Nearly a month after an APTN investigation blew open famed Canadian author Joseph Boyden’s claims of Indigenous ancestry, he has broken his silence during a tightly controlled press tour replete with apologies and vows to stop being a spokesperson on aboriginal issues.
In a Wednesday radio interview with CBC host Candy Palmater, a Mi’kmaq performer and friend of the bestselling author, Boyden described himself as a “white kid from Willowdale with Native roots,” standing by his claims that he has Ojibway and Nipmuc heritage from several generations ago, despite a lack of evidence. However, he did apologize for becoming too famous.
“[My] ego has gotten a little too big,” said Boyden. “I fear that I’ve become a bit too big, one of the go-to people when it comes to Indigenous issues in this country.”
“I should be allowing those with deeper roots in their communities to speak for their communities.”
Throughout the day, Boyden also released his own statement through Newswire, and did an interview with the Globe and Mail under the condition that it be conducted by Mark Medley, the Globe’s Books Editor and another friend of his. “He was at turns apologetic and defensive,” Medley wrote of his interaction with Boyden.
Boyden insists in that interview that he may have misspoken over the years when specifying his exact Indigenous roots, but that he never lied.
“What I think has happened, if I can put my finger on it, is that my go-to-guy role as a spokesperson for Indigenous issues has outgrown my blood quantum,” Boyden explained.
In his own statement, Boyden said that his family’s heritage is “rooted in our stories” and that his father and uncle had to “hide their blood in order to survive in the early 1900s.”
“My mother’s family history is certainly not laid out neatly in the official records, or on ancestry.ca either,” Boyden writes. “If it is about blood quantum, then I fear I will never be good enough.”
But his words seem to have further inflamed debate and criticism among many Indigenous voices who have accused Boyden of “playing Indian” and appropriating their culture to serve his goals and bolster his reputation.
Robert Jago, an Indigenous activist in Vancouver from the Kwantlen First Nation who has long questioned Boyden’s identity, wrote more than 50 tweets about the interview.
“His native roots are thoroughly white — which is to say that the identity he is trying claim is one that is not a legitimate native identity and not one recognized by native people,” Jago wrote to VICE News. “He’s asking to be recognized as native by some white hippy standard, something that shines through his new age-y answers to questions.”
“Boyden, write all you want … but when it comes to serious Indigenous political issues, understand that speaking on our behalf does harm and is a form of colonialism.” Robert Jago, Indigenous activist
Jago, and others, point out that Boyden has built his successful career on stories about First Nations communities and has been outspoken about missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, and that he served as an honorary witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 into the abuses against indigenous children at residential schools.
Kim TallBear, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Studies at the University of Alberta and a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota, told VICE News that it’s inaccurate to link Indigenous identity to DNA and blood.
“The non-indigenous commentators keep asking about DNA, and I have not heard an indigenous commentator ask about that,” she said. “It’s a misreading of what indigenous people are asking for.”
Tallbear says that Boyden is still not answering the question of who his Indigenous relatives are and who claims him,. “He’s still immersed in this settler idea of kinship, tracing biological lines of descent,” she said. “But that’s only a part of the way we think about it. It’s not simply being descended from an Indigenous person, but it’s about being networked into a broader set of relations.”