Analysis Of Three Day Road As An Indigenous Story
Three Day Road was inspired in part by the life of Francis Pegahmagabow, an Anishinaabe solider in World War I. The book explores what war does to us and how we might heal from it. It was written by Joseph Boyden. Xavier and Elijah, two young Cree men who enlist and are sent to Europe. Upon their return, they are watched over and told healing stories by their aunt Niska.
The following report will discuss four main questions related to the novel, the author as well as Indigenous storytelling.
- A short synopsis of the story and the author’s background.
- A brief reflection on the question: Is this an Indigenous story?
- A reflection on the question: Who gets to tell Indigenous stories?
- Is this a story that Boyden can tell?
A short synopsis of the story and the author’s background
Joseph Boyden’s debut novel Three Day Road illustrates the detrimental horrors of trench warfare World War I through the stories of two Native Indian Cree men, Xavier Bird and Elijah Weesageechak “Whiskeyjack”, who volunteer for the Canadian forces in France and Belgium.
The novel alternates between two narratives, Xavier and his aunt, Niska. Niska presents a story of Indigenous communities that are forced to adapt to the changes in society due to racism and colonialism. Both narratives are recited in flashbacks and nightmares as Niska returns home with Xavier in a three-day trip to the Great Salt Bay after his return from the war.
Niska’s father belonged to a family of “windigo-killers”, respected experts in the Cree community who were experienced in dealing with those within the settlement who had turned to cannibalism for nourishment and eventually become unstoppable “windigo”.
After Niska’s father’s death, the community is dispersed, Niska, her sister and Xavier’s mother, Rabbit along with their family is forced to live in Moose Factory. Niska and her sister are forced to study at residential schools where they are treated terribly. Niska escapes the residential school leaving behind her family in Moose Factory to live independently in the bush. She then rescues her nephew Xavier from a residential school and raises him to be an excellent hunter and marksman. She later takes in Elijah, who was also at the residential school and Xavier’s friend. Soon, Elijah also becomes a skilled hunter.
After years, Xavier and Elijah decides to volunteer for the Canadian military during World War I, after Elijah urging Xavier. The administration of morphine as a “medicine” to make physical as well as emotional pain bearable became evident to Xavier and Elijah as they reach their troops. Upon reaching their company, the young Cree men face discrimination as Indigenous people but soon gains attention from their superiors for their far superior and remarkable skill in battle.
During the battle, both Xavier and Elijah kill many soldiers of the German troops. Xavier faces a deep depression and repulsion for killing and administers morphine to “heal” from his emotional scars and eventually gets addicted to the opiate drug.
Meanwhile, Elijah has a growing bloodlust for killing to the point where he scalped his victims to keep as proof of all his many killings. This thirst for killing results in devastating atrocities against his orders, even killing innocent civilians and soldiers within their own troop. Elijah’s morphine addiction accelerates his ethical disconnection and his reckless violence.
Realizing that Elijah has “has no coming back from where he had travelled”, Xavier kills Elijah remembering his position as his aunt’s successor as a “windigo-killer”.
Xavier later is wounded, having lost a leg after a shell explosion. Xavier’s wounds are then treated but he is given morphine which increases his dependency on the drug before being sent home.
As Xavier remembers the nightmares of war, he still battles his morphine addiction. Niska tries her best to nourish Xavier with healing stories from her past in hopes of reviving Xavier from his misery.
Three Day Road is inspired by the life of Francis Pegahmagabow, a great Indian sniper of World War I, referred to as “Peggy” in the story.
About the Author
The author, Joseph Boyden is a Canadian writer who claims Irish, Scottish and Métis ancestry. His father, Lt. Colonel Raymond Wilfrid Boyden, was a doctor and a war hero, awarded by King George VI in 1945 on invitation to receive the Distinguished Service Order pin for his service during World War II.
Boyden majored in humanities at York University, then in 1995, received his MFA in Fiction from the University of New Orleans. He was a professor in the Aboriginal Student Program at Northern College from 1995-1997. He taught at the University of New Orleans , where he worked as a writer-in-residence for two years. He was also a lecturer with the University of British Columbia's Creative Writing Program from 2013 to 2015.
A brief reflection on the question: Is this an Indigenous story?
In my personal opinion, I believe Three Day Road is an Indigenous story. The novel brilliantly tells the attrocities faced by the Indigenous people directly and indirectly involved in the war.
The story also shows the tradition of the Cree of the “windigo-killer” and the role of the “hookimaw” or the spritual leaders in the Indigenous community. The author sets a friendship, respect and trust between Elijah and Xavier which explains the tragedy of Xavier having to kill his best friend due to their strained relationship in the war.
The story illustrates Indigenous themes such as the loss of identity, morality, friendship and most of all the oppression of First Nations people as a result of war and racism towards the community.
Indigenous storytelling is a tradition passed from many generations of inculcating cultural values such as rituals, beliefs, history and practices as well as ethical values such as relationships and morality.
