Where are Joseph Boyden’s Grandmothers?

He is Ojibwe from Nottawasaga Bay traced to the 1800’s on his mother’s side.  Nottawasaga Bay was originally home to the Anishinaabeg of the South Georgian Bay.  The Anishinaabeg were among the early casualties of forced government policy of relocation.  Senator Murray Sinclair when chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission often spoke of the fact that seven generations of Indigenous children were displaced due to colonial policy.  I can only think of those grandmothers that through their grief had an undying hope and laid down their prayers seven generations ago, that our people would survive.  Joseph Boyden’s story is one of surviving that displacement.  He is the seventh generation.


While he made not have had to suffer the very disempowering effects of growing up as a direct recipient of the effects of colonial policy, because by all accounts, the policy worked in his lineage. And it is in this vein that most people have tried to dismantle his claim to his indigenous roots.  Joseph Boyden’s story is however, indeed one of the failure of the colonial construct to disempower and assimilate the Indian. Joseph Boyden felt his connection to his roots and the land and claimed it.  Is that not what we teach our children each day, “Be Proud!” “Don’t let anyone shame you or your people!” So as not to confuse the discourse, he [Joseph] is not Grey Owl, he is not Little Hawk, he is indeed Indigenous by blood.  The question posed by APTN is blood quantum .  There are other arguments that have been brought into the discussion, but they are collateral and not applicable to the question put forward by Jorge Barrera and need to be discussed in another forum.


What we need to examine is the recognition through this discourse is how deeply the scars of patriarchy and colonialism run.  Commentators both Indigenous and non-Indigenous  are quick to focus on his uncle, Earl Boyden aka Injun Joe, and the dominance of his Celtic roots while completely dismissing his Mothers Ojibwe roots.  How colonial is that!  Yes, Joseph Boyden has tried on many different identities and this is in fact a legacy of colonialism and patriarchy.  People are trying on different identities, trying to find a place to fit, especially when no family or community claims them.  This is the reality of the orphans of colonialism – who is going to claim them or are they forever going to meander through legal definitions of belonging.


About the controversy, my daughter said, “ancestry is who you believe you are, and where you think you belong.  It’s your social ties.  Race is often misused, it’s a term of the past.  We cannot impose upon someone, what we think their race is or what we think it should be.  Rather, we must support and uplift those willing to do the work to find their ancestors and their stories.”  Sure, Joseph doesn’t have a beading pattern or colours that identify his connection to his mother’s people and neither does his mother.  That is in fact, a residual effect of the colonial construct.  Even Joseph Boyden’s own statement, released on twitter in response to APTN’s story, “A small part of me is Indigenous, but it is a huge part of who I am,” is an testament to how deep the twin flames of patriarchy and colonialism run.  I am thinking that he is referring to the concept of blood quantum and legal definition as most people do, because its easy and not as messy and telling the story and living the story of lineage.


The story of lineage is mostly a matriarchal process that has been under attack since the first settlement.  To fully claim Joseph Boyden, means to fully claim our mother’s lineages and indeed her power.  That might be too much for some and has proven to be to much for the heavyweights in the arts industry. We can see how quite easily these heavyweights dropped the reference to his indigeneity and supported him only for his literary works and talent.  Indeed, his indigeneity is disposable to Canada.  This is very troubling, in a perceived era of reconciliation as Canada begins its celebration of 150 years as a country.


For Joseph Boyden, that “small part of him that is Indigenous”, is what makes his heart beat and gives him the resilience to bear the current discourse.  In becoming the poster boy, he has helped frame the conversation as we continue to seek reconciliation within our own ranks, brought on by historical and indeed by contemporary systemic trauma of colonization.


It is not a question really of how Indigenous he is, Joseph Boyden is Ojibwe from his mother’s lineage.  It is time that the grandmothers of his mother’s people, the grandmothers of Georgian Bay should claim him and give him a place to be rooted and to be home.


For my relatives, who don’t fit the image of a Hollywood Indian or the circumstance of the Indian Act, and all those children that have been displaced or stolen through egregious Child welfare policies, I hope they won’t be judged by legal colonial standards that are being applied in this case.


So, to all the aggrieved, if you believe that our grandmothers prayed for us seven generations ago, to remember who we are, you must believe that Joseph Boyden and many others were part of that prayer.



