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The Boyden effect: Defending my ‘tenuous Indian background’

Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright and author who lives on the Curve Lake First Nation in Central Ontario.

I knew it was only a matter of time. I almost started a betting pool on the exact date.

The controversy surrounding Joseph Boyden and the furor over his questionable ancestry was bound to expand beyond the one man and spread across what was once called Indian country. Who can and who cannot call themselves native/First Nations/aboriginal/indigenous? This was, of course, followed by the debate over who can and cannot call out these people. A poet/playwright might say "an Indian by any other name would smell as sweet."

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(Yes I am using the "I" word. You'll understand why in a moment.)

I fear people are now casting their critical gaze further afield than Mr. Boyden, beating the bushes for potentially fake native people, demanding authentication. Granted, indigenous identity is indeed an important issue in our community and should not be taken lightly, but it is not something that should be embraced with a fervent Donald Trump-like enthusiasm.

I recently received a curious e-mail. A woman named Ms. Harper had taken an unusual interest in me, my work and my ancestry. Her correspondence was as follows:

"Wikipedia says you were born in the U.S. Other places say you were born at Curve Lake and still live on the Rez. Yet again, D & M's site says you live in Toronto. You went to Lakefield S.S.

"Sounds to me like you and Joseph Boyden have a lot in common. Parlayed tenuous Indian background into a successful career.

"What's the truth? Or does it matter?"

I suggested to Ms. Harper, that, if further not convinced, to phone the Curve Lake band office and ask around. I am related to half the people there and grew up with the other half.

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I was puzzled by the accusation but not surprised. Twenty five years ago, I built my early writing career exploring and defending my decided lack of cheekbones sharp enough to cut a moose steak with. A four-volume series of books I wrote called Funny, You Don't Look Like One dealt with not being perceived native enough to satisfy people.

The continued irony was I had more so-called qualifications of what is thought of as native life than those questioning me. I grew up on my reserve. I have one of those cards. I had a single mother. Lived right across from my grandparents. I'm prediabetic (and if I am faking my heritage, that one must have been done on sheer willpower), and I'm angry at the government for 500 years of interference. Short of building a birch-bark canoe in a sweat lodge, I am at a loss on how to further put this issue to rest.

But seriously, the more dangerous aspect of this kind of allegation and its anticipated appearance has implications far larger than anything to do with me. When the hammer came down on Mr. Boyden, it would only be a matter of time before the microscope broadened its investigation and the lateral violence of suspicion began.

So this is a warning to all the native people out there who might not fit into another person's perception of a native existence. Get your papers and authentications together. You could be next. If you're native, in the public eye (or not), and don't have hair long enough to hang somebody, the AAA (Aboriginal Ancestry Assessors) might come knocking.

There has been a lot of talk recently about decolonizing ourselves. Part of that would be disassociating ourselves from the divide-and-conquer mentality forced upon us by the last 150 years of government policy. Fighting over status/non-status, Métis, skin colour etc., only increases the sense of dysfunction in our community.

Control of who is allowed in and out of our circle doesn't mean we have to interrogate each other. Frankly, I don't have the time. I am too busy celebrating our community.

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Still, the timing is perfect. This is the era of alternative facts and fake news. Ask not for whom the drum beats, it beats for you.

On retrospect, I actually do have a "tenuous Indian background" as Ms. Harper phrased it: I've been to India twice. They had trouble believing I was an Indian, too.

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