On critique and The Orenda

As Canada Reads approaches, I’ve been following the #CanadaReads2014 hashtag. Wab Kinew, who is defending The Orenda in the debates, which take place next week, has been tweeting back and forth with a few people about the Haudenosaunee representation in The Orenda and the reception of the novel in the aboriginal community. I had read some back and forth, but there’s only so much you can get in 140 characters, so I asked if there was a specific critique that I could read to learn more.

Wab Kinew recommended this article by Hayden King in Muskrat Magazine: Critical Review of Joseph Boyden’s “The Orenda”: A Timeless, Classic Colonial Alibi.

If you’re interested, I strongly suggest you read King’s critique. It’s well written, and he makes some excellent points. I won’t attempt to summarize his article, but there were a few things that stood out to me that I felt were worth discussing.

1) The representation of the Haudenosaunee
2) The reasons behind the disappearance of the Huron


With that, let’s go back a few months.

In September, I went to the IFOA to see Joseph Boyden speaking about his week-old novel, The Orenda, with Matt Galloway. Though Matt had recently interviewed Boyden on Metro Morning, he was up to the task and led an interesting, relaxed interview while still asking some tough questions.

Though I hadn’t read The Orenda at the time, it was clear that there were two main issues that readers and members of the aboriginal community were focusing on; the violence, and the portrayal of the Haudenosaunee.

To the violence, Boyden responded, and I paraphrase, that in actual fact, if you count the number of pages where the violence occurs, it’s a very small number in comparison to the larger scope of the novel. It’s not violence for violence’s sake. It’s meant to be a historical representation of traditional methods of warfare between the Wendat and Haudenosaunee, which Boyden researched. I cannot speak to his research, nor his sources, of course.

To the representation of the Haudenosaunee, Boyden spoke to the extensive research he conducted and the two and a half years it took him to even write the first 50 pages. During this research, Boyden consulted Canada’s foremost experts on the history and culture of the Haudenosaunee, the Huron and the Jesuits, one being poet George Sioui, a Huron Elder and a University of Ottawa professor. Boyden said that he would have had a great deal of trouble writing the book if he hadn’t had his approval.

I read The Orenda shortly thereafter and I really enjoyed it. The violence was extremely descriptive and horrifying, yes, but it was so unlike anything I have ever witnessed, let alone read about before, it didn’t even seem real. It was so foreign, my mind couldn’t even imagine it. To give context: I recently almost fainted on the TTC when reading a scene in Vincent Lam’s The Headmaster’s Wager where a surgery was taking place. I don’t have the strongest of stomachs.

In terms of the representation of the Iroquois, I understood why Boyden felt he needed to do extensive research and seek permission, but I thought the Jesuits eclipsed them as enemy number one.

ImageThe only featured Iroquois characters in The Orenda are Snow Falls (soon becomes Wendat) and Tekakwitia, the face of the enemy as a torturer. In his critique, Hayden King states: “So readers learn very little except that they’re [the Iroquois] a menace, lurking in the dark forest, waiting to torture or cannibalize.”

I think that I, as the reader, deserve a little more credit here. As Sleeps Long says in the novel, “We kill one another because we have been killed. We will continue to eat one another until one of us is completely consumed.” It’s clear that this war is a two-way street. It’s how the novel begins: Bird kills Snow Falls’ family, and kidnaps her. The Iroquois retaliate.

I didn’t come away from The Orenda thinking that the Iroquois were the enemy, but rather the Jesuits. Forcing religion on anyone should be a crime and with the arrival of new disease and weapons, the writing was on the wall. Call it white guilt, call it whatever you want, but I cringed throughout most of the book. I’m a proud Canadian. I love my country, but it’s embarrassing to read a fictional narrative based on a true story of how the settlers arrived here.

Of course, there’s no right or wrong answer. I think it’s a really interesting debate, and though I’m not of aboriginal descent, I’ve read the book, and I wanted to join the conversation. It’s a challenge, though. As non-aboriginals who want to learn more, attempts to engage and ask questions are met by resistance. Case in point.

ImageNow, Taiaiake Alfred made it clear in earlier tweets that, “…through all this debate, I’ll make clear for others that I know and respect and consider both you and @josephboyden friends,” so I wasn’t offended by this remark, but it did make me think about access and critique. If you go back to the conversation, you’ll see that neither I, nor another twitter user, John Richardson, are taking sides, or blatantly disagreeing with Taiaiake, simply attempting to engage.

The question is: do we have a place in this debate if we don’t know all the facts? Maybe not. But can anyone?

It’s the asking questions and the discussion that I find fascinating. I didn’t learn even close to enough Canadian history in high school. We had one dedicated course in grade 10 and I took it in my second language, French. Over the past few years it’s become clear to me how much I have missed and how much work I have to, and want to, undertake to come to understand this country’s history. Heck, I’m one of the founding members of the League of Canadian History Champions that aims to engage a younger generation in our country’s past. It’s something that I am passionate about.

I know that I have a lot to learn, but I have to start somewhere. If we’re met with resistance when we try to learn, how can we begin to understand?

I really look forward to the conversations that will surround the Canada Reads debates. I hope that the panelists don’t take it easy on Kinew. He’s an eloquent, passionate speaker and I trust that he can stand up for himself and state his case, and the case of The Orenda, whatever it may be.

I look forward to continuing to learn more, and welcome any and all comments.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. An important piece. Thanks 🙂

    I really hesitated about writing my own blog piece about The Orenda specifically because I knew there was some strong Haudenosaunee dislike of the book, of Boyden for writing it, and of Kinew for defending it. Perhaps unfortunately, I ended up emphasizing the historic fact that the Wendat were virtually eliminated as a people and that the Haudenosaunee, along with Europeans, had a hand in that fact. But, as I think Boyden emphasizes, the issues facing us all today – Residential Schools, the 60s Scoop, the generations-long assimilationist genocide – are paralleled in the history of that brief period in 1600s Huronia. I think Boyden is clearly pointing out that this is the history we all share and that we ALL need to learn and own that history, warts and all. Voices need to be heard, not shut down.

    As for whether White people love The Orenda and Wab Kinew: my piece is about why I think The Orenda is, of the five Canada Reads 2014 books, the one most likely to actually effect change, through conversation, on Canada. (Here’s my piece, BTW: http://behindthehedge.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/the-challenge-posed-to-us-all-by-joseph-boydens-the-orenda/)

    Finally, I’d like to mention that I think it unreasonable to argue that no writer is allowed to investigate the shared history of the world unless he/she is a member of the people being investigated. If that were a strict rule, we would have no Two Solitudes, no Maria Chapdelaine, no The English Patient . . . If Literature can not be a conversation across cultural divides, how sad and insular our literature will be.

    Again, thanks for the post!

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