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Indigenous issues

Joseph Boyden’s Apology and the Strange History of ‘Pretendians’

Boyden is hardly the first person to be alleged to have faked Indigenous roots for material or spiritual gain.
Lead image via Twitter

When author Joseph Boyden's Indigenous heritage recently fell under intense media scrutiny, the investigation brought attention to an uncomfortable historical reality: North America has a long history of white folks pretending to be First Nations.

It took a damning investigation from Jorge Barrera for APTN to give mainstream attention to what many have been quietly questioning for years. Who is Boyden, the author of stone-cold Canadian classics like Three Day Road and The Orenda, to tell Indigenous stories as his own, and gain fame and fortune from doing so?


After going virtually silent following the APTN investigation, besides a vague Twitter post, Boyden broke his silence yesterday in a statement and in interviews with the Globe and Mail and CBC. (One serious caveat though, Boyden only agreed to speak to the Globe on the condition it was with Books Editor Mark Medley, someone he's known for years. His interviewer at the CBC was also a "friend.")

Boyden told Medley he would "not be defensive about my heritage" and said he would no longer speak on behalf of the Indigenous community.

To me, a person of Cree and Irish ancestry, his apology has fulfilled his obligation to the public, but the matter does not seem to have a clear resolve. It's quite possible that Boyden maliciously fabricated an Indian identity to exploit a niche in the writing world, or perhaps he does have a genuine, if tenuous connection to the community. Who's to say?

But whether it is fair or not, Boyden has been lumped with a bunch of individuals who make up the strange history of "pretendians." What's certain is that he is not the first person to use an Indigenous identity to sell books.

There are extreme examples, like when in 1991 The New York Times listed The Education of Little Tree, an autobiography of a young Indian orphan, as the top non-fiction bestseller. Unfortunately, author Forrest Carter was exposed to be a Ku Klux Klan thug who also wrote Western novels and anti-Semitic pamphlets, on top of the regular Indian stuff.


Then there are people like Pauline Johnson, whose mother was English and whose father was a hereditary Mohawk Chief. She grew up on the Six Nations reserve in Brantford, Ontario, in a colonial mansion built by her father who ran the home with a strong British influence. In 1892, Johnson captivated white audiences with her poems, and became famous for her romantic laments, appearing like the quintessential Indigenous woman. However, her sophisticated, upper-class upbringing required her to exaggerate her "Indian-ness" to please the masses who believed in her exotic image. Where does Boyden fall between these two examples?

Many people claim to have Indigenous ancestry, and many are on journeys to discover their cultural roots. Inside of that, there are people who simply feel Indigenous. The term 'Cherokee Syndrome," explains this phenomena of people professing to be Indian at heart. Then there are people who knowingly falsify their heritage, and benefit from it. A recent infamous case involved Andrea Smith, a co-founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. Her reputation and advocacy for Indigenous women came undone when a Tumblr post, exposing her phony Cherokee claims, was picked up by the media in 2015. In a similar case, author and activist Ward Churchill, was fired from the University of Colorado upon being publicly renounced by the very tribe he claimed heritage to.

READ MORE: What Colour Is Your Beadwork, Joseph Boyden?


A historical explanation for this behavior, is offered by Daniel Francis in his book The Imaginary Indian, where he explains how resentment grew out of the overpopulated, over-polluted, crime-ridden cities that were built upon the factory industry of the early 1800's.

"There was a growing feeling that Indian character and culture had something positive to teach Euro-Canadians," wrote Francis.

Few exemplified this sentiment better then naturalist, illustrator, writer and children's educator, Ernest Thompson Seton. From Scottish descent, Seton grew up in Toronto and expressed his admiration for Indigenous culture by penning a children's book called Two Little Savages, which told the fictional story of two boys who play Indian. As an adult, this admiration continued with his work promoting environmentalism through the Woodcraft Indians in 1902. A weekend retreat for boys, and later girls, which consisted of camping, storytelling, games and woodcrafts. All the while, Seton organized the children into a hierarchy which included a Chief, a Second Chief, a Keeper of the Tally, and a Keeper of the Wampum. No Indigenous children actually attended Seton's camp. Eventually, Indigenous qualities and values were replaced with military influence. The Boy Scouts of America was created in the image of Seton's vision.

Grey Owl feeding a beaver a jelly roll. Photo via Wikipedia

Public interest in Indigenous values and culture grew throughout the 1900s and in 1931, an "Ojibway" trapper from northern Ontario, named Grey Owl, wrote Men of the Last Frontier, which quickly became a popular piece of conservationist literature. He became immensely successful in North America and Europe, and during his lecture circuit would wear a buckskin jacket and braided black hair, seemingly personifying the stereotypical Indian image to the rest of the world. When he died in 1938, Archie "Grey Owl" Belaney was revealed to the public to actually be an Englishman, born in Hastings.


