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There is room in our circle for Joseph Boyden

Wab Kinew is an Anishinaabe author and member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba

Growing up around sundance ceremonies, I met a man claiming to be descended from the great Lakota warrior Tasunke Witko (Crazy Horse). The man did not look native and was raised far from our communities. Nonetheless, he called himself "Crazy Horse." People made fun of him, but he danced with us for decades.

Then one day when I was a teenager, Tasunke Witko's real Lakota relatives showed up to question the man. When he could not explain his connection to the family, they denounced the man as a fraud and stripped him of the name "Crazy Horse." This happened in the middle of our circle, in front of our entire sundance community.

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Just then, as the humiliation reached its nadir, the chief of our sundance walked out into the arbour and adopted the shamed man, giving him his family name in the process. This made room in our circle for the man, his children and his grandchildren.

Today my friend Joseph Boyden is the one in the centre of our circle being stripped of an identity. Though his disrobing is happening in the feedback loop of social media instead of a traditional arbour, as with the man at the sundance, many of the questions asked are legitimate.

Joseph Boyden will be changed by this. He owes some of our friends apologies for apparently misleading them. Media outlets will lose credibility if they present his as the voice of indigenous peoples. When he promotes his next book, he will be asked about his identity and this episode.

Already some non-indigenous readers are asking if they should read his work. His novels remain powerful. But they were always the work of a talented outsider. Even if he is Anishinaabe, he is not a member of the nations he wrote about – the Mushkegowuk, the Huron, the Haudenosaunee. Recognizing the distinctions will inform readers. So, yes, read Joseph Boyden. But also read authors who have lived a more indigenous experience.

The indigenous community also has questions to consider. First, why did we so quickly embrace someone who has long said he has little biological connection to us?

Our community hungers for reasons to celebrate, so when a brilliant artist claimed us, we claimed him. I am not sure this cost us much. While he should not accept award money meant to encourage writers who experience the very real challenges of growing up indigenous in Canada, his success did not prevent a half-dozen indigenous authors from releasing bestsellers in the past few years.

The second, and perhaps more important question, is what does it say that many of us have so quickly turned on him?

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I am reminded of the man at the sundance. It could not have been easy, but he has returned year after year since his shaming. In the countless ceremonies since, all participating have repeated the prayerful Lakota words Mitakuye Oyasin (all my relations). The Anishinaabe and other peoples recite similar maxims. These axioms articulate the belief that every being is related to one another.

If we are to live this ethos, then perhaps the issue of how Joseph Boyden gained access to our circle does not matter as much as the fact he is present in our community now.

His place among us was built by writing about, giving back to and befriending us. Some, such as myself, continue to claim him. I can not give him a status card or confer on him the right to identify as Anishinaabe. But I can tell you if he keeps coming back, he will have a place in our circle.

I say this wishing he behaved differently. I want him to rescind the UBC letter, apologize for his comments about missing and murdered women, and be direct with us about his ancestry. If he is not native, he should confess. If he has one ancestor generations back, he should explain who they were.

Not long ago, a Lakota grandmother and I were teasing each other about that man from the sundance. "He's your relative." "No, he's your relative," we said to one another. But when the conversation turned to the now ailing man's health the woman surprised me with her genuine sadness. The man was imperfect. He made us cringe sometimes. Yet, he was still a part of us.

There is room in our circle for everyone, even those who do not behave as we would like. We include them not just to make our circle bigger. We love one another as relatives because it frees our hearts from hurt and allows us to embrace the goodness in each of us. When we do that, we are stronger.

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All my relations.

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