Spotlight on Research: Peter Grevstad on Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda

Editor’s Note:

Alchemy is proud to present Peter Grevstad’s academic research paper, “Joseph Boyden’s Inconvenient Indian: knowledge production in postcolonial writing,” as our Spotlight on Research feature for Fall 2016. Peter completed this paper as part of his graduate course work at OISE in a class taught by Dr. Sherene Razack.

In this essay, Grevstad applies a variety of theoretical vocabularies to the examination of Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, offering a defense of the novel as a representation of the historical origins of colonialist discourses in Canada and trauma in the indigenous community. One of the thinkers Grevstad deploys in his essay is 2016 Sheridan Reads author Thomas King, who explores the history of Indigenous representation in Canada in his book The Inconvenient Indian (2012). King visited Sheridan in November 2016 for the Creative Campus Series talk.

Joseph Boyden’s Inconvenient Indian: knowledge production in postcolonial writing

By: Peter Grevstad

all knowledge

is to know the ledge you stand on

– bpNichol (The Martyrology, book IV)

Writing in Muskrat Magazine, Ojibwe and Pottawotami Political Science scholar Hayden King from Gchi’mnissing in Huronia, incidentally the setting for Joseph Boyden’s novel, declares The Orenda a ‘classic colonial alibi’ (2016, np). Calling it a novel about the emergence of Canada, King states that the novel concerns Indian savages, do-good Jesuits, and the inevitability of colonization. While praising the book’s multiple narrative structure, King derides the representation of the Haudenosaunee and the inevitable destruction of the Huron nation. An example of this is the martyrdom of the Jesuit Christophe, a cipher for St-Jean de Brébeuf. This is likened to the Atwoodian notion of survival being a dominant trope in Canadian literature since the colonial period[1]. King also claims that the Jesuit is undeniably the central character, as interpreter of the new world, who is elevated to mythic status reinforcing colonial mythologies of savagery and salvation. However, there is much more to this prize-winning novel.

This paper considers postcolonial writing in the 20th century (Ashcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin, 1989), settler colonial projects and cultural transformation (Lowe, 2015), the representation of Indigenous peoples in North America (King, 2012), as well as the construction of race and notions of sovereignty (Foucault, 1997) and how these critical texts intersect with The Orenda and ultimately with the construction and representation of “Indians” in the Americas. This paper also considers the nation as a site of trauma (Bergland, 2000), and colonial bodies as the raw material for politics and the development of whiteness (Cheng, 2001), and the role of the tortured Indian in the national imaginary, through the lens of fictionalized Indians and settler colonials. An appendix to the paper presents an interview[2] with a non-status Hobbema First Nations man which illustrates the impact of the loss of cultural memory, and intergenerational and multi-generational trauma for First Nations and Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

On the perspectives of colonized writers and voices in the postmodern age, Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin (1989) address the problem of the creation of colonial Indigeneity, reflective of the Emersonian notion (1836) of ‘their original relation with the universe’ (p. 135). They assert that there is a persistence of “European critical and theoretical domination of the study of postcolonial literatures long after the literatures themselves had begun exploring the fields now incorporated into, and legitimized by, the European theoretical hegemony” (p. 139). They also claim that a connection to land and its effects on Indigenous textuality, whereby writers seize the post-colonial means of communication in a different way from its appropriation in settler cultures, sees Indigenous writing as incorporated into national settler literatures, yet claim that there persists an alternative metaphysic, as well as “political rage” which has been a powerful creative force (p. 144). In other words, Indigenous voices stand against settler narratives. On imperialism as a form of colonial government, and responses to it, Ashcroft et al claim that “imperial expansion has had a radically destabilizing effect on its own preoccupations and power. In pushing the colonial world to the margins of experience the ‘centre’ pushed consciousness beyond the point at which monocentricism in all spheres of thought could be accepted without question. In other words the alienating process which initially served to relegate the postcolonial world to the ‘margin’ turned upon itself and acted to push that world through a kind of mental barrier into a position from which all experience could be viewed as uncentred, pluralistic, and multifarious. Marginality thus became an unprecedented source of creative energy” (1989, p. 12).

The Orenda’s plot is based upon Jesuit accounts of their early interactions in the 1640s with both the Wendat and Haudenosaunee people in the upper Great Lakes region of Ontario. The Jesuit character is one of three[3] narrators: there are Bird, a Wendat chief, Christophe, a Jesuit/Crow, and Snow Falls, a Haudenosaunee girl kidnapped and adopted by Bird after he murders her family. Part of the narrative involves a trade journey to French colonies, which includes a meeting with the venerable Champlain, on the way to which the Wendat’s most significant attempt at reconciliation with their enemies is destroyed when Christophe loses a wampum gift in a fall, all but sealing the Wendat’s eventual destruction and dispersal.

