Joseph Boyden and other Identify Crises

It has been a couple of years since APTN broke a controversial story of their investigation into Joseph Boyden’s indigenous roots or the lack thereof. While the dust has largely settled on Mr. Boyden’s claim to shame, the issue of identity for mixed indigenous people is personally challenging one for many of us.

June 7, 2014 in Saint Malo, France. — Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

The sad thing regarding Joseph Boyden is that I believe he did a lot for educating the broader public on what it means, or meant, to lead an indigenous life both in modern times as in “Through Black Spruce” or during colonization as in “The Orenda”.

Truth be told, while I am of Indigenous decent, the son of a Swampy Cree and a mixed marriage to a first-generation Italian woman conceived in Italy and born in Fort William, I don’t know much about what life was like for my native ancestors 300 years ago. Reading The Orenda gave me, perhaps, a fair appreciation for what life may have been like around the time of first contact. I would love to say that I have a good idea about that already because such stories had been passed down through the generations by the elders in our community; but the truth is, we had a little trouble keeping a cohesive story-telling heritage as our people struggled through the 1800s and 1900s.

The point of this article is not to complain about that; I try not to be a complainer – I like to spend my time thinking about what I want to do, and what I have to do to achieve that. Or, as my son’s Grade 9 science teacher, Mr. Nouh, said once about our son’s lack-lustre mid-term grade, “So what are you going to do about it?”

The point of this post is to bring to light the identity crisis that many of the Indigenous people have struggled with for generations as a result of colonization, assimilation, enfranchisement and now reconciliation. Our grandfather Allan Ritchie, on the Cree side of my heritage was somehow the offspring of a productive family. Whether Allan’s sense of being a productive member of society stemmed from my great grandfather’s (Walter Ritchie) western view of being paid for a hard day’s work or the indigenous understanding that if you aren’t productive in the wilderness, you freeze or starve to death, is difficult to piece together at this point. I would like to think that the combination of the long-standing European concept of being a contributor to society and a provider for your family, and indigenous natural laws of community responsibility and tribal preservation supported one another. This possibly created the interesting blend of work-ethic that allowed the Ritchie family to find their way in those early days of the 1900s. I don’t mean in any way to say that this situation was exclusive to our family; there are many mixed indigenous families like ours that successfully navigated the waters in colonized Canada. Hmm.. are you successful if you lose your culture along the way?

Regardless, Walter and his son Allan and many other families of the Moosonee/Moose Factory Cree Nation made there way south to the Chapleau region where the CPR railway provided employment opportunity and the trapping grounds were more fertile than what was becoming a very competitive trapping situation in the James Bay area. While Walter ended up in ‘commerce’ as a fur broker between the Chapleau trappers and the Hudson’s Bay Company, his son Allan became a pioneer in early-day telecom after completing a telegraphy course and becoming an operator for the CPR.

Allan Ritchie’s Telegraphy Certificate — June 16, 1914

That’s not to say that Allan abandoned his heritage; he was a proud ‘Indian’ who often paraded with his friends in buckskins and a headdress in the Chapleau Winter Carnival and Canada Day parades. He however, earned his living as a professional while keeping his heritage as an indigenous person alive through traditions such as hunting, trapping and fishing to name a few.

Chapleau July 1st Parade — 1950

To make matters more confusing, our father, William Ritchie, began his career as an electrician with Chapleau Hydro and later the CPR ‘Shops” but afterwards, left the CPR to begin a hunting and fishing business. While being a tourist outfitter was a means of income for him, it was much more than that; he was a gifted and natural story-teller and an extremely skilled bushman which all fit well with the guiding vocation that he eventually chose. One could argue, this was his way for him to educate his sons and those non-aboriginal people with whom he interacted. He  truly was proud of the mentoring role in his guiding business.

Both in and away from the family business, he naturally taught us how to hunt, fish and guide and prepare wild game and fish for our family dinner table. In addition, he taught us, and our family friends, a deep respect for the wilderness and the animals that lived within it. Perhaps most importantly, he taught us the value of a good day’s work; we knew how to have a good time, but we also knew that work came first, and play came later.

