O is for The Orenda and Trojan Horse Reconciliation

Canada Reads 2014: Wab Kinew & Joseph Boyden

“[The Orenda] would be well placed, not only on the curricula of aboriginal studies courses, but on all Canadian history and literature courses” (Fraser, 2013, par. 9).

As we try to teach for reconciliation, what role should Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda play in our classrooms?

For the 2014 CBC literary contest, Canada Reads, the theme was “A Novel to Change Our Nation”. Wab Kinew advocated for The Orenda by Joseph Boyden and won in part by framing his pitch in terms of reconciliation. He argued that the book gives voice to Indigenous peoples in a way that allows Canadians to have a “new conversation” that will ultimately lead to truth and reconciliation.

The Orenda tells the stories of three characters in the Great Lakes region during the mid­-17th century: Snow Falls, an Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) girl whose family is murdered; Bird, the Huron (Wendat) warrior who murdered Snow Falls’ family and adopts her as his daughter; and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary. The book is full of violence, questionable depictions of Indigenous peoples and presents colonization and the destruction of Indigenous cultures and ways of life as inevitable. So what does this book have to do with reconciliation?

The release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report has ushered us into an era of reconciliation. But with no unifying, fixed definition of what we mean by it, many argue that “reconciliation” has become an “empty signifier” (Vowel, 18 Jun. 2016), a stand-in for concrete action (Vowel, 16 Jun. 2016) , even a “smokescreen for recolonization” (Alfred, 2015, par. 10). Rather than leading us away from colonization and towards good relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada, our showy quest for reconciliation might be doing just the opposite. Are our gestures of reconciliation simply reifying structures of European dominance and oppression?

Has reconciliation become a colonial Trojan horse?

One of the most important events in Greek Mythology was the Trojan War. To end the war, the Greeks pretended to return to Greece, leaving behind a gift for the Trojans of a large wooden horse which just happened to be full of soldiers. In Virgil’s poem, the Greek soldier Sinon who is left behind to pull off the trick, successfully convinces the Trojans that the Greeks have retreated and that the Horse is an offering to the goddess Athena. The gift is meant to atone for the previous desecration of Athena’s temple at Troy by the Greeks.

So the Horse is a weapon in the guise of reconciliation.

Vergilius Vaticanus – Public Domain

While questioning Sinon, a Trojan priest guesses the plot and warns the Trojans with the famous line “I fear Greeks, even those bearing gifts”. The warning goes unheeded, the horse wheeled into Troy allowing the Greeks to win the war, leaving us with a powerful lesson: Beware the invader bearing gifts.

This adage now applies to Settlers. After bringing the gifts of small pox, bison devastation, the Indian Act, the Pass System and Residential schools among others, Settlers are now bearing a new gift: reconciliation.

Saskatoon Public Library: Read for Reconciliation

‘Reconciliation’ is the sexy word of our times. It is everywhere, but perhaps nowhere more than the library. The Saskatoon Public Library has started a “Read 4 Reconciliation” initiative with a suggested reading list. CBC also has reconciliation reading lists, one for adults and one for young readers.

By now many Canadians have come to associate reconciliation with reading and in particular with reading Boyden’s work. In fact a promotional poster for Boyden’s speaking engagement at the University of Toronto in October 2016 argues that “Canadian readers have come to rely on him [Boyden] for an understanding of where we truly are and how far we must travel with regards to reconciliation”. Blogger Shady Hafez writes that reconciliation is “a concept Canadians have consumed to the point of euphoria” (#10:Canadians Love Him, par. 5) and that Boyden’s books in particular, “reek”  of it.

I would argue that The Orenda is a perfect example of Trojan reconciliation, of coloniality disguised as remorse.

The author of The Orenda, Joseph Boyden is a complex colonial figure in his own right. Boyden is the acclaimed author of Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce as well as The Orenda, all prize-winning books dealing with the Indigenous experience in Canada. Widely believed to be Indigenous himself, over the years Boyden has misleadingly described his heritage as Métis, Mi’kmaq, Ojibway and Nipmuc.

In December 2016, APTN published a damning critique of Boyden’s claims to Indigenous heritage, which posed serious questions about Boyden’s identity. Following this exposé, Shady Hafez, an Algonquin Anishinabe Syrian blogger living in Ottawa, took the logical next step. On his blog, Not Your Average Indian, he posted “10 Reasons Why Joseph Boyden is a Problem and Should Go Away” (March 7, 2017) in which he came to the somewhat rare but obvious conclusion that Joseph Boyden is “a White Guy”.

“Simply put, Boyden has no community. No one claims him, his ancestry is shaky to say the least, he’s transitioned through various identities and he has no ancestral or physical connection to the places he claims” (#1: Let’s All Say it Together: He’s a White Guy, par. 2). At the very least, Boyen’s links to an Indigenous past are very tenuous. However, by posing as Indigenous, Boyden’s views on Indigenous issues are given more weight and credence, allowing him to come to dominate public discussion of Indigenous issues, something he admits.

But is Boyden really to blame?