This is a critical moment in the narrative, as the wampum is a powerful symbol of knowledge and memory for the Wendat in the story. Once the wampum is lost, a terrible and inevitable reality sets in, as the wampum, as well as the return of Snow Falls to her people, would have set both Indigenous groups on a path to peace and reconciliation. Bird reflects on this, and says, “The wampum we were to present him took our most talented artisans weeks of intense work, the weaving of our stories and of our hopes and wishes and especially of our promises, each single, hand-polished bead cut and shaped from foreign shells, drilled for the thread to pass through, each bead glittering and weighing almost nothing but immeasurable in price when it’s chosen and sewn next to the other so that our hopes, and our history emerge into something that can be held, that can be weighted in the hands, to be passed around and explained. This, I realize, this wampum, this story meant for these people who are our enemy, has been lost. […] I have lost my people’s story, my gift to the ones who are our enemy, in the hope of changing that course. I know now that the course we are on, this other leader and me, is a course of warfare” (Boyden, 2013, pp. 107-108).

The second part of the novel three years later sees the Wendat decimated by a European illness, and compounding this is a summer drought, which Père Christophe somehow ends with a ten-day long celebration of Catholic ritual. New priests arrive, including Isaac, who has lost his senses after torture by the Iroquois, bringing communicable illness to the Wendat once again. Snow Falls and Carry an Axe are sent away to the Catholic mission, while at the same time Haudenosaunee warriors encroach upon and destroy Wendat territories and settlements. Bird and the rest of the village take refuge in the Catholic mission, which the Haudenosaunee attack over three days. Snow Falls’ husband is killed, and Snow Falls is poisoned by Isaac. Christophe is tortured (caressed) and murdered, and the last of the Wendat people head to the relative safety of the Sweet Water Sea, and resolve to migrate to Gosling’s Anishnaabe territory.

Ashcroft et al (1989) also claim that, [c]onstructing ‘Indigeneity’ White European settlers in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand faced the problem of establishing their [own] indigeneity, and distinguishing it from their continuing sense of their European inheritance. In this respect their situation differs from that of Indians or Africans whose problem was to retrieve or reconstruct their culture at the end of a period of foreign rule. The colonial settlers had to create the indigenous, to discover what they perceived to be, in Emerson’s phrase ‘their original relation with the universe’” (p. 135). And yet, the authors also note that indigenous groups are doubly marginalized, pushed to the fringes of societies which have experienced colonial alienation, and that thus they have a capacity to subvert received assumptions about literary creations such as The Orenda.

In The Intimacies of Four Continents Lisa Lowe (2015) presents an archive of and a genealogy of corporate colonialism which leads to liberal modernity in Europe. She cites Locke’s notion of terra nullius which justified settler appropriation, an heuristic of liberal subjects whose intimacies lead to subjugations and erasure (p. 20). She posits a Hegelian notion of intimacy as the development of individual freedom through property, family, and civil society (p. 28). This was achieved through the intimacies of slavery, colonialism, “and the imperial trade in goods and people that constituted an unacknowledged social formation of the era” (p. 82). In The Orenda there is an active fur trade between the French and the Wendat, and this trade is competitive, leading to conflict with the Haudenosaunee. In the novel, Père Christophe takes the Wendat people along to the French settlement at Québec. There he encounters a fellow Jesuit, Xavier, and their conversation goes thus: “Xavier’s impressed that I am to have dinner with Champlain. “He’s warming to us Jesuits”, he says. […] “He understands that our role in this country is vital to his own interests”. “But aren’t our interests the same?” I ask. Xavier replies, “Don’t be so naïve. Champlain’s sole interest is the conquest of this land, damn the Dutch and English”, to which Christophe replies, “And ours […] is the conquest of souls. Sometimes the brutality of man needs to show itself so that we may understand the stakes” (Boyden, 2013, p. 121). The social formation of the The Orenda, then, is built upon the brutality that is corporate colonialism.

Lowe also cites the fetishization of commodities from a Marxist perspective as “colonial labour and imperial trade as social conditions for the production of value” (p. 83), in an autobiography of the privilege of liberal subjects. She charts the move from colonialism to empire building and notes that liberalism is in fact hegemony (p. 104), as the East India Company becomes a corporate pan-state, or private colonial government, where control of subjugated people is a condition of freedom for all (p. 112), and where racial difference is produced and legislated. One can assert that a similar project arose in Canada, with the growth of the Hudson Bay Company, which acted much the same way in terms of material relations, land, and territory. This follows Lowe’s argument that pursuing intimacies is tantamount to subordinating the dispossessed, which is exactly what both corporate colonial projects and religious conversions seek to do, in a genealogy of colonial divisions. The intimacies, then, become the defining nature of liberal subjects as a political economy.

