.

I wanted it all. In the end, I couldn't have it all. Why? Because I hadn't earned those things. I couldn't have it all because the community hadn't gifted me these things. I couldn't have it all because I wasn't yet in relationship to the circle of people that would allow me to wear these items. I learned I can't just make an outfit that suits the ideal me, or the me that I think I am. I had to do the work and find out who I was before I could even step into the circle. I learned that when the old ones at the powwow look at me, they'll know who I am by my beadwork. I learned that in order to do things the right way, I had to earn it. You see, Joseph, when you earn something, no one can take it from you.

When you earn your place inside the circle people are patient with you. When you earn your place inside the circle people are willing to put up with your mistakes because it is the people that put you there, they will teach you when you err. When you earn your place inside the circle you are surrounded by community and committed to relationships that help you on your journey. I think the difference here is you assumed your place inside the circle. This may be no fault of your own, You started speaking loudly during Idle No More. This is the problem. It was not the indigenous community that put you there. The question of who you are and where you come from is an important one to ask given your place inside the circle.

While everyone was calling you out, Joseph, I wanted to call you in. That was my impulse, to call you in, to help. I realized though, I didn't know who I was calling in or who I was helping. Before you step back in the circle, show us your beadwork, Joseph, so the people inside the circle can know who you are because you haven't told us yet.

You haven't earned your place here yet, Joseph, this is why the community is taking that place back from you.

Ryan is an Anishinaabe/Metis comedian and writer based out of Treaty #1 territory (Winnipeg, Manitoba). Follow him on Twitter.