The Novel Three Day Road And Its Relation To Indigenous Story

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Joseph Boyden is the author of the novel Three Day Road, a story which depicts the stories and traditions of the Cree culture. Though the novel has been revered as successful and beautiful portrayal of the Cree community and its traditions and stories and has won many prizes, including the Giller Prize, which is one of the most prestigious literary awards in Canada, there are many controversies surrounding whether Boyden truly did successfully recount the cultures of the Cree community, or if, instead, he culturally appropriated their traditions.

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The purpose of this this research is to first provide a background on the novel, Three Day Road and its author, then to describe who is allowed to recount the stories of the Indigenous communities, and finally, to argue that Joseph Boyden did in fact culturally appropriate Cree traditions and stories through his failure to provide proof of permission, his failure to accurately recount the stories of the Wendigo, and his failure to respect the traditions of the Cree community.

Part 1: A short synopsis of the story and the author’s background

Three Day Road is a novel written by Joseph Boyden about the journey of two Cree Indigenous peoples Niska and Xavier on their canoe ride back home to Moose Factory. This book is written in two different narrative perspectives, one of Xavier and one of Niska. Through the novel Xavier’s narrative perspective is mostly flash backs of the First World War that his best friend Elijah and himself fought in and the present ride back to Moose Factory. While Niska’s narrative perspective is flash backs to her childhood and the present canoe ride back.

Xavier is deeply affected by the first world and everything that he had been through and see. His flashbacks are made up of his best friend Elijah and himself through childhood and the war that they fought together. During the war Xavier fought this own demons and witness Elijah’s as well. Realizing his friend enjoyed hunting the enemy and eventually scalping them as proof and trophies of his killings Xavier had to become just like his aunt Niska a windigo killer. After all that Xavier had been through in the war and losing his leg in the battle, he became addicted to the medicine morphine used on injured soldiers, the same medicine that Elijah had become addicted to and consumed by.

On the journey home Niska sees first hand just how troubled Xavier is on the inside by all that he has seen and done as well as the outside and the medicine her uses to ease his pain. In an attempt to help Xavier heal Niska tells stories of her childhood and hardships. Explaining how her visions made her strange in the eyes of others, how her father was also a windigo killer and his passing, her first lover the Frenchman and what came to be of the two.

Author’s Background

Joseph Boyden is from Irish, Scottish and Metis roots. He came from a large family with many siblings where his mother was a teacher and his father fought in the second world war and his uncle Erl fought in the first world war, Boyden’s father passed away when he was a young age, so his mother was left to raise the many children. Boyden enrolled as a member of the Ontario Woodland Metis, he has been accepted by many indigenous communities and he has also followed through with a DNA test which confirmed that he was a descendant of Indigenous peoples. Joseph Boyden has been traditionally adopted by many communities in the indigenous culture and he defends indigenous rights publicly and shines light on the indigenous issues. Boyden was a professor in James Bay for Aboriginal programs. For his story Three Day Road the author took inspiration for the World War 1 Cree characters Elijah and Xavier from Francis Pegahmagabow and from his family history of his father, his uncle and his wife’s father.

Part 2: Is this an Indigenous story?

Personally, I feel that Three Day Road is not an indigenous story. Joseph Boyden is not a Cree man, he identifies as Metis but has not lived the majority of this life struggling against the stereotypes that many indigenous peoples face in their daily life. Boyden became aware of the Cree nation and their traditions while he was teaching in James Bay. Boyden used the stories of three of his distant family members, his father, his uncle and his wife’s father, all of whom have fought in at least one of the world wars. The problem with this in regards to this topic is that only one of his family members identified as an indigenous person. Joseph Boyden’s parents “didn’t vocalize cultural or racial or religious identities that existed outside of a narrow Anglo and Christian mainstream” in other words he was raised with Christian beliefs not with those of the Indigenous peoples, Boyden did not identify as an indigenous person until later on in his life after he received the results of the DNA test to prove his indigenous bloodline. Although Joseph Boyden’s story does bring up indigenous topics, his viewpoint of this novel is culturally appropriating the Cree nation as well as many other indigenous peoples and communities harming them in many ways.