These intimacies, however, are spectrifying, and amount to subjugations and erasure, a fiction on its own. In this way, then, a work like The Orenda becomes, if we follow Lowe, a slavery to modern freedoms as an autobiography of privilege of liberal subjects, which is negotiated by an artful and deliberate forgetting. Religious colonial projects demonstrate that the “liberal narrative of freedom overcoming enslavement both builds upon and continues to erase the ongoing settler seizure of lands, Christianization, and subordination of indigenous Americans” (2015, p. 63). All of this suggests and reiterates settler colonialism, and thus erases indigenous differences. Lowe mentions Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society, wherein he suggests that “the transition to a modern social formation was not determined by one cataclysmic event. Rather, it took many decades, arguably a long century, for a “new cultural dominant” to emerge and consolidate” (p. 81). The cultural dominant is a corporate colonial state, sovereign and acting on behalf of a colonial power. In the case of The Orenda, the colonial power originates in France, and emanates from New France. Liberalism itself becomes hegemonic, as strategies shift from colony to empire.

Foucault (1997) explores the intimacy of the power of national sovereignty with a power to make live and let die (p. 241). This results in the biopolitics of the human race as a technology of power. The systems of power that Foucault speaks about give rise to two contiguous systems of power: sovereignty over death, and the regularization of life (p. 247). Foucault identifies racism as a basic mechanism of power and as a pre-condition to the right to create owned subjects and, if needed, to kill them. Foucault asks, “If you are functioning in the biopower mode, how can you justify the need to kill people, to kill populations, and to kill civilizations? By using the themes of evolutionism, by appealing to racism” (p. 257). King (2012) presents a similar argument.

How is this connected to The Orenda? It’s quite simple actually: Indians were a territorial inconvenience (King, 2012), and subjugating them through disease, displacement, and proxy massacre is a reflection of the make live/let die coding of biopower in human relationships. This is enacted early in The Orenda. Père Christophe tries to explain tenets of Catholicism to a small group of Wendat, but is interrupted by Gosling, who says, “There are those who believe you and these other Black Gowns are the malevolent okis and have brought the famine and the disease and the drought to us”, to which Christophe replies, “We come only with goodness in our hearts and with the words of the Great Voice on our tongues”. He then asks Gosling whether she believes “that we are responsible for the troubles that have fallen over the land these last years?” She replies that he expects a simple answer, “for this will vindicate you, as you clearly believe you’re not the cause. Rather, you see your arrival so long ago as an unfortunate coincidence” (Boyden, 2013, pp 162-163).  Gosling accuses the Jesuits of “trying to convince them that what they know so surely is in fact wrong”. When Christophe claims he’s offering them a chance to live differently, she says, “You’re upsetting a balance generations in the making […] what you seek to do will split this village, will weaken all of the Wendat. And when this happens, the Haudenosaunee will take note and take action”. She adds that, “Your wampum declares that everything in the world was put here for man’s benefit. Your wampum says that a man is the master and that all the animals are born to serve him”. She concludes by claiming that, “humans are the only ones in this world that need everything within it” but that, “there is nothing in this world that needs us for its survival. We aren’t the masters of the earth. We’re the servants” (p. 163). The make live/let die conceit still works here, despite what Gosling claims, signaling the inexorable cultural changes and subsequent traumatization of Aboriginal Peoples, which continues to this very day[4].

In King’s (2012) The Inconvenient Indian: a curious account of Native people in North America, he describes history as a love affair, and addresses whiteness in public history. He describes the history of First Nations people as “a series of entertainments, Native history is an imaginative cobbling together of fears and loathings, romances and reverences, facts and fantasies into a cycle of creative performances, in Technicolour and 3D, with accompanying soft drinks, candy and popcorn” (p. 20). For King Indians also signify. There are Dead Indians as stereotypes and clichés, which North America no longer ‘sees’. King characterizes these Indians as simulacra, using a notion from Baudrillard. This means, “something that ‘is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none” (p. 54). These are contrasted with Live Indians, which “from an Old World point of view, were an intriguing, perplexing, and annoying part of life in the New World”.  He presents a reworking of a purportedly Christian idea, that of the cultish sanctity of the Dead Indian, since Live Indians cannot be genuine Indians in the way that Dead Indians can be. Dead Indians apparently reside in a sort of Garden of Eden, and embody innocence and original sin, both. The Legal Indian is a different sort from the two other types, but this Indian is and has been problematized. Duncan Campbell Scott, head of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913-1932 declared, “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed by the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department” (p. 72).

Even with scholarly testimony and truth and reconciliation commissions, King declares, in a manner akin to Jonathan Swift[5], that “we don’t mind killing people we don’t like, and we don’t mind killing if it can be done at a distance and out of sight. And killing is especially acceptable if the slaughter can be attributed to a defect in the victims or to a flaw in their way of life or to an immutable law of nature. Or all of the above. How fortunate it is to have so many excellent ways of destroying a people without getting one’s hands damp” (p. 78).

