Three Day Road author Joseph Boyden’s uncle went by the alias “Injun Joe” and wore a headdress while selling drums made of tin cans wrapped in birch and other “Indian” items to tourists from a shop near Algonquin Park in Ontario.
A Maclean’s article in 1956 titled, The Double Life of Injun Joe, reported Earl Boyden “may look like an Indian, think like an Indian and spend most of his year among Indians, but as far as he knows he hasn’t a drop of Indian blood.”
The article said Earl Boyden’s father was a “well-to-do Ottawa merchant who traced his family to Thomas O’Boyden in Yorkshire” and that his mother was “Irish.”
Earl Boyden, who died in 1959, appears to have embraced Indigenous culture to the point where the local Ojibway would refer to him as “not a white man,” according to the article.
Over the years, Joseph Boyden has referred to his uncle’s “Ojibway ways” and once told an interviewer that he saw parallels between himself and his “Indian uncle” Earl.
“Just like my Indian uncle, I had a taste for the road and for adventure,” said Boyden, in an interview with Penguin Books for a reading guide accompanying Three Day Road, his breakthrough novel. “At the time, I didn’t recognize the parallels between my uncle and me.”
The nephew eventually discovered something his uncle did not know—Indigenous ancestry hidden somewhere in the Scottish and Irish branches of the family tree.
Boyden has never publicly revealed exactly from which earth his Indigenous heritage grows. It has been an ever shifting, evolving thing. Over the years, Boyden has variously claimed his family’s roots extended to the Metis, Mi’kmaq, Ojibway and Nipmuc peoples.
The nature of Boyden’s ancestry claims caused an undercurrent of concern within some segments of the Indigenous community as the author’s prominence as a spokesperson on Indigenous issues grew.
“I’ve heard of people questioning his background… It is because of his public comments on Aboriginal issues that people started to question, ‘Who is this guy?’” said Russ Diabo, a policy analyst from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, which is having its own struggles over the issue of identity and membership.
“If an individual is claiming Indigenous ancestry or Aboriginal ancestry, normally they should be able to trace back their kinship or genealogy to their community….It gets dicey without being able to show a clear connection to a community. Pretty much everybody knows, if they don’t know you they know your family, you can trace back to someone you know.”
Author and politician Wab Kinew, who defended Boyden’s last major novel, The Orenda, during CBC’s Canada Reads contest, said Boyden’s contribution to Indigenous communities and the general national dialogue on the relationship between the state and the original peoples should not be forgotten amid questions of ancestry.
“I myself have been curious about Joseph Boyden’s ancestry but at the same time I recognize that he is a part of our community by virtue of the relationships he has formed with many people,” said Kinew, who is a Manitoba NDP MLA. “I think for many people who find out about their Indigenous ancestry later in life, there are a lot of questions about how do they belong.
“I think the way he has gone about giving back to the community, particularly in the James Bay region, taking kids to hunting camps, doing some philanthropy in some other areas and to highlight up-and-coming writers, giving them residency, they are all signs he is giving back.”
The issues of Boyden’s ancestry surfaced on Twitter Thursday evening when the @IndigenousXca account fired off a series of tweets raising questions about the author’s identity claims.
The @IndigenousXca account is shared on a regular basis by Indigenous thinkers, writers, journalists, researchers and academics. Robert Jago, who is from the Nooksack Tribe in Washington State and whose family is registered with the Kwantlen First Nation in British Columbia, posted a video outlining Boyden’s various ancestry claims.
“Is Joseph Boyden actually Native, or is he playing Indian like his uncle Earl reportedly did?” tweeted Jago, whose research triggered a series of embarrassing stories about Conservatives during the last federal election.
“Think of all the Native writing awards he won….Some are cash awards, for Natives only….And how many Native writers, thinkers, Residential School survivors have gone unheard because he’s colonized their public space?”
I've prepared a video to explore this issue some more. 30 pic.twitter.com/bMvrjTgKP8
— IndigenousXca Archived (@IndigenousXca) December 23, 2016
APTN National News first contacted Boyden by cellphone on Dec. 15 to provide specifics on his ancestry, but after twice agreeing to be interviewed he refused and issued a statement that remained vague on his Indigenous roots while suggesting the evidence was of a “personal” nature.
“Over the last few decades I, along with some siblings, have explored my family’s heritage. We’ve uncovered and traced a fascinating and personal genealogy, a genealogy often whitewashed of our Indigenous ancestry due to the destructive influences of colonialism,” said Boyden, in the statement.
“While the majority of my blood comes from Europe and the Celtic region, there is Nipmuc ancestry on my father’s side, and Ojibwe ancestry on my mother’s [sic].”
But it wasn’t always Nipmuc—a nation of people who once occupied Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island and who first came into contact with Europeans in the early 1600s—and Ojibway.
According some of his earliest interviews following the publishing of Three Day Road, Boyden believed his roots were Mi’kmaq and Metis.
