Sunday, January 8, 2017

On Boyden's Questionable Ancestory

It's hard when we find our heroes as fallible as the rest of us. Boyden, the prize winning indigenous writer found to be not so indigenous, is taking a hit now. Some, like Aaron Paquette, think Boyden can't claim status without having endured the hardship that went with being raised by generations decimated by legislated policy. It's cheating to take the perks without the privations. Others, like Wab Kinew, think Boyden should make amends, but then could be part of the wider circle. (Both of those pieces are beautifully written and deserve a look.) I'm more interested in the drive to assimilate with the victimized. When Rachel Dolezal did something similar, she was duly trashed. I tried to understand her position as well. Yet, through reading Boyden's books, I've attributed greater depth, thoughtfulness, and generosity of spirit to him. People don't want to casually toss him aside as a wannabe.

My ancestors were the invaders and some were likely the invaded who assimilated and survived: the Gauls and Normans and Vikings and Saxons. Later on, those Norwegians, French, German, Scottish, and Irish who wanted more for themselves or who wanted to escape persecution loaded on boats for the New World. New to them that is. They came centuries after the the French made allegiances with the Hurons, about the time the British decided to deal with the "Indian problem" by creating the Indian Act, a document of invasive regulations that enabled the residential school system to open and flourish. Just like their forefathers, they invaded and forced assimilation on the people because they had bought into the need for the purity of a single group. It's what we do.

I'm a mix of all those cultures, but I don't hold allegiance to any, not even to the line of Alsatian Mennonites that gave me my surname. It's so far back, I feel divorced from those cultures, orphaned and adopted as Canadian, whatever that is. I'm sometimes jealous of newer immigrants with clear ties to a people. And of the Indigenous Canadians. We were unsuccessful at taking their culture from them, try as we did; their culture is strong and formidable. But, as much as John Ralston Saul would like to suggest, it's not our culture.   

I grew up in a good sized house on a large lot that backed onto a beautiful maple forest, with two professionals as parents, happily married and financially stable. Some quiet alcoholism, occasional temper tantrums, and likely undiagnosed Aspergers were the only flaws in an otherwise storybook scenario. My pain is not like theirs.  

So I can see the draw. I can understand wanting to claim a history that isn't quite accurate.

Primarily, it's embarrassing to be aligned with the invaders and to acknowledge how much we've benefited from the efforts of our ancestors to exploit or destroy many peoples. It's a burden we have to accept and acknowledge in practices like naming the land we're on when we have an audience. Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next shows how German students learn to cope with the horrific actions of their country's past. We could use more of this in our own lives to help us come to terms with our collective guilt:


 Nothing makes you aware of your country like leaving it. I was just in Drake Bay, Costa Rica where the locals told me of their high schools that look like prisons, with one teacher who teaches every subject for each grade. People who want a good education have to move away. The man running our resort was lucky enough to have an aunt in a city, and he moved in with her at 14. I told them that's just like Canada. We have areas where there aren't enough people for a good school, so kids are sent away from home. But our country is massive by comparison, so they're sent really really far from home to cities like Thunder Bay. They're often just boarded rather than actually raised and cared for, and they sometimes end up in trouble with alcohol or sometimes they go missing and are found at the bottom of lakes. It's absolutely tragic. They were shocked that happens in Canada too. They had no idea. (Some of the American guests there had no idea who our current Prime Minister is, though. So maybe we're just not considered in general.) We're not just guilty of past actions; we're still struggling with current issues.

Secondly, I understand the draw to the victimized. Hardship gives people honour just for existing, for soldiering on. I saw that with breast cancer, how people thought me brave just for continuing to do whatever would give me best chance for a long life. A difficult past has a curious elevating effect on a person's status with little necessary effort to develop personal character worthy of honour beyond a will to survive. It's a too easy shortcut to glom onto a surviving group to claim that status. Currently, there's an access to extras not granted to the dominant class, not granted for a reason because of everything else available to us, but I don't think that's what either Boyden or Dolezal were about. It's a side effect of their actions, but unlikely to be the main motivator. They couldn't know that they'd get the awards and grants when they told those first few lies.

We're sometimes envious of the attention given to the sick or traumatized. I'm reminded of the Robin William's film, World's Greatest Dad in which many teens suddenly claimed they were best friends with a recently deceased student who didn't really have friends because he was such a horrible person. It's not uncommon to attach ourselves to the middle of an event and claim a place closer to the suffering person because we feel at all. We want our emotional experiences with the incident recognized. It's interesting that it only happens when the suffering are at the centre of the fray rather than ignored at the outskirts, as most are. The Indigenous likely had fewer people loudly insist they're 8% native a few decades back when that admission could have a more negative effect.

The William's film also beautifully depicts how someone can get sucked into a fabrication. The dad, a struggling novelist, doesn't want his son found strangled in an autoerotic asphyxiation accident, so he reties the rope around his closet bar and writes a suicide note, which becomes his first published piece. Soon he's "finding" novels the teenager left behind. It's the only way he could get his writing acknowledged. He didn't have malicious intent, but the effect wasn't entirely harmless. Boyden's books stand on their own merit, but would he have gotten a foot in the door of the publishing world without his chosen identity?

Finally, claiming status gives individuals a people, an entire culture where they feel some sense of belonging. We're shifted to such an independent focus in society, bereft of community, that being a mutt, a mix of many cultures, can be profoundly isolating. Changing a few details of our past in order to be included in a group can be very enticing, which can sometimes be too hard to override with more moral reasoning.

I completely agree with Paquette's notion that it's not acceptable to just attach yourself to a group without enduring the challenges the group survived, but I love the flavour of Kinew's article that suggests people can be adopted and accepted as honorary members if they're worthy of the honour. We need a sense of belonging in this world right now more than we need to clarify our borders. But we also need to live authentically, honest with ourselves about who we really are and where we came from.  


the salamander said...

.. Nice.. nicely said.. and yes, Wab Kinew really nailed it..

Marie Snyder said...

He sure did!