We need only look to the 19th century and sanctioned ‘benevolent assaults’, “assaults facilitated by force of arms, deception, and coercion, assaults that sought to dismantle Native culture with missionary zeal and humanitarian paternalism, and to replace it with something that Whites could recognize” (King, 2012, p. 102). He further characterizes missionary work as war, claiming that Christianity “has always been a stakeholder in the business of assimilation, and, in the sixteenth century, it was the initial wound in the side of Native culture. Or, if you want the positive but somewhat callous view, you might wish to describe Christianity as the gateway drug to supply-side capitalism” (p. 102). Intermino Indian, Servo Vir, or “Kill the Indian, save the man” becomes a motto for King (p. 108). As a religious project, sequestering Indians on reserves and schooling their children was, and continues to be, some kind of Christian capitalist race to the top. King also cites former Prime Minister Harper who made the bizarre declaration that “we have no history of colonialism” (p. 124).

Much of the responses to theory and fiction which address the legacy of colonial projects can be explained once we have an understanding of white fragility (DiAngelo, 2011). This fragility is a response both to the mechanisms of colony and the inability of white settlers to confront the racism that inheres in their habitus. DiAngelo states that “not all multicultural courses or training programs talk directly about racism, must less address white privilege. It is far more the norm for these courses and programs to use racially coded language such as ‘urban’, ‘inner city’, and ‘disadvantaged’ but to rarely use ‘white’ or ‘overadvantaged’ or ‘privileged’ (2011, p. 55).

Whiteness signifies a set of locations that “are historically, socially, politically and culturally produced, and which are intrinsically linked to dynamic relations of domination. Whiteness is thus conceptualized as a constellation of processes rather than as a discrete entity (i.e. skin colour alone). Whiteness is dynamic, relational and operating at all times and on myriad levels” (p. 56). Further, DiAngelo references Bourdieu’s 1993 concept of the habitus which “is a socialized subjectivity; a set of dispositions which generate practices and perceptions” and which produces and reproduces “thoughts, perceptions, expressions and actions” (p. 58). These thoughts and perceptions lead to a racial disequilibrium which results from “unconscious dispositions toward practice, and depend on the power position the agent occupies in the social structure” (p. 58). And thus, white privilege is encoded as a product of habitus. DiAngelo claims that whites are taught to see their perspectives as objective and representative of reality, or as a universal truth, while at the same time claiming to value the individual. Why? Because “[i]ndividualism erases history and hides the ways in which wealth has been distributed and accumulated over generations to benefit whites today […] to view themselves as unique and original, outside of socialization and unaffected by the relentless racial messages in the culture” (p. 59). So, and interestingly, white hegemony and privilege somehow, in the national discourse, mutates into a fragility which precludes addressing the worst aspects of ongoing colonial projects because these discussions may cause discomfort.

Cheng (2001) addresses racial melancholia and hidden grief in a discussion of race. She begins by asking how “an individual [goes] from being a subject of grief to being a subject of grievance” (p. 3). She also claims that, “The prospect of integrating a history of fierce difference, social injustice, and psychical injury into one nation has proven to be one of the more unyielding tasks of social progress. Our first lesson must be to not mistake an attention to the psychical for essentialization. Both essentializing and denying the deep psychological impact of discrimination are equally troubling” (p. 6). She notes that there are continuing struggles surrounding psychical complications for those who live within a ruling episteme that privileges that which they can never be (p. 7)[6]. Melancholia is a legislation of grief, after Freud, and Cheng claims that while mourning is a normal response to loss (of a loved one, of a home, of a culture) that it is finite. Melancholia, however, “is pathological: it is interminable in nature and refuses substitution […] the melancholic is, one might say, psychically stuck. She cites Freud, who says, “[i]n grief [mourning] the world becomes poor and empty: in melancholia it is the ego itself” (p. 8). This denotes a condition of endless self-impoverishment, and speaks to the Canadian colonial project. Bodies are the raw material for politics, and thus the materials for the development of whiteness, as mentioned above. The most valuable bodies, then, are the dead bodies, or perhaps King’s ‘Dead Indian’.

We see this in The Orenda. Christophe understands this only too well. In a sermon which leads to lively intellectual debate (which he ignores), he uses the metaphor of an axe in a fire, which will turn red but not lose its form, to explain the Christian notion of hell, and he asks the assembled to think about the “earth as doing this to the bodies of those who live badly when they are alive” (Boyden, 2013, p. 188). He asks, “Do you think the many damaging things you do will be forgotten?” He continues, and claims, “The Great Voice forgets nothing. Who hates himself so much he says, ‘I want forever for the flame to eat my body’? Would you continue to be brave, to not cry out, if it burned you? You can be brave when your enemy burns you. I’ve seen it. If you don’t cry out, your name will be honoured forever. Maybe over one or two or three days your body will burn before your tormentors tire of caressing you. But you will have to lose hope inside the earth, for the fire will never stop” (p. 188).