Most definitions of indigeneity invoke four criteria: historical precedence, non-dominance, cultural distinctiveness and self-ascription. Historicity denotes a group’s prior occupation of a geographic area that is partly or wholly subsumed, but not necessarily aligned with, the boundaries of the nation state. Non-dominance is usually understood in the political rather than demographic sense though, in the settler states of North America and Māori demography in Aotearoa New Zealand 61 Australasia, the two are synonymous. Colonialism and the attendant diminution of indigenous sovereignty are central features of non-dominance, usually underpinned by contemporary political claims for some form of self-determination (Maaka & Fleras, 2005). Cultural distinctiveness refers to patterns of social organization, beliefs and customs that have an historical basis but which have typically been affected by colonialism. Self-identification denotes the power for groups to define their own parameters using criteria that are meaningful to them. 3. The introduction of Māori descent and iwi questions in the 1991 census




Barrera, J., (2016) http://aptnnews.ca/2016/12/23/author-joseph-boydens-shape-shifting-indigenous-identity/


Boyden, J. @josephboyden on [twitter] published 24 December 2016


Kukutai, T., (2011). Maori Demography in Aotearoa New Zealand: Fifty years on.  New Zealand population Review 37: 45-64 retrieved 1/9/17


Lederman, M., 2017. Amid heritage controversy, publishing heavyweights stand by Joseph Boyden. The Globe and Mail. Pub January 06, 2017 12:08 PM EST


McMahon, R. (2016). What Colour is your Beadwork, Joseph Boyden? Published on Vice.com on December 30, 2016.


Thompson, N., 2016. Author Joseph Boyden defends Indigenous heritage after investigation. The Canadian Press posted Dec 28, 2016 2:20 PM ET last updated Dec 28 2016 4:30 PM ET

Where are Joseph Boyden’s Grandmothers?

Digital Story-Telling

Inter-generational effects of Residential School on Indigenous People

The inter-generational effects of residential school is often difficult to understand, not only by the observers but by the impacted. I had the opportunity to attend a talk given today by the Women whose research into the effects and impact on their own lives. The women were professionals whose lived experiences were recorded in digital story format. You can view these digital stories at: http://www.uwinnipeg.ca/index/oral-history-centre

The first womans digital story was against the photo of her beautiful young smiling mother. It was the haunting picture of her hazel eyes that told parts of her story and parts of her daughters story. It was difficult to sit quietly detached as my own emotion was riding just behind the surface of my own questions. I also caught my shoulders riding up to my ears, like I was trying to hide from the pain of my own remembering. Catching my physical reactions, I sat back and willed myself to breathe deeply, center, and listen to the stories, that were not unlike my own. I gazed at the photo of this young mother, and heard her daughters voice as their stories and lives were woven together. Like many survivor children, her daughter only heard parts of her story through her statement to the Indian Residential School settlement process. Out of respect, no questions are asked. It was only when the digital story of the daughter was shared and published, did the words “I love you and support you” take on a new meaning. Through reflection, the daughter found that she had experienced similar coping mechanisms to deal with the loss of identity and fear of abandonment and violence.

One womans digital story was against the backdrop of “the apology” proclaimed by the government of Canada in chambers in 2008. Five years later, the question is: What is the merit of the apology in the understanding of the inter-generational experience? In the moment of the apology, there was a feeling of relief that in fact, our experiences were real and had been validated by the perpetrator. There was profound relief that finally the perpetrator had admitted guilt. This validation gave us the opportunity to grieve the generations that had been immediately affected by the horrors of abuse and the generations who then lived the abuse in the shadows of a fearful parenting model.

The lead researcher, in the project, Roberta Stout,stated that, “telling our personal stories gives us the power to disrupt the affects of the colonial power within us”. And that is true, as once we are able to uncover the pain, we begin to grow out of it and see the power of our collective stories. We begin to see in our stories, the complete and powerful resilience of our mothers and our fathers to live with these painful memories. We can begin to see how this powerful resilience exists within all of us and carry in our cell memory. This resilience will guide us for generations to come.

In honoring this resilience, then my gratitude will always be extended to Phil Fontaine for his bravery for being the first public figure to disclose the horror of residential school. He walked with us through the valley of darkness and we began to understand that we are not victims and we are not powerless. The extent of the systemic and organized attempt to destroy a people, our people, is still being uncovered. However deep the pain and depraved the system has been, it no longer holds the power of the unspoken. We continue to rise and stand in our own power as nations of people, as proud human beings whose ancestors, whose mothers and fathers paid the blood price for our freedom and gave us

Digital Story-Telling