“The most important qualities of our culture are our language and our stories. In oral traditions such as ours, telling stories is how we pass on the history and the teachings of our ancestors. Without these stories, we would have to rely on other people for guidance and information about our past. Teachings in the form of stories are an integral part of our identity as a people and as a nation. If we lose these stories, we will do a disservice to our ancestors – those who gave us the responsibility to keep our culture alive.”
Indigenous storytelling is one of the traditional methods used by elders in the community to pass down tradition and preserve their cultural identity.
In the novel, Niska preserves her Cree identity by using storytelling to “heal” Xavier from his emotional scarring. She escapes the residential school and lives in the bushes staying loyal to her Cree identity.
During his time in war, Xavier is determined to never forget his Auntie or his Indigenous background and spirituality. Although the most skilled in battle, Xavier feels a sense of guilt in killing men een if they were considered an enemy and remembers these events as horrific nightmares which shows that he preserves his morality even in battle.
Meanwhile, Elijah embraces the “wemistikoshiw” culture but at the same time disconnects with his Indigenous background and spirituality. He looses his morality which results in a bloodlust for killing in war.
In conclusion, Boyden’s Three Day Road , is an Indigenous story highligting the tragedy of war but also reminds the readers of the importance of cultural preservation, spirituality and morality in Indigenous communities.
A reflection on the question: Who gets to tell Indigenous stories?
In today’s world of modern Indigenous storytelling, many writers, regardless of their Indigenous ancestry publish Indigenous literature, receive prestigious awards, and even become activisits for the Indigenous people. Some of these literature are faced with criticism from Indigenous communities, sometimes instigating controversy with regards to the author’s claim to an Indigenous heritage. To tell a story of any community or people, one has to experience the aspects of the culture of that community and not just illustrate a stereotypical picture of what the world perceives of the community.
Personally, I believe that Indigenous storytelling is absolutely vital for the cultural preservation and also that these stories does not necessarily have to be told by someone who has a significant blood quantum proving their Indigenous ancestry, but by authors who has sincerely dedicated their lives to immerse and educate themselves about the community, and express the beauty in the Aborginal values through their literature and eventually shedding light on the issues the Indigenous community faces.
Finally, the voices of the Indigenous people should mostly be from individuals within the community itself, because it is important that the voices of its people be heard in media outlets and even through literature.
Is this a story that Boyden can tell?
As mentioned in above, personally, Indigenous storytelling should not require a certain blood quantum but respect and sincerity to the stories they wish to present to an audience.
In late 2016, Joseph Boyden faced many critiques towards his claims to Indigenous ancestry after investigating his claims of Mi'kmaq and Métis ancestry as well as his claims of being Nipmuc and Ojibway. Indigenous writers, politicians, etc., criticised Boyden for accepting prizes, speaking fees, and awards that were designated for Indigenous authors. Later, Boyden took DNA tests to prove his Indigenous ancestry after inconsistencies found in reports of his Indigenous heritage in his background, but these test results were also found to be inconclusive and too broad.
“And this leads me to questions I’ve been contemplating a lot as I navigate this recent rite of passage and try to answer to those who are asking who I am. If I am accepted by people in Indigenous communities, if I have been traditionally adopted by a number of people in Indigenous communities, if my DNA test shows I have Indigenous blood, if I have engaged my whole career in publicly defending Indigenous rights as well as using my public recognition as an author to shine light on Indigenous issues, am I not, in some way, Indigenous?” – Joseph Boyden
In conclusion, Joseph Boyden, regardless of the credibility to his Indigenous heritage, can tell Indigenous stories as long as he is willing to truly and sincerely represent Indigenous values and has “earned his place”.
- Bohr, R. (2008). Manitoba History: Review: Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. Retrieved from http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/59/threedayroad.shtml
- Boyden, J. (2005). Three Day Road. Toronto: CNIB.
- Boyden, J. (2019). My name is Joseph Boyden - Macleans.ca. Retrieved from https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/my-name-is-joseph-boyden/
- Hanna, D. & Henry, M. (1995). Our Telling: Interior Salish stories of the Nlha7kapmx people. Vancouver: UBC Press.
- Jeyamoorthy, V. (2017). Commentary: Who has the right to tell Indigenous stories? Retrieved from https://www.queensjournal.ca/story/2017-02-02/arts/who-has-the-right-to-tell-indigenous-stories/
- Joseph Boyden in the National Post - Creative Writing. (2013). Retrieved from https://creativewriting.ubc.ca/news/joseph-boyden-in-the-national-post/
- Storytelling Overview from the First Nations Pedagogy Online Project. (2009). Retrieved from https://firstnationspedagogy.ca/storytelling.html
- Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden - Reading Guide - PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books. (2019) Retrieved from https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/295357/three-day-road-by-joseph-boyden/9780143037071/readers-guide/
- Three Day Road – Thoughts – The Average Student. (2014).Retrieved from http://blogs.ubc.ca/rickysunshine/2014/02/14/three-day-road-thoughts/
- Jago, R., Brown, J., Brown, J., & Goldsbie, J. (2017). Joseph Boyden Won't Find Indigenous Identity In A Test Tube Of Spit. Retrieved from https://www.canadalandshow.com/joseph-boyden-indigenous-dna/