Death becomes the Inconvenient Indian. However, the caressing, so much a focus in critiques of The Orenda, takes on a new meaning when it is characterized by a white character, Isaac, who had been previously caressed by the Haudenosaunee. On page 244 he is describing days of torture that he has endured, including a gruesome description of having all his fingers bitten off. He describes his experience, which brought him close to death, and says, “After two days of torture they let me rest for a whole day, feeding me by hand, and pouring cold water into my mouth and binding my wounds with salves as tenderly as if I were their own child. I expected the worst was yet to come, but this is when they told me I would live if I desired, if I made them a promise” (Boyden, 2013, p. 244). He continues, “They made me promise that if I were to leave this country and return to my home, if I were to carry the messages back that my kind were not welcome here, then I could go free”. In a Foucauldian sense we see the ‘make live and let die’ mechanism at work here, however, what is interesting about this episode in the novel is that it is the Jesuit who is subjugated and, finally, allowed to live, something of a reversal of the understanding of this conceit from Foucault’s original essay in Society Must Be Defended (1976).

Loss becomes exclusion or introjection, and Cheng cites novelist Thomas Mann, who said, “the calling back of the dead, or the desireability of calling them back, was a ticklish matter after all. At bottom, and boldly confessed, the desire does not exist: It is a misapprehension precisely as impossible as the thing itself, as we should soon see if nature once let it happen. What we call mourning for our dead is perhaps not so much grief at not being able to call them back as it is grief at not being able to want to do so” (p. 9). The melancholic ego is haunted and embodied in a ghostly manner, while the object is also ghostly, in a spectral drama “whereby the subject sustains itself through the ghostly emptiness of a lost other” (p. 10). This neatly elucidates racialization, according to Cheng, institutionalizing the production of a dominant, standard, white national ideal sustained by both exclusion and racialization of others. The paradox is that the racial other is in fact assimilated. She adds that “Dominant white identity in America operates melancholically – as an elaborate identificatory system based on psychical and social consumption-and-denial” (p. 11). For the discussion in this paper it is germane to consider that, “[r]acial melancholia plays itself out not only in national formation but also in one of its expressions: the formation of canonical literature. After Morrison (1990), the national literary canon is a melancholic corpus. Notably, literary great DH Lawrence, as well as writers such as Slotkin have suggested that “American literature […] established its national identity in the struggle between Indians and whites” (p. 13). Cheng also cites Julia Stern, who has claimed that, “[t]hese invisible Americans, prematurely interred beneath the great national edifice whose erection they actually enable, provide an unquiet platform for the construction of republican privilege, disturbing the Federalist monolith in many ways” (Stern, cited in Cheng, 2001, p. 13). Perhaps the most important question that Cheng poses is the following: “Let us ask the question that Freud does not ask: What is the subjectivity of the melancholic object? Is it also melancholic, and what will we uncover when we resuscitate it? In other words, what implications do insights into the melancholic origins of [North] American racial-national identity hold for the study of the racialized subject?” (p. 14).

Again, we can turn to Boyden’s novel, and see this loss and melancholy quite clearly, in the chapter entitled The Feast of the Dead (Boyden, 2013, p79ff). Père Christophe records a ceremony whereby the dead family members of the Wendat at Attignawantan are exhumed as the Huron undertake a move from their village, which occurs approximately every 12 years. He writes, “All these communities descend upon their respective cemeteries and unearth their deceased from the tombs in which they lie. Each family sees to its dead with such bereavement and care, their tears falling like raindrops, that one would assume the corpse had lately passed on. While this is sometimes the case, more often it is not, and the bodies are in various stages of decomposition. Some are simply bones, others have only a type of parchment over their bones, , and other bodies appear as if they’ve been dried and smoked, showing little signs of putrefaction.” Continuing, it is related that the bodies “are put on display so that all the family members might grieve anew, and it’s this that strikes me as especially powerful, this willingness of the sauvages to gaze down upon what they each will one day become. There’s something in this particular practice that can teach us Christians a powerful lesson, that we may see more vividly our own wretched mortal state, that it’s not the world we should cherish but the promise of the next” (pp 80-81). He also asks, “After undergoing such an obligation, what act of charity might seem remotely comparable? To look after the sick in hospital, to bow to and clean the feet of a sick man covered in sores, these would seem simple indeed” (p.80). While some might suggest that this indicates that the white narrator has a powerful insight into the complex lives of the Indians he is trying to convert and whose minds he is trying to colonize, it may also be seen as a fleeting moment of essential humanity, and a juncture at which Christophe sees a cultural complexity and richness which he had never ascribed to the Wendat people. Predictably, however, this epiphany never leads to any real appreciation of the complexity of Indigenous belief systems of cultural or material practices, given the necessity of the colonial project from the French perspective.

To answer Cheng’s question about the racial identity of the melancholic, we read Bergland (2000), whose “The National Uncanny: Indian ghosts and American subjects” addresses the spectralization of Indian objects in the history of the Americas. She claims that “When European Americans speak of Native Americans, they always use the language of ghostliness” (p. 1), and adds that “Native American writers and orators have often resorted to the language of ghostliness themselves, in their negotiations with European colonialism and United States hegemony” (p. 1). She also states that “[s]tarting from the 1600s, countless North American Indians were dispossessed of their homes, fields, languages, tribal cultures, families, and even their lives. But when we focus on Indian ghosts, we risk forgetting the fact that many survived” (pp. 2-3). She adds, “Europeans take possession of Native American lands, to be sure, but at the same time, Native Americans take supernatural possession of their dispossessors[7]. It is hard to know who counts as the victor in such a contest” (p. 3). By becoming ghostly, then, Native American Indians gain rhetorical power over their colonizers and oppressors by relinquishing everything else.