In a 2005 interview with the New Scotsman, Boyden said his father was part Mi’kmaq.
“We never discussed it, but he was part-Mi’kmaq,” said Boyden, at the time.
That same year, in an interview with the Quill and Quire literary magazine, Boyden is described as having Mi’kmaq somewhere down his father’s lineage, along with Metis ancestry.
Three years later, in September 2008, Boyden’s ancestry is described three different ways. In The Globe and Mail that month, Boyden is described as having Mi’kmaq and Ojibway ancestry through his father and mother’s families.
In the Toronto Star, Boyden is referred to as a Woodland Metis with Irish, Scottish and Ojibway ancestry. A promotional blurb announcing a Boyden appearance at the Winnipeg Writer’s Festival described the author as a Canadian with “Irish, Scottish and Metis roots.”
In 2009, during an interview with Toronto Life magazine, Boyden appears to have dropped the Mi’kmaq reference for good.
“My family is Metis. I’m a mixed blood of Irish, Scottish and Ojibwa [sic],” said Boyden, at the time.
In the same interview, Boyden suggested he’s linked to a First Nation band, but never revealed the name.
“My experience with First Nations communities across Canada is that they’ve always been extremely welcoming, especially when the band is not my own,” he said. “The Cree up in James Bay, the Ojibway in different communities than mine.”
Boyden would maintain the Ojibway-Metis claim for several years while sometimes using the broader term of Anishinabe—a grouping that includes culturally related peoples like the Ojibway, Odawa, Potawatomi, Oji-Cree, Mississaugas and Algonquin.
It wasn’t until about 2014, in an interview with Walrus magazine, that Boyden began to say his father’s ancestry included links to the Nipmuc. The next year, in an interview with CBC’s Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild, Boyden revealed he discovered Raymond Wilfred Boyden’s Nipmuc heritage by reviewing Nipmuc membership rolls.
“He (Raymond Wilfrid Boyden) had some Nipmuc blood from the 1860s, the last roll done in Massachusetts of the Nipmuc people my father’s family was on,” said Boyden.
The Massachusetts government commissioned three reports in the 1800s on Native American tribes in the state which included the names of each tribal member.
The last report, by Commissioner John Milton Earle, was submitted in 1861. Earle’s report, which is available online, lists four individuals with the last name Boyden: Deborah Boyden, 50, is listed as a widow, Nathaniel A Boyden, 22, is listed as single, Charles William Boyden, 21, also listed as single, along with a Joseph W. Boyden, 16, who is listed as “boy.”
All four are identified as Dartmouth Indians. The report said the Dartmouth Indians belonged to the people of the Wampanoag Tribe which today is known as the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe—The People of the Dawn.
The Wampanoag are a people distinct from the Nipmuc.
The Earle report
According to Cheryll Toney Holley, a Nipmuc tradition-keeper, genealogist and historian, the Boyden last name is not a Nipmuc name, but it’s possible the “father could have inherited the blood from a female ancestor.”
APTN provided Holley with several maiden names of women in the Boyden family tree from the 1800s and she said none of them seemed connected to the Nipmuc.
Holley said no Native American tribes in the state maintained membership rolls in the 1860s, but the Earle report was the last count executed by the government. She said Nipmuc members are listed under the Hassanamisco and Dudley lists in the census document.
“(The) Tribal rolls we have now did not begin until 50 or so years later,” said Holley, in an email to APTN.
APTN was provided with two separate research packages into Joseph Boyden’s family tree. APTN also tried to independently verify both research packages and asked a third-party to ensure the methodology was sound.
APTN was also shown a book available online published in 1901 about the Boyden family titled, Thomas Boyden and His Descendants. The book claims “Thomas Boyden is the ancestor of all who by birth have borne the name in America, with a few exceptions occurring during the last 50 years.”
According to the book, Thomas Boyden left Ipswich, Suffolk County, England, in April 1634, on the ship Francis and ended up in the Plymouth Colony of Massachusetts.
By working backward from the author Joseph Boyden and forward from Thomas Boyden, the root ancestor, it is difficult to determine where Boyden’s father’s side links into his claimed Indigenous heritage over roughly the last 170 years.
Joseph Boyden’s paternal great-great-great-grandfather Gilmore Boyden married Anne McLean on May 22, 1844, in Ontario, according to marriage records posted on ancestry.ca. Gilmore Boyden’s son, Joseph Boyden, is listed as a 32-year-old with Scottish heritage living in Ontario in 1871, according to the Canadian census from that year.
Boyden’s claim of Ojibway ancestry through his mother, Blanche Boyden, are equally difficult to pin-point. Joseph Boyden has never provided any names of communities linked to his Ojibway roots, and, according to his mother and uncle, the author is the only one who has the evidence.
