According to the customs of the Mohawk Nation, the author Joseph Boyden is a fraud, an impostor, an imposition and an impediment. One who has exploited a mythical indigenous identity for material gain.
In the U.S., there is a law, the Indian Acts and Crafts Act of 1990, which makes it illegal for any individual to market native works of art when that person is not a member of an aboriginal nation. Fines upon conviction can be as high as $250,000 with a five-year prison term.
Canada needs to enact a similar law to prosecute and punish those who extract a demonstrable benefit under the pretense of being native. When these charlatans knowingly do so they cause harm to natives by eclipsing our work or by claiming to speak on our behalf and thereby presenting a false narrative as to who we are.
During my tenure as editor of the journal Akwesasne Notes from 1986 to 1992, the largest Native publication in North America at the time, I published a number of essays in which we exposed these frauds and summarized the harm they caused.
Boyden is but one of a long list of impersonators, from Archibald Belaney (Grey Owl) to Espera de Corti (Iron Eyes Cody). Both of these impostors took away opportunities for natives; Belaney as an author and de Corti as an actor.
Others have passed themselves off as native inspired spiritual advisors, the ‘plastic medicine men’ who use elements of our ancestral healing methods to seduce those in need.
One extreme example of using native customs for profit is James Arthur Ray, the Arizona based ‘new ager’ who caused the death of three people, by heatstroke and organ failure, in October, 2009 after he charged $10,000 per person to participate in a sweat lodge ‘ceremony’. Ray spent two years in jail but is back in business.
Boyden is a fraud according to Mohawk laws and customs. His book Orenda is an example of a talented individual who lacks any understanding as to our heritage and exploits popular stereotypes and outrights lies about us to make a mark for himself in Canadian literature. Boyden meets none of the membership standards for any native nation. Under our Mohawk rules a person must have four great grandparents who are unquestionably aboriginal. They must be accepted as native by one of our seven Mohawk communities. They must demonstrate a commitment to the preservation of Mohawk culture and they are required to have a strong familial connection. And they must have good character.
These rules have been set in place in response to the powerful social changes which have defined Canadian society for the past generation. They are meant to give us security, stability and continuity-values which Canadians seek not only to preserve among themselves but to impress upon those who are new citizens.
Boyden, and others like him, breach those principles. They become the definers of our history, the ones who are held as representatives of our ideals, our current status, of who we are as distinct peoples.
No native nation gave Boyden that task. He speaks for none of us and he hurts us when he pretends to be one of us.
Boyden and others like him make these unsubstantiated claims, then are given financial and social rewards by a Canadian society which should know better. It is easy to seek affirmation as to an aboriginal identity by contacting the native nation an individual cites as their own — if that nation denies membership, under their traditional laws and customs, then the person is not native.
Those who claim native heritage may have some kind of weak biological strand but it is not enough. A person may claim Canadian status but without documentation this does not meet the social or legal definition as to citizenship.
As for Boyden, perhaps he should take a DNA test and if he believes he is native take his case to those he claims to come from and let them decide. Until then he becomes an unnecessary burden for us all.
Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He has served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: Kanentiio@aol.com or by calling 315-415-7288.