On subjectivity, Bergland sees it as a product of the Enlightenment, and cites Balibar, who defines subjectivity as “the essence of humanity, of being (a) human, which should be present both in the universality of the species and in the singularity of the individual, both in reality and as a norm or a possibility” (Balibar, cited in Bergland, 2000, p. 9). She adds that “[w]hen people began to define themselves as subjects, they embraced both their own individuality and their status as representatives of all humanity. At this specific historical moment, each subject internalized both the human collective and the transcendent laws” (p. 9), and also that, “individuals see themselves both as the ones who know the law, and also as the ones who are accountable to the law” thus performing their own subjection.

On savages and neurotics, Bergland again cites Freud, and claims that civilization and its disparate social and cultural projects is equal to the social systems of white Europeans. And further, she claims that “the mental health of white Americans and Europeans depends upon the successful repression of their intimate relation to the other, less inhibited races, as much as on the repression of their childhoods” (p. 11). In terms of the universality of the species, one could argue that this is The Orenda’s central thesis. This is elucidated many times, most notably at the beginning of the book. Christophe notes that the Wendat people possess an oki, or individual soul, but that they also are part of the Orenda, a species of universal soul. This universal, transcendant soul speaks at the novel’s beginning, and again at its ending, suggesting the universality of the human experience, despite or perhaps because of racial difference.

A racial melancholy is expressed, lamenting the rise of great villages that had names plucked from Indian tongues, and yet there’s a persistent belief in this universal soul, whose light may diminish, but which would never be extinguished. “But who is at fault when it recedes? It’s tempting to place blame, though loss should never be weighed in this manner. Who, then, to blame for what we now witness, our children cutting their bodies to pieces or strangling themselves in the dark recesses of their homes or gulping your stinking drink until their bodies fail? […] We believed. Oh, did we believe. This is why the crows, at first, thought of us as little more than animals. We lived in a physical world that frightened them and hunted beasts they’d only had nightmares of, and we consumed the mystery that the crows were bred to fear. We breathed what they feared. […] We lived on. But that word, unclean, that word, somehow, like an illness, like its own magic, it began to grow. Very few of us saw that coming. So maybe this is the story of those few” (Boyden, 2013, p. 3).

Bergland (2000) points out the contradiction in Freud’s work. The cure for mental illness like neurosis is talk therapy, and memory rather than a forgetting or an erasure, but at the same time his work on the uncanny seems to suggest a willingness to entertain ghosts and other horrors rather than to exorcise them. She cites Kristeva and notes the construction of the abject subject, or “that which is expelled from the self, and yet not discarded, but buried deep within the self” (Kristeva, cited in Bergland, 2000, p. 12).

For a complete understanding of the relationship between Indians and other Canadians, Coleman’s (2006) work is exceptionally helpful. He states that critical whiteness studies and Canadian studies of race and racism have led to the conclusion that the central problem of English Canadian whiteness is a civil code based upon colonialism, which can “organize a diverse population around the standardizing ideals of whiteness, masculinity, and Britishness” (p. 10). This civility “projects an ideal of social interaction (all members of society should be freely included and accorded equal respect) as something to which individuals should aspire: if you wish to join the egalitarian and progressive company, you must be willing to improve yourself, to become worthy of the respect that characterizes the civil group” (2006, p. 11). This project of civility, borne out of Enlightenment modernity and liberalism (cf Lowe), “could rationalize, first, the production of Aboriginal status and, then, its exclusion from the civil sphere, where equality and liberty were ‘universally’ enjoyed by means of the time-space image of progress, which represented Indigenous people as delayed in the process of civilization, as children or primitives who must be educated before they could be welcomed into the advanced company of the civil” (p. 14).

Boyden’s novel is a work of fiction, constructed mostly from colonialist records. It explores settler-colonial and Indigenous cultural relations and details how corporate colonial projects sought to decimate Indian peoples’ numbers, which was a civil attempt at creating ghosts out of the most inconvenient obstacles to the colonial projects of both France, England, and Holland. All three of the novel’s narrators become ghostly subjects: Christophe is tortured and murdered, Snow Falls eats a poisoned communion wafer, and Bird walks away from his people and culture to safety amid the Anishnaabe people living along the Salt Water sea.