These cases of fraudulent Indigenous identity boomed in the late 1960s when the hippies came to the inevitable conclusion that Indians, the grooviest of oppressed people, had a thing or two to teach modern society. Spiral Nature Magazine describes the hippie mindset as holding the belief that Indigenous people were "morally superior to American culture." Through native teachings and ceremonies, those "turned on" were able to rebirth themselves as the Natural Man, such as the characters in Paradise Now, a play performed by the experimental Haight-Ashbury acting group, The Living Theatre. Still, the trend went farther than that.

New Age plastic shamans emerged from this scene and began distributing written materials (which is ironic, considering First Nations are traditionally oral communicators) that promoted a spirituality akin to Eastern and First Nation teachings, but were modified for a homogenous audience. Yoga, meditation, sweat lodges, corner store dream catchers, and basically all forms of secular spiritual practice were a result of this cultural trend.

An online forum called New Age Frauds & Plastic Shamans, is focused on raising awareness about spiritual exploitation. Moderator Al Caroll, told VICE:

"The New Age or so called neo-shamans are a huge, multi-billion dollar industry that takes advantage of the general public knowing so little about American Indian traditions, which neither seek nor want converts."


Of course, the inevitable end of this trend resulted in disaster.

Enter James Arthur Ray, a now-discredited spiritual leader who, in 2009, organized a $10,000 "Spiritual Warrior" weekend retreat. His malpractice during a sweat-lodge ceremony killed three people in the Arizona desert heat.

These inauthentic voices even find their way into politics. During the election, Trump called Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas," to draw attention to her identity claims. Warren listed herself as a minority in the directory of law professors and critics of Warren accused her of using the Native American tag to find sympathy. She has since responded, and much like Boyden, has cited her family's ancestral shame to be the reason for her flimsy cultural connections.

"I knew my father's family didn't like that (my mother) was part Cherokee and part Delaware, so my parents had to elope," she said in her response.

Gyasi Ross, a Blackfeet author, attorney, rapper and storyteller, spoke to VICE about the perils of cultural shame.

"I happen to believe the number one killer within our communities, whether we're talking about suicide, drugs, alcohol or domestic violence, is shame."

When asked about the public's response to Boyden, Ross told us, "If the answer is shunning, we can accomplish that without public shaming. We can do that in a way that is not intended to be ugly."

Considering the history of appropriation, it is understood why many feel the need to shame Boyden. Responses to his tweet concerning APTN were wrought with lines of contention. Some simply asked, "where are you from?", while others called out exactly what Boyden did wrong.


Nobody likes to see a darling of the Canlit community disgraced, but this is someone who has benefited materially from the community he has claimed to represent and hasn't been shy about the life he's lived because of it. In his interview with The Globe and Mail, Boyden claims that he never took money from Indigenous awards, and that argument is valid to some degree. The article does share research which shows that Canada Council for the Arts has listed Boyden to have received six grants and prizes since 2007, totaling $16,800. However, it is unclear if these awards were meant for Indigenous writers. Still, we cannot remove the fact that what people saw in Boyden, when they lauded him with awards and grew his platform, was not entirely real. The last thing these communities need is another supposed outsider taking resources for themselves and this is something Boyden clearly understands.

Celia Haig-Brown, a professor at York University, who works closely with First Nations communities, spoke with VICE about admiration versus appropriation.

"When I was six, I used to pretend I was a Navajo boy but I was never confused enough to think that it was more than pretence. Childish pretence, which is much more devious when it becomes deliberate deception by an adult."

This statement brings to mind a question that many Indigenous people, myself included, across North America ask themselves. Am I Indian enough? More importantly, if I didn't grow up 'Native,' in what capacity am I able to discover that side of myself?


"There is no singular experience of 'being Native enough," says Haig-Brown, "To think in those terms is to return to racist stereotyping. People need to be able to articulate their relationship to the community they are claiming to be connected to."

Comedian and writer Ryan McMahon, knew this when he asked Boyden, "What Colour Is Your Beadwork?" in a VICE article. Connecting to your people through language and location are supremely important but not necessary. For McMahon, there should be other elements which connect you to your people. Without that element of community, are voices like Boyden's deemed valueless? Not entirely, but let this be an alarm for us to refocus Indigenous voices in Canada, in a way that is truly genuine. To try and find perspective, I spoke to Elder Jimmy Dick from Moose Factory. He made it clear this sort of behavior isn't going to fool anyone for too long.

"This has been going on since 1492. A lot of people are territorial. They'll know what family you're from, because that's how they identify you. Because their families have been there a long time. That's how you claim to be part of that community."

There wasn't any anger in his voice. He seemed to accept the world we live in, but did acknowledge the importance of genuine voices.

"Floyd Westerman wrote songs that were as true then as they are today. Talking about those people who claim to be related to the 'Great Princess' or the 'Great Chief.' They see being native as romantic. They just want to feel happy. They don't want to suffer like the Indians suffer."

Apparently, Joseph Boyden has suffered. In a video message, he describes his battle with suicide and depression as a sixteen-year-old boy. But is it the right kind of suffering to align him with pain felt by First Nations? This is, admittedly, a ridiculous question and one people will have to answer for themselves. As for Elder Jimmy, he was content to simply sing away his worries.

"And the anthros still keep coming
Like death and taxes to our land;
To study their feathered freaks
With funded money in their hand."