Clearly Canada continues to want to hear what he has to say. Despite all that we now know about him, we continue to appreciate and value Boyden’s perspective and have made him a key part of our national quest for reconciliation.

Grey Owl by Yousuf Karsh, 1936

Hafez argues that the reason Boyden is so successful, so sought out, is because he uses his Whiteness to “pander[] to white audiences” (#2: He Takes Up Space, par. 4), telling White people what they want to hear.

If Thomas King is ‘Not the Indian You Had in Mind‘, Joseph Boyden just might be.

Following in the tradition of Grey Owl/Archibald Belaney, Boyden writes in a way that engages a White audience, that offers us convenient, colonial portrayals of the Indigenous experience in Canada. We Canadians like to read Boyden’s books in part because they reinforce “who and what Canadians believe they are” (King, H., 2013, par.7).

As a White person myself, I can attest to Boyden’s appeal.

Neal Cresswell For The Globe and Mail

I was a great fan of Joseph Boyden prior to the fall of 2016, the proud owner of not one but two copies of The Orenda, which is odd because of all his books, I liked The Orenda the least. It is probably the most violent book I have ever read and the unrelenting brutality of the narrative makes it hard to read, particularly for those of us on the squeamish side.

From the very beginning the book is filled with detailed and grotesque stories of ritualized torture: fingers cut off with clam shells, eyes poked out, frequent scalpings and slow burning at the stake. But not only is this story very violent, it also portrays Indigenous peoples in troubling ways. I struggled with these depictions, but not for very long…

This was my actual thought process: “Wow, I had no idea Indigenous peoples were actually so savage. I thought that scalping thing was a myth! It must be true though because an Indigenous person wrote it.” Now, I can’t believe how simplistic my thinking was and how easily I was duped. I’m not sure I wanted to read a savage depiction of Indigenous peoples, but I sure didn’t think very deeply about it.

The Orenda also perpetuates tired tropes: the savage Indian, the mystical Indian, and the strong and selfless missionary among others. Even though I am somewhat accustomed to spotting these stereotypes and thinking critically about them, I did not do this in The Orenda because I accepted Joseph Boyden as an authority on these matters due to his presumed Indigeneity. Which is clearly lazy logic. But that is what makes Boyden so handy, he allows for this sloppy colonial thinking. We accept ideas and depictions that we ordinarily would question because Boyden is the author.

As I read The Orenda it became more and more important to me that Joseph Boyden was indeed Indigenous, otherwise the book is just another noble savage narrative. I wanted to believe that it was at least being told from an Indigenous standpoint. I wanted The Orenda to be saying something new. Indeed Charles Foran (2013, September 6) in his Globe and Mail review went so far as to declare The Orenda “fresh and new and free of colonial residue” (par. 15).

I would argue, though, that The Orenda is entirely colonial residue and ends up saying something very old.

The lesser-known plagiarism scandal following Boyden relates to The Orenda (the primary scandal involves Boyden’s 1997 short story, Bearwalker). Veldon Coburn (via @IndigenousXca) posted a link to a document comparing The Orenda‘s Feast of the Dead chapter to text from The Jesuit Relations. Written between 1632 and 1673, The Jesuit Relations are reports from the Jesuit missions in New France. The similarities between these Jesuit descriptions and The Orenda are remarkable.

Leaving the ethics of plagiarism aside, it is rather astonishing that a so-called “Indigenous” author would borrow so heavily from this obvious colonial view of Indigenous people. The Jesuits clearly had an agenda. Portraying the First Nations in New France as savage and cruel justified the Jesuit missionary project. Continuing to describe Indigenous cultures as savage and cruel now, justifies the Canadian national project. It justifies my place as a White Settler here on this land, justifies the ‘civilizing’ project of settlement throughout Canada.

Hayden King (2013, September 24) wrote that The Orenda provides non-Indigenous Canadians with a “moral alibi” (par.1), telling us that colonization was inevitable and preferable to the savagery that existed before. Yes, my country may not have treated Indigenous peoples well, but look at how they treated each other!

Furthermore, Boyden places some of the blame for colonization on Indigenous peoples. The unnamed Sky People who start each section muse about Indigenous responsibility for the fate that befalls them: “It’s unfair, though, to blame only the crows [Europeans], yes? It’s our obligation to accept our responsibility in the whole affair” (p.153). This moral ambiguity is precisely what makes Boyden’s writing so convenient, so useful for Settlers as we call for Indigenous peoples to “get over it”. You’re guilty, I’m guilty, we’re all guilty of colonization! Let’s move on!

The coloniality of all this sometimes gets to be too much. A White author pretending to be Indigenous writing a book about Indigenous people plagiarized from White accounts of said Indigenous people. And then White people reading it and feeling better about the colonization of Indigenous people.

What a mess…

And yet The Orenda won Canada Reads, securing its place in our Canadian lexicon. What does this tell us about reconciliation?

I believe it tells us a lot. I believe reading The Orenda insidiously perpetuates colonial ideas and stereotypes. I believe that reconciliation requires Indigenous voices. And I believe that Joseph Boyden does not have that voice. Reading The Orenda as reconciliation is a colonial Trojan horse, a Settler sleight of hand.