Near the end of The Orenda, having made their escape, Bird asks Gosling for advice regarding where and how they will live in future. She says, “We will know by next summer that it’s most sensible to head north and be taken in by my people on their side of the Sweet Water Sea.” She tells me I’ll never farm again, and neither will my offspring or their offspring. Never again will we eke out a living from the earth, but do instead what her people, the Anishnaabe, have always done. We’ll go back to the forest, and we’ll live by what it gives us. […] “Your family, my family, the family of Bird, we will keep wandering north in pursuit of the animals and to avoid the crows and their followers who’ll continue coming to this land. Eventually we’ll stop near a frozen salt sea because we can’t go any farther” (Boyden, 2013, pp. 484-485). And so Bird and Gosling and their family lose their home and their worldly goods, and bravely begin a new life further north. One can’t help but to compare this with the last lines from Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, the moment when Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden for the first and last time.

They looking back, all th’ Eastern side beheld

Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,

Wav’d over by that flaming Brand, the Gate

With dreadful Faces throng’d and fierie Armes:

Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon;

The World was all before them, where to choose

Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:

They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,

Through Eden took thir solitarie way.      – John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book XII (641-649)

So, does The Orenda stand up to scrutiny by Aboriginal Peoples? See the appendix for one response. But we might also look at Kathryn Labelle’s piece in The Canadian Historical Review (Labelle, 2015). She claims, “it is fair to say that Boyden’s book has brought the people and events of Wendake ehen (old Wendat country) back to the centre stage of popular culture. Extending beyond the historical, anthropological, and archaeological studies, Boyden captures the imagination through his sophisticated  telling of a make-believe senventeenth-century Wendat World” (p. 427). She notes that at conferences, workshops and book launches the question that she is most often asked is “As a Wendat historian, what do you think about the book?” (p. 427). She adds that “although The Orenda is clearly an imaginative work, it is, in my opinion, a fair representation of the history that inspired it” (p. 427). She claims of the violence and torture that, “Boyden does cultural and historical justice by not holding back on the details. This was the reality for many captives in the early-modern Great Lakes region, and it remains a critical piece in understanding the dynamics of those cultures. There are many examples similar to the ‘war-bearers’’ experience within the historical records” (p. 427). She does note, though, that “Boyden does not focus on the critical role women played within the warfare experience. After reading The Orenda, it is possible to assume that the act of warfare, prison torture, and adoption were all under the control of men. This was not the case, however. Although war chiefs and warriors were key in executing war-time strategies, it was the clan mothers who controlled the affairs” (p. 427).

So, here we are today, in 2016. The unfortunate truth is that too many Aboriginal Peoples still lead lives of desperate poverty, and psychical, emotional, and physical trauma. In a review in Open Letters, Wunker and McGregor (2014) cite Wab Kinew, who defended the novel in a Canada Reads broadcast. They say, “He argued that violence is key because it challenges Canadian readers by presenting an image of Indigenous culture that cannot be easily assimilated to Western values. This approach is necessary, he concluded, because “reconciliation is the greatest social justice issue facing this nation, but reconciliation must not be a second chance at assimilation”. The novel’s ability to maintain the perspectives of three radically different characters is an example of reconciliation without assimilation – different worldviews living together without any one being given priority” (2014, n.p.).

Thomas King (2012) asks perhaps the most important question of all in Chapter 8: “What Indians Want”[8]. He states, “[i]f Native people are to have a future that is of their own making, such a future will be predicated, in large part, on sovereignty”, which “is supreme and restricted authority. However, sovereignty in practice, as a functional form of governance, is never an absolute condition. Rather, it is a collection of practical powers that include, among others, the authority to levy taxes, set the criteria for citizenship, control trade, and negotiate agreements and treaties” (pp. 193-194). He adds, “However the matter turns out, I can’t help but enjoy the irony. North Americans, all along, have believed that private ownership of land would turn Indians into Whites, while Native people have learned that control of the land can allow us to remain ourselves” (p. 213).

And what of protracted trauma and material and psychical suffering? Gabor Maté claims that Native peoples are suffering from multigenerational trauma, the source of which “is this country’s colonial past and its residue in the present. The march of history and progress that Canada celebrates , from which we derive much pride and national identity, meant catastrophe for natives (sic): the loss of lands and livelihood and of freedom of movement, the mockery and invalidation of their spiritual ways, the near extirpation of their culture, the corruption of their intrafamilial and intracommunal relationships, and finally, for nearly a hundred years, the state-sanctioned abduction, rape, physical abuse and mental torture of their children […] [, and so] we must ask ourselves […] how do we as a country move to heal the trauma that drives the misery of many native communities?” (2016, para 4-5). The answer comes to us from Tanya Kappo and Hayden King (2016). They write, “suicides and suicide attempts result from factors such as mental health issues, post-traumatic stress [see the Appendix], or substance abuse. In our communities, these factors are magnified by nearly two centuries of colonization: assimilation legislation, rapid cultural loss, dispossession of lands and economies, poor housing, and lack of clean water. These conditions result in life always near death” (Kappo & King, 2016, para 4,5). They also claim that there is an inertia at work, and that significant resources are required and that ‘[t]his is true for any of the inter-related issues: child welfare, food security, or mouldy schools. But to date, sharing some of the land and resources that make Canada rich (and which comes from the very people attempting suicide en masse) has not been considered. Indeed this form of restitution would require sacrifice, something Canadians have been unwilling to do from the first settlers through to the latest budget” (para 10). They add, “We are tired of this reality. Tired of Canadian politicians offering only sympathy. Tired of uninformed pundits calling for irresponsible relocation experiments. And tired of pointing to incremental progress when the state of emergency is a fact of life for many Indigenous peoples in contemporary Canada. Our people have already started the work for our next generation. There must be hope for them, and they must be protected from the brutal and tyrannical consequences of colonization. Listen to us, to our communities: We know the answer, we are the answer” (para 13-14).

