About a month back, Creator was kind enough to have given me the gift on a single cardinal feather. After a tough meeting, it came a welcome and powerful message that I spent consider time pondering and deciphering. Suffice it to say something as simple as it reminded me to take pride in who I am, remain rooted to the place I call home, and to sing proudly into the heart of the grey and cold winter that Biiboon has blown in. Creator brings us gifts when we need them most, often quite far ahead of the trials that await us.
Little did I know that the Boyden issue would arise in the coming weeks and even less did I realize that the events would lead to a torrent of emotions and realizations that would make the gift all the more clear. As a writer of Lenape heritage that has been fortunate enough to have received multiple Aboriginal Arts grant for my work and having received a good amount of support for multiple communities in Canada and the US for my work, the issue with Joseph Boyden and his appropriation of identity and voice, rested heavy against my soul. I’ve struggled with my identity to be sure over the majority of my life and the issues that Boyden’s great lie has perpetrated raised every bit of my thoughts over the years to the forefront.
I am a pale-skinned member of the Moravian of the Thames First Nation that has lived the majority of my life in urban centres such as Windsor, Peterborough, and Indianapolis. My father’s family comes from Bucktown, my mother grew up Generally speaking, I’ve been welcomed by members of my Indigineous very warmly as well as those at local Friendship Centres. Over the course of my life, however, there has been a surprising number of non-natives that consistently have questioned and degraded my connection to my ancestry and family. They have said that status is a lie and may for my family to not pay taxes and so on. This has not come from my Indigineous family, ever. Generally speaking only from non-Natives when they hear me mention some part of my heritage. Because of this, for many years, I went silent about my heritage. My early writing plays out with this knowledge. It had dealt very little with my Indigenous roots (despite holding a Indigineous Studies degree from Trent University) and instead spoke about my time in Detroit and Montana as safely constructed white male. I hid, did not sing out into any season, because fighting about who you are with others is among the hardest things you can do. It tears at you in ways that no words can clearly express.
I did the opposite of Boyden. I hid my identity because it was hard to come to grips with. I hid it because the world around me would not accept me as who I was. I had to lie to save myself from the exhaustion of fighting. Being Indigineous is all too often a far harder thing to do. I used my skin to shield me. I am ashamed of that because too many of my family and friends couldn’t. I still feel it was wrong. Perhaps, worse than anything is the scars of doing so have left me with lingering questions about truths and who exact it is that I am and should be. Colonial society has a manner in which it can crush you even when you look the way it wants you to.
Time, distance, and a great thesis director helps. Before I graduated, Tony Ardizzone spoke to me during our time together about the importance of your culture and how I should be talking about that in my work and in my everyday. With Tony it was about honesty and not book sales. He did what a great teacher does, he saw something in me and my work that was not right, and gently pushed me that way. When I returned to Windsor a few years back I felt something well up in me. The manner in which we suppress things cannot the truth of ourselves from the surface. And so the writing, truthful for the first time, came to the surface and grants rolled in and I got a book published. I know it’s a bit of a summary, lots of work and study went into those events.
So Creator delivers the feather. So enters Joseph Boyden and his lies. And just when things were clear enough as a writer and as member of my Indigineous community now proudly walking amongst non-Natives the whole world becomes muddled again. Knowing that it is my calling my creator to sing, as a poet, as a writer, as a publisher, and as a proud Lenape I waited and judged the events of the APTN revelation about Boyden before speaking. And I spoke in the manner that I knew was most in keeping with our Lenape traditions. The idea that honesty is important, respect for our communities and land, kindness for all those that came before and had note been heard, and the necessity of sharing all this with the world. To remain silent, as I once had, did a great disrespect to my ancestors, my family, and creation itself.
The response to my words should have come as little surprise. Generally, well received by the Indigineous community my concerns about Boyden’s lying and appropriation of voice for his own financial gain and equally poorly received if not ignored by the non-Native community. I’ve been left with that cold hard feeling that reconciliation is a very long way off. The only way we are allowed to be who we are as First Peoples is to do so as non-Natives see fit. Initially, anger was my response. But that has faded to something worse, despair and self-doubt. No one listens to an Indigineous voice unless it matches their worldview. I know who it is that I am. Being surrounded by non-Natives who disrespect our heritage and our communities, ignore our voices and pleas even when it costs them nothing, .
You see Joseph Boyden is not about the non-Native community at all. It is not about you or anyone else being about find your “Dances With Wolves” ancestry. I’ve seen local folks and writers complain about this. It hurts. Particularly when I’m called “too-white” to be a “real Indian.” Because again they are stealing from others. Again they are telling me what it means to me, what it means to be Indigineous. It’s about the harsh reality that we are only worth as much as other non-Native writers feel our worth to be. When we speak out, we are belittled, ignored, or otherwise left powerless. We are returned to the margins of discourse, told that a man who lies about his heritage is ok because without him no one would know about us. It is so much as to say, the white guy gets it most right, don’t you worry about. Again, the despair. Why do I write? Why should I speak out? How important is it that I share my heritage?
Then there is the feather. It arrives. Creation speaks. And weeks late I still find myself asking questions of it. We all struggle, yes. Some with basic needs like clean water. Some with issues like alcohol and substance abuse. The struggles of our communities are numerous. By every measure mine is small. But at the heart of it all is the ability to speak and be heard. We know if we talk about Boyden and are ignored we have little hope at being heard about jobs, or water, or foster kids, or the saving of our languages. Despite all this, Creator still calls to us. Leaves us messages of love and reminds us of the things we must do to lift others.
Still it turns internal to the personal. I’ve thankfully received support from some in the non-Native . They know who they are, as do I, and Creator. Perhaps this is post is a partial appeal for those that haven’t and partially a reminder of thanks to those that have. It is a plea to listen to Indigineous voices, real Indigineous voices. Ones that make you uncomfortable, ones that speak with honesty and respect. Listen with kindness. Not every battle is just your battle. I was silent once. I can no longer be. Creator has called me to speak and I owe that duty to others before, around, and after me.