“He is the only one who obviously brought this whole situation to the forefront because of his interest in Aboriginal people in Canada, and his writings are certainly Aboriginal. He is really the one who raised this issue to begin with or indicated there was a connection,” said Richard Gossling, 82, who is Boyden’s uncle on Blanche Boyden’s side.
“I am sure that Joseph has answers that we certainly don’t have because of his writings and whatever research he did.”
Joseph Boyden’s mother, Blanche Boyden, said her son has the answers.
“I don’t know much myself,” said Blanche Boyden, 86, in a telephone interview with APTN. “We didn’t keep many records in those days…. Joseph proved it and he got the papers and everything so there is no question about it.”
Blanche Boyden said the “key” was her grandmother, Blanche McInnes, who her son discovered to be Indigenous.
“Soon as I gave him the name McInnis, he had no problem with it,” she said.
According to birth records posted on ancestry.ca, Blanche McInnes was born on Nov. 10, 1889, to Hector McInnes and Kate Ellis. Hector McInnes is listed as a “fisherman” and Kate Ellis as a “fisherman’s wife.” Both are identified as living in Meaford, Ont., which sits along Nottawasaga Bay.
Hector McInnis and Kate Ellis were married on Jan. 25, 1889, in Centreville, Ont.
Hector’s parents were John and Sarah McInnis, according to the marriage record. Hector McInnis’ religion is listed as Baptist. Kate Ellis’ parents are listed as George and Margaret Ellis and her religion is listed as “Disciple.”
According to ancestry.ca, the 1881 Canadian census lists Hector McInnis’ ancestry as Scottish and Irish.
The document posted next to this information is difficult to read. APTN could find no information on Kate Ellis’ ancestry.
Blanche McInnis died on May 24, 1919, after giving birth to her second child. She was 28, according to a death record posted on ancestry.ca. She was married to Robert West Drysdale, who appears to have no immediate Indigenous ancestry in his family tree.
Robert West Drysdale and Blanche McInnis had a daughter named Helen Elizabeth Drysdale, who Blanche Boyden said was her mother. Blanche Boyden said her father was Guy Gossling. Gossling’s first wife, Ella May Drysdale, was Robert West Drysdale’s sister, according to records on ancestry.ca.
APTN also contacted Boyden’s sister, Mary Boyden, who works as the Aboriginal liaison for mining firm Goldcorp and is part of the Eight Fire Solutions consulting firm, but she refused to provide comment and sent a terse email suggesting a story into her family’s background would “descend into a progression of lateral violence and gossip.”
In his statement to APTN, Joseph Boyden said part of what he knows about his ancestry was also transmitted through the family’s oral history.
“My family and I are keepers of a number of oral histories passed down to us from previous generations that speak both to our European and to our Indigenous roots,” said Boyden, in the statement. “I, along with other siblings, have also participated in many ceremonies performed by traditional elders and healers across the country.
“My family is Mukwa Dodem, Bear Clan. I myself have been given two traditional names in ceremony, one of them by my beloved elder and teacher Basil Johnston, a man who taught me much of my own history, and pride for and love of who I am.”
Two days after sending his initial statement, Boyden contacted APTN and provided a second statement without Basil Johnston’s name “in order to follow proper protocol.” Boyden has mentioned the renowned Anishinabe author, linguist and teacher from Wasauksing First Nation in the past.
Johnston died on Sept. 8, 2015.
Johnston’s family sent APTN a statement saying Boyden did spend “private” time with Johnston four months before his death.
“Our father admired Joseph Boyden as a writer and as an individual. Our father also encouraged those who were Indigenous to be proud Anishinabe and to be proud of their culture [sic],” said the family’s statement.
“Basil Johnston’s family does not have any information about Mr. Boyden’s Indigenous heritage to comment further.”
Diabo said Boyden should be transparent about his heritage.
“If it’s a tenuous connection going back many years he should state that. He is being considered an Aboriginal writer and being asked questions about contemporary Indigenous issues and he is commenting on them in the media as an Indigenous individual,” said Diabo. “If his connection is tenuous, going back many generations, he should say it, he should say how far back.
“Anyone in that position should do that, because you can’t cash in on being Aboriginal and not show what your real connection is. There has been too much of that happening.”
Kinew said blood isn’t the only path to becoming part of an Indigenous nation.
“Going back to traditional times, Indigenous membership in Indigenous nations has always been a multifaceted thing that can include blood, but also adoption. It can include being brought into the community in ceremonial ways,” said Kinew.
“On the one hand you want to have a way to ensure authenticity. On the other hand, if we have a culture police, identity police, we risk losing many people who should be part of our community and do so in a way that isn’t consistent with Indigenous tradition.”
Boyden has requested APTN organize a sharing circle with its Elder-in-Residence to create a “safe and sacred environment” for the author to answer questions about his heritage.
APTN responded by again inviting Boyden to participate in an interview. The author declined the opportunity.