So. Does The Orenda stand up to critical scrutiny? This investigation suggests that the answer may indeed be yes. However, unless all Canadians address the multigenerational trauma experienced by Aboriginal peoples, and actually listen to people who can actively make changes to the ways in which people live, then any efforts by either the Federal or provincial governments will be meaningless gestures and perhaps only complicate Aboriginal peoples’ progress toward full inclusion and equality in Canadian society, righting wrongs that go back more than 400 years.



Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G., & Tiffin Helen. (1989). The empire writes back: Theory and practice in post-colonial literatures. New York: Routledge.

Bergland, R. (2000). Indian ghosts and american subjects. The national uncanny: Indian ghosts and american subjects (pp. 1-22). Hanover, MA: University Press of New England.

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

Cheng, A. A. (2001). The melancholy of race. The melancholy of race: Psychoanalysis, assimilation, and hidden grief (pp. 3-29). New York: Oxford University Press.

Coleman, D. (2006). White civility: The literary project of english canada. White civility: The literary project of english canada (pp. 3-45). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Foucault, M. (1976). 17 march, 1976. In M. Bertani, & A. Fontana (Eds.), “Society must be defended”  (D. Macey Trans.). (pp. 239-263). New York: Picador.

Kappo, T., & King, H. (2016, ). If we want to end indigenous suffering, we must end colonization. The Globe and Mail

King, H. (2013). Critical review of joseph boyden’s “the orenda”: A timeless, classic colonial alibi. Muskrat Magazine, 2 March, 2016.

King, T. (2012). The inconvenient indian: A curious account of native people in north america. Toronto: Anchor Canada.

Labelle, K. (2015). The orenda by joseph boyden (review). The Canadian Historical Review, 96(3), 426-429.

Lowe, L. (2015). The intimacies of four continents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Manzano-Munguia, M. (2011). Indian policy and legislation: Aboriginal identity survival in canada. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 11(3), 404-426.

Maté, G. (2016, ). How do we heal trauma suffered by native communities? The Globe and Mail

Nabess, D. (2016). In Grevstad P. (Ed.), The injun question. Personal Communication

Wiegman, R. (1999). Whiteness studies and the paradox of particularity. Boundary 2, 26(3), 115-150.

Wunker, E., & McGregor, H. (2016). Words Plucked from our Tongues. Open Letters Monthly, 5 March, 2016.



[1] Atwood published Survival in 1972, if memory serves. Even 20 years ago, as a student of English Literature, I have to say that this theorizing was considered dated, and situated at the end of the era of New Criticism. Literary studies have moved well past this, especially with the introduction of Postcolonial criticism.

[2] DN, the subject of the interview, asked that the information in our interview not be shared outside of the parameters of this work as a piece of academic writing. I present it unedited. He was reluctant to participate at first, and then found himself sitting down and writing his response in a stream-of-consciousness way. The memories in this interview are a single example of the trauma experienced by one family, but perhaps can also speak to more generalized trauma that First Nations and Indigenous people experience in very powerful ways.

[3] Or four narrators, if we count the italicized voice which frames the novel. This has not been addressed in any significant way by reviewers, but I’d like to suggest that the voice that frames the novel is that of the Orenda, or the universal, transcendental soul.

[4] Boyden himself taught at Northern College, and spent time teaching in remote, fly-in communities, including Attawapiskat, where he witnessed the despicable and tragic results of the centuries old colonial project, which has been and continues to be devastating for all Indigenous peoples in the Americas. All of this is well-documented in both corporate media and in documentary work, notably by Amy Bombay (Dalhousie) and by filmmaker Alanis Obabsawin, whose documentary for TVO addresses the Attawapiskat tragedy directly.

[5] I’m thinking about Swift’s satirical (but appallingly feasible) “A Modest Proposal”, in which the solution to the “Irish Problem” during the potato famine was, simply, to eat Irish children, in order to reduce their numbers.

[6] This is addressed directly in the personal interview in the Appendix to this paper (not included here!).

[7] This is a central irony in The Orenda. All of the missionaries come to a realization that the Wendat people live in a complex social world (that the French have taken very little time to understand), before ‘forgetting’ about knowledge and agency and continuing blithely to enact colonial violence against an oppressed people.

[8] This is of course an echo of the question posed centuries ago in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, that of “What do women want?”.

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