Brian Ritchie, heading to Hudson’s Bay Trading Post, Foleyet

Oh yeah, and by the way, my dad was encouraged by the Indian Agent to give up his status card under something called Enfranchisement in the late 1940s as a way to make a few bucks, disassociate himself from indigenous people and join the Dominion of Canada. Enfranchisement was a propaganda program that was pitched in a continuing effort “to get rid of the “Indian problem” as Duncan Campbell Scott would say. Of course, we would all now wonder “who would give up their status and abandon their heritage?”, albeit in a limited way as he was always an Indian at heart, and proud of it.

At the time though, being an ‘Indian’ was not a cool thing. We were a much more troubled people than we are now. Families were ripped apart as kids were taken to residential schools, employment was hard to come by if you had an Indian name and/or if you had the reddish skin colour associated with the indigenous people. Alcohol abuse was rampant because of the loss of identity, purpose and traditional livelihood. Who would NOT want to disassociate from Indigenous people in those days? It was just not a great time to be an Indian. 

So now comes the issue of my own identity crisis. Is it at all a mystery why many of us have limited stories of our heritage and culture? Is it my grandparents or parents, or even my own fault that I no longer speak the Cree language or have rich stories and teachings that were passed on for generations? I guess Mr. Nouh would say it IS my fault and I would not disagree with him; there are good sources for regaining our heritage and I will be spending more time on with that once I have finished a few other projects ;-)

However, it’s not as simple as saying that a lot of my ancestors let me down in not preserving our Cree culture. The insert below is an infamous letter written by the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1921 to the law enforcers of the day forbidding our people from their traditional customs and celebrations even on their Reserves.

Notice by Indian Affairs Deputy — Dec. 15, 1921

I’m not posting this to complain and belly-ache about the past; I include it to allow readers to understand how systematic the exercise of cultural eradication was at that time. What does that do to someone, like my Grandfather or my Father when they attempted to make their way in a new home like Chapleau Ontario. Oh, but then, my Grandfather used to parade in buckskins and a headdress in the town carnivals; we are a resilient people I guess.

So now comes along the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation report and an apology from Prime Minister Harper for the Residential School system and recent apology from Prime Minister Trudeau for the treatment Inuit People by Canada (and the refusal of an apology from the Catholic Church).

Here I am, a half-native man educated in the white-man’s world but also a decent trapper, hunter, fisherman and overall woodsman; I am a settler and an Indigenous person in one. Should I be celebrated or questioned for trying to regain the Cree part of my heritage. I’m also a decent wine-maker and I can serve up some fine Italian fare from my mother’s Italian teachings. As an aside, an interesting fusion in that regard, is Moose Risotto and Rappini (and red wine of course), which in my opinion, combines the best culinary tastes from both sides of my heritage.

Indigenous — Italian Fusion — The best of both worlds!

Does being half Indigenous and half Italian this make me less entitled to try to regain my Indigenous heritage? Would anyone, including myself, question me if I was to practice the Italian language or explore some age-old Italian recipes? I don’t believe they (I) would. However, as I work at becoming more indigenous, I can’t help but feel that I must justify my native heritage and my Treaty rights for that matter.

What I do know, in the wisdom of the great science teacher Mr. Nouh, its up to me to do something about that. Over the last few years, I’ve become more and more involved in my Chapleau Cree Community. With the help and invitation of Chief Cachagee and later Chief Corston, both of whom I have tremendous respect for in their own journeys to regain their culture and support our community, I have had the good fortune of being invited to assist our First Nation with several projects. This work has allowed me to relate more with our community members and learn more of our culture and traditions. I am immensely thankful for this opportunity.

As a technology and business person in the white-man’s world for over 25 years, I have something to offer in terms of the financial side of achieving sustainability and self-governance so it is there that I have focused my efforts over the last few years. In the future, I look to do more about helping our youth, especially in remote communities, with opportunities so that they are not mired in despair and lacking in hope. This is not a short-term problem in either its creation or its solution; the situation is dire in some areas but the achieving real and sustainable change will be a long journey.

Similarly, I have a long way to go on my own journey of reclaiming my native culture. As mentioned earlier, a goal will also be learning the language of my Father’s people. Learning the language of my Mother’s people is also a goal. I think fluency in English and proficiency in Cree and Italian would be an excellent milestone. For now, ciao and meegwetch!

P.S. For another set of views that touches on indigenous identity, and that reviews the same issue discussed in paper written over 100 years ago, you can read Jonathan Kay’s article at this link.  The August 2017  Globe and Mail article by Eric Andrew-Gee also offers some good insight into Boyden and the broader question of indigenous heritage.

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