Indigenous stories are meant to be regarded as “Our stories were us, what we knew, where we came from and where we were going. They were told to remind of us of our responsibility, to instruct, and to entertain. There were stories of the Creation, our travels, our laws” (Welker 1993) and Three Day Road is a novel written by a white male portraying a Cree female elder medicine woman and a young Cree male and the hardships that they have been through within their life time.

Part 3: Who gets to tell Indigenous stories?

Both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples can tell indigenous stories when they have followed specific protocol. For a non-indigenous author to write an indigenous story they need to be very careful and mindful of what they write. To have an author write anything in first person perspective as indigenous when they themselves are not can be very challenging. To write an indigenous story there needs to be special permission given by the family to write about their story or relatives and when the stories being written deal with indigenous communities and issues an indigenous person within that community needs to be present in the prosses of writing the story to help with the editing and consultation. Not just one indigenous person from a specific community is needed when a non-indigenous person is writing but multiple to speak as a community.

When writing indigenous stories, it is the author and the publisher’s responsibility to assure that the proper protocol has been followed through and understood. It is extremely important that a non-indigenous author be aware of what they are producing and how it could be portrayed in the indigenous perspective very easily without proper education or without meaning any harm a non-indigenous writer can portray indigenous characters with stereotypes that are very harmful. Some indigenous stories are not non-indigenous authors’ stories to tell, authors with good intentions need to follow proper protocol when it comes to writing indigenous stories to ensure that their content that they are putting out to the world is not damaging or degrading to others.

Even indigenous authors should get permission from others indigenous peoples to write about their life, stories or communities. If not from the specific community they are writing about, an indigenous author should follow protocol to get permission from those specific community members. To get proper and reliable information from the specific family and community helps the indigenous author to understand what stories they can tell and what they cannot.

Part 4: Is this a story that Boyden can tell?

This is not a story that Joseph Boyden can tell. Boyden is a Canadian man of Irish, Metis and Scottish roots, besides the DNA test that he and his family took by spitting in a tube there is nothing else that connects Boyden to an indigenous nation beside that fact that he claims to be adopted by many communities in the indigenous culture. Boyden raised religious is writing as a Cree Indigenous medicine woman and a Cree young man. He did not write this story accurately in an Indigenous perspective but in the perspective of a white male.

For non-Indigenous people to write Indigenous stories it is very difficult to make sure that they get the permission to write and to be able to tell the story properly, being the author and publishers responsibility to make sure that the author has followed through with these protocols and precautions they need to understand that it can be difficult for some of their readers to understand what is being properly and improperly portrayed in the novels. With this story being written from historical events from the First World War it is hard to understand what aspects of the story fictional and non-fictional and what parts of the story are his to tell.

Joseph Boyden talks about the windigo quite a few times within this story, Niska’s father being a windigo killer, Niska herself being a windigo killer and eventually Xavier becoming one as well, the windigo is not something that Boyden has the right to speak about. In he writes that ‘I have always been interested in and inspired by oral stories, and I often use elements from ones like this in my own fiction as a way of connecting the character and the reader to a place in history”. Joseph Boyden needs to understand that specific oral stories are meant to stay oral not written and only be told by specific people.

The windigo in the western cultural appropriated version is a human that turns evil and feeds off of the flesh of other humans, while in indigenous communities the windigo is represented as something far different that only specific people are allowed to talk about and only during specific times of the year. The windigo is not something to speak about let alone be written about being one of the main parts to an ‘Indigenous novel’, if Boyden got permission to write this story, he still would not have been given permission to write about the Windigo, it is foreign to him and it is not his place to write about it. In Three Day Road the Windigo is first brought up during the hardships of winter when Niska’s father had to kill a windigo wife and child, the wife was found guilty of eating her husband’s flesh when he froze to death throughout the night.

Finally, it is important to note that during an interview with Denise Balkissoon it is brought to Joseph Boyden’s attention that many people are questioning if he truly got permission from Xavier Bird, asking if any documentation was recorded or written down of the blessing given by Xavier, Boyden states “20 years ago? No, I don’t think I do but you know what, I asked him, and he gave me his blessing”.

This makes one truly believe that this is not a story that Joseph Boyden can narrate within his novel, this is a story that should be set aside for another to tell. 

16 August 2021

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