[#Canada150] An Indigenous Reading List Beyond Joseph Boyden

Canada. A land of beautiful nature, a couple large cities, lots of small towns, poutine, freezing snow, genocide, colonization, white supremacy, racism, settler colonialism.

This series is kinda the result of two different events.

One, on July 1, 2017 Canada will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Confederation. In Ottawa where I’ve been living for the past three years they’ve been gearing up for this celebration since I’ve moved here, possibly even before. Events are planned across the country, tourism is expected to spike, artists have been commissioned to create new work in celebration, branded merchandise will be on sale everywhere. I expect to not be able to go a block downtown without having to beat the maple leaves away from me.

Two, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) published an investigation on the Indigenous heritage of acclaimed Canadian writer Joseph Boyden, having discovered that Joyden’s claims of Indigenous identity may not be founded. I am not going to go into the APTN report. Quite frankly, as a white person descended from Irish and British settlers, I am not qualified to talk about or define Indigenous identities. Please go read the APTN report, listen to the numerous radio segments on CBC, here, here, here and here, talking to Indigenous voices about defining Indigenous identity.

But I want to talk about something I’ve noticed in relation to Indigenous literature in Canada when being talked about by non-Natives. There’s a form of tokenization that takes place in Canadian literature that we don’t often talk about. Canada likes to celebrate its diversity but then often allows a single person to fill in for a whole range of voices. Case in point, Joseph Boyden. Regardless of Joseph Boyden’s Indigenous identity, his work should not be held up as the pinnacle of Indigenous literature in Canada and interpreted to speak for all Indigenous communities.

To quote Wab Kinew on CBC Radio The Current:

Well, I think it’s not just one thing, but it’s many things that non-Indigenous people should be asking themselves. I think maybe the most germane question to answer, with respect to this discussion, is how does the mainstream view First Nations peoples or Indigenous peoples? Because what this reveals to me is that people think of Indigenous communities as like one big blob of people basically and that we can have an appointed spokesperson. But the point that I would like readers of Boyden’s material to understand is that even if he does establish Anishinaabe identity, which is still an open question, as I’ve stated and I think that the onus is on him to disclose more to answer those questions. But the point is that even if Boyden establishes Anishinaabe identity, he is still an outsider to many of the peoples that he’s written about. So for instance the Muskegwa Cree in Three Day Road, or the Huron or Haudenosaunee peoples in The Orenda. And as a result, he should have always been viewed as a talented outsider. And had readers always taken up his work in those ways, then their understanding of his novels wouldn’t be changed much by these newer revelations.

There are so many Indigenous writers in Canada who’s work is not widely talked about, either in Canada or abroad, and I wanted to start a series of blog posts to change that. So for #Canada150, I will be posting a series of blogs celebrating Indigenous writers and their books from across the country. Some of these book I’ve read, others I haven’t, all of them are on my TBR and will be read someday.

I understand that many Indigenous nations were separated when colonial powers decided to draw a line between Canada and the United States. However, as this series is focused on Canada, I’ll be talking primarily about Indigenous writers who are from nations that entered treaties with the Canadian government or who are from unceded territory within the confines of Canadian state borders.

I’d like to end this intro post with a quote from Richard Wagamese, an celebrated Ojibway author for Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in northwestern Ontario, who recently passed away.

I believe Metis, First Nations or Inuit writers should be more widely read because the stories they tell are fundamental motifs of Canada. Collectively, as time passes, they are building a literature of their people – founding peoples of Canada – and these stories need to be read and absorbed into the national consciousness because the story of Canada itself is the story of her relationship with Native people.

If there’s any books or authors you think I should be checking out for this series, please post a comment! I’ve got a pretty big list but am always looking for more. First up next week is Haisla and Heiltsuk author Eden Robinson.


2 thoughts on “[#Canada150] An Indigenous Reading List Beyond Joseph Boyden

  1. Thanks for writing about this, I’m very interested to hear a Canadian perspective since I recently started a project #100IndigenousBooks, which sounds quite similar. I’ve felt so far that there actually are far more books published in Canada than America about the groups I’m most interested in reading about, but that could be because I’m in Wisconsin and the Great Lakes peoples have a lot of overlap/dual citizenship. I recently read a graphic novel that you should definitely consider for your series: The Outside Circle. It was very powerful and gave an overview of many aspects of indigenous/government relationships in a memorable way.

    Liked by 1 person

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