The Orenda Boyden wrote is not our Orenda
When I first learned about Orenda, it was when I was taught about traditional lacrosse sticks.
I was told that a woman’s power and the Orenda in a traditional lacrosse stick will fuse and become too powerful. In other words, I was taught that when a woman uses a traditional lacrosse stick she’s likely to hurt herself or others because she can’t control the amount of combined spiritual power.
So, if you search for the definition of “Orenda” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it defines it as: an extraordinary invisible power believed by the [Haudenosaunee] to pervade in varying degrees all animate and inanimate natural objects as a transmissible spiritual energy capable of being exerted according to the will of its possessor.
Broken down; Orenda is the spiritual power found in everything.
It wasn’t long after this understanding of Orenda that the novel The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden crossed my path.
I was given a copy to read when I was about 17 years old or so. I looked at the cover, the authors name, reviewed the synopsis and the first thing that came to my head was “this must be a non-native man writing fiction about my peoples history”.
This piqued my interest; especially since he wasn’t a historian and no sources cited were legitimate as much as I could tell. I Googled reviews and many Canadian voices were claiming it to be “a masterpiece.” But, I delved deeper to find the native ones because I knew they wouldn’t be clouded.
On March 7 of 2014, Hayden King (Ojibwe and Pottawotami from Gchi’mnissing in Huronia, Ont.) wrote to CBC that this novel was a “comforting narrative to Canadians” and that “The Haudenosaunee are not represented well at all.”. In fact, this book makes us out to be the antagonists of the break down of the Huron Confederacy, and paints us to be “A menace, lurking in the dark forest, waiting to torture or cannibalize.”.
Quite interesting, considering that we are the people that accepted the Great Law of Peace from the Huron Peacemaker, Tekanonwi:ta by the time Jesuits arrived as the book suggests.
After reading that, I didn’t even care that the book is fictitious any more.
I didn’t want to read the book then and I don’t want to read it now because of how thick I can see that the misrepresentation is. Especially since Boyden claimed “A goal in writing the book was to recount an accurate history without casting blame or making it about ‘white hats and black hats.’”.
So, it is very timely I would guess that someone explains the morality of writing and artistry.
As one of the youngest female North American Indigenous authors and journalists, allow me to explain my own moral boundaries in what I choose to write.
I am specifically Kanetaga Seneca Nation from the Snapping Turtle Clan family of the Haudenosaunee. As a writer; I choose to write about my life, my experiences, my community, my opinions, my history, my people, my culture, my ancestry, and oftentimes I write to be a voice for others.
In the previous sentence, please note that I used the word “my” an awful lot.
What I mean by “my,” is everything that I identify with as a part of who I am. This means that I write by drawing from what makes up my identity as an indigenous woman.
I would never write about experiences I never had from a Kenyan perspective, I would never write using Chinese folklore as inspiration, and I definitely would never draw from Brazilian history to write a piece of fiction.
I understand how much identity means to others because I understand the importance of my own.
I would never portray another culture or belief system with a cheap or untrue recollection of their history, legends or ways of life. Even if I absolutely had to, I would do it under the guidance of the people that belong to that culture and history and write directly from them; mainly out of due respect and reverence. Heck, if I wanted to write a piece of fiction I wouldn’t even base it on real, living and breathing people.
And personally, I would much rather read experiences from true and real people that lived them or are the product of them.
Let us draw the contrast of two familiar carvings; one is located near the Wing Master restaurant in Brantford and the other is located in Ohsweken just outside of Erlinds Restaurant.
One was carved by a native artist, the other by a non-native artist. One carving I love to look at it on my way into Brantford, the other carving I can tell is an interpretation of a West Coast totem pole and reminds me of ‘90s cartoons.
Although the difference in the two carvings is uncanny; I can understand that for artists work is money.
As an artist, there is a moral decision that must be made to create something. This means that all of the cultural appropriation that you see today has an artist or writer standing behind it that made a “yes, I’ll do it” decision.
I believe money, fame, notoriety and what-have-you can definitely influence that decision. But so can guilt, shame and negative rapport.
So, sitting at his computer to write; Joseph Boyden weighed his own moral decision. Perhaps he didn’t even weigh it at all, I wouldn’t know. But what it looks like to me is that money, fame and notoriety definitely out-weighed guilt and shame in his decision to write.
The negativity he’s getting now I believe is well-deserved, and the poking and prodding being done to find out if he actually is native is something he called upon himself.
Today, when I think of his work all I think of is how he took advantage of the knowledge that there has never been a better time to be indigenous since before Europeans came.
Chezney Martin is the Arts, Culture and Entertainment Editor for the Two Row Times and may be one of the youngest indigenous newspaper editors in the world.