This has important implications for all of us but especially for teachers. There are many calls to make both The Orenda and Boyden’s latest book Wenjack (combined with Gord Downie’s Secret Path) required reading in classrooms. If we believe as Justice Murray Sinclair has stated that education is the key to reconciliation, what we read to our students and who we read bears serious reflection. Not all books with Indigenous themes will lead us towards a better understanding of our history nor a better understanding of reconciliation.

If reading is part of our path towards reconciliation, we need to work harder and look further than The Orenda.


Alfred, G. T. (2015, July 10). Opinion: Twenty-five years after Oka, it’s still all about the land. Montreal Gazette. Retrieved from:  http://montrealgazette.com/news/national/opinion-twenty-five-years-after-oka-its-still-all-about-the-land

Barrera, J. (2016, December 23). Author Joseph Boyden’s shape-shifting Indigenous identity. APTN National News. Retrieved from: http://aptnnews.ca/2016/12/23/author-joseph-boydens-shape-shifting-indigenous-identity/

Barrera, J. (2017, February 22). Similarities between Joseph Boyden story and Ojibway healer’s published work trigger questions. APTN National News. Retrieved from:   http://aptnnews.ca/2017/02/22/similarities-between-joseph-boyden-story-and-ojibway-healers-published-work-trigger-questions/

Boyden, J. (2013). The Orenda. Toronto: Penguin Group.

CBC Radio (2017, January 12). Joseph Boyden addresses his heritage in exclusive interview with Candy Palmater. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/q/schedule-for-thursday-january-12-2017-1.3929478/joseph-boyden-addresses-his-heritage-in-exclusive-interview-with-candy-palmater-1.3932161

Coburn, V. (IndigenousXca). “The Orenda vs. The Jesuit Relations – paragraph by paragraph (link to full chapter comparison: drive.google.com/file/d/0B0u5r4 …)” 4 Mar. 2017. 9:45pm. Tweet.

Foran, C. (2013, September 6). Joseph Boyden mines Canada’s bloody past for surprising spirituality. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from:  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/book-reviews/joseph-boyden-mines-canadas-bloody-past-for-surprising-spirituality/article14169831/

Fraser, M. B. (2013). The Terror and Pity of Contact: Native-Jesuit relations under a brilliant fictional microscope. Literary Review of Canada. 21(8), p.20. Retrieved from: http://reviewcanada.ca/magazine/2013/10/the-terror-and-pity-of-contact/

Hafez, S. (2017, March 7). 10 Reasons Why Joseph Boyden is a Problem and Should Go Away [Blog Post]. Retrieved from:  https://notyouraverageindian.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/10-reasons-why-joseph-boyden-is-a-problem-and-should-go-away/

Jackman Humanities Institute (2016). Truth and Reconciliation Today: Three Stories [Poster]. Retrieved from: https://www.humanities.utoronto.ca/event_details/id=2309

Kinew, W. (2014, March 3). Spoken Word Opening for Canada Reads 2014 [Video]. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2440114486

King, H. (2013, September 24). Critical Review of Joseph Boyden’s “The Orenda”: A Timeless, Classic Colonial Alibi. Muskrat Magazine. Retrieved from:  http://muskratmagazine.com/critical-review-of-joseph-boydens-the-orenda-a-timeless-classic-colonial-alibi/.

King, T. (2007). I’m not The Indian You Had in Mind [transcript]. Retrieved from: https://gladcanlit.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/im-not-the-indian-you-had-in-mind.pdf

Sinclair, M. (2014). Education: cause & solution. The Manitoba Teacher93(3), p.6-10. Retrieved from: http://www.mbteach.org/pdfs/mbt/2014/Dec14_MBT.pdf

Vowel, C. (apihtawikosisan). “I don’t want to hear people mouthing the word reconciliation when you’re celebrating learning history from a work of fiction. Work harder.” 6 Mar. 2014. 7:10pm. Tweet. Retrieved from:  https://twitter.com/apihtawikosisan/status/441742746642964480?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Fclairekreuger.ca%2F2017%2F04%2F18%2Fo-is-for-the-orenda-and-trojan-reconciliation%2F

Vowel, C. (apihtawikosisan). ” ‘Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.’ Ugh please less pageantry and more concrete action.”  16 Jun. 2016. 7:56pm. Tweet. Retrieved from:  https://twitter.com/apihtawikosisan/status/743608316115419136?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Fclairekreuger.ca%2F2017%2F04%2F17%2Fa-jumble-of-collected-thoughts-on-reconciliation%2F

Vowel, C. (apihtawikosisan). “Trying to excise the terms “decolonization” and “reconciliation” from my vocab. Too often they are empty signifiers. Say what you mean.”  18 Jun. 2016. 11:55am. Tweet. Retrieved from:  https://twitter.com/apihtawikosisan/status/744212000486604800?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Fclairekreuger.ca%2F2017%2F04%2F17%2Fa-jumble-of-collected-thoughts-on-reconciliation%2F



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