The Challenge posed to us all by Joseph Boyden’s “The Orenda”

If history can’t easily carry the load we give it, what is its capacity? What should we ask of it? We’ve long moved past the time when we think the job of history is simply to tell us what happened, to give us the “facts,” no more and no less.
— Tina Loo in Canada’s History, Feb-March 2014, p.16

What’s happened in the past can’t stay in the past for the same reason the future is always just a breath away. Now is what’s most important, Aataentsic says. Orenda can’t be lost, just misplaced. The past and the future are present.
The Orenda, p. 487

A few days ago I finished reading Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. I’m not going to review the novel in a usual sense. Rather, I’m going to comment on some of the implications it raised in my mind. I’ve been thinking about genocide again. I will say I think the novel is a fine piece of work and an important choice for Canada Reads 2014. I have no doubt Wabanakwut Kinew will give a spirited and well deserved defence of The Orenda. I realize that some First Nations commentators are not impressed with Boyden’s novel or with Kinew’s choice. I’m not completely clear on their specific criticisms apart from the fairly conventional two dimensional depiction of the bulk of the Haudenosaunee as bloodthirsty berserkers. I certainly found things — the implications I mentioned above — which could cause — shall we say? — complications for some accepted narratives.

First, some background. I found little new history in Boyden’s novel. I grew up in “Northern” Ontario and learned in school the broad outlines of the genocidal war, the Beaver Wars between the “Iroquois” and the “Huron”, a war which grew out of pre-contact history but was fed from both sides by Europeans hoping to back the right horse. Whichever European side might be said to have “won”, the Wendat clearly lost. Virtually the whole Wendat Nation was killed by European disease, starvation and warfare. Wendat survivors, women and children, were, as was the tradition, adopted as members of the Haudenosaunee. Certainly the story of Brébeuf’s martyrdom was common knowledge in my childhood. A fictionalized version of Brébeuf is one of the three narrators of The Orenda.

I’m not sure one can legitimately argue with the reality of the events. There was warfare, it was brutal, the Europeans fomented its escalation, and the Wendat were very nearly exterminated as a nation. I would be happy to argue that European supplied arms and European diseases made the devastation more rapid and complete. But I’m not sure one can argue that the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat were not each quite content in an intention to exterminate the enemy nation.

The events are the given background to The Orenda, but then there are the implications. . .

Boyden has a character, Sleeps Long, hint on p. 194 that the brother nations of the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat are, in some sense, a disfunctional family:

“What men do, what we do, it’s a circle” she says. “It’s been a circle for a long time . . . We were once all the same people, but we’re not anymore . . .

“How is this grief explained?” Sleeps Long asks. “How is it digested? I have never figured that out . . . We hurt one another because we’ve been hurt,” she whispers. “We kill one another because we have been killed. We will continue to eat one another until one of us is completely consumed.”

Sleeps Long’s words to Snow Falls, the young Haudenosaunee captive/foster child, have a haunting and very disturbing resonance today as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission prepares for its final sessions, as aboriginal children in foster care are at an all time high, and as many aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities struggle with domestic and gang violence.

So, what do we do with the fact, emphasized by Boyden’s story, that the Haudenosaunee/Wendat war was a genocidal conflict involving the forced transfer of children from one group to another?

I must clarify and emphasize my own position concerning certain issues:

Nothing that occurred in the wars softens or takes away the horror, tragedy, responsibility or obligation of the Residential Schools crime nor of the assimilationist/genocidal policies of successive Canadian governments down to the present day. I am not — could never — defend the betrayal my country’s government perpetrated on generations. It is passed time for Truth and Reconciliation and for all Canadians to embrace and celebrate the horribly painful work of the TRC. I am heartened that Mayor Don Iveson of Edmonton has thrown the support of my city’s government behind the TRC’s closing sessions here.


And so, as the TRC is winding down it’s hearings, The Orenda comes into the spotlight as Canada Reads 2014 is pumping up the reading public. And, the questions it will inevitably raise, questions I think Boyden has consciously asking in his novel, will also be in the spotlight.

If the modern Haudenosaunee, the Six Nations, are the people of the Two Row Wampum, are they not also the heirs of the Wendat Genocide? Certainly, unlike the Residential Schools tragedy, the pain of the Wendat foster children is many generations in the past. But I refuse to accept the doctrine that “we cannot judge the past by today’s standards.” If we cannot condemn the Wendat genocide, how can we condemn the hanging of Riel? And if we can’t condemn the crimes of the past, why must we honour the obligations of the past?

I found The Orenda a very difficult, challenging and painful read, not, as many might, because of the torture scenes, but because of the disturbing way the events Boyden describes between the Wendat and Haudenosaunee so long ago resonate with the very issues raised as current events by the TRC, Idle No More, and Honour the Treaties.

What are we as human beings, as brothers and sisters, as a village called Canada and as a global village, going to do with the crimes of the past? If we dismiss a genocide, be it of the Amalekites of Old Testament times, the Roman destruction of Carthage, or Shaka Zulu’s 19th century depredations, how can we condemn the killers of the Armenians, the perpetrators of the Holodomore or even the horror of the Holocaust or the madness of Rwanda? “It was a product of the way people thought then/there” I can hear people say.

I say “No!”

Whatever Samuel told the Israelites, whatever Scipio and Cato told the Romans, whatever Sir John A. told Canada, whatever Hitler told Germany, genocide is criminally inhuman. Always. Everywhere.

I’m not saying there needs to be an apology or reparations for every genocide in history — actually, apologies would be an awfully good idea. What I am saying is that the victims, Amalekites, Carthaginians, Wendat, Congolese, Cambodians and billions of others were people, individuals, human, like you and I. They weren’t cardboard cutouts. They weren’t costumed interpreters working a summer job. They weren’t actors. The were children, babies, born into genocidal hatred.

Boyden has raised a painful challenge in The Orenda, at a painful and challenging time for Canada and the First Nations and aboriginal people within Canada’s borders. The biggest, most difficult question is “Do we acknowledge our shared history, all of it, warts and all? Or do we compartmentalize and/or write statutes of limitation?”

Wab Kinew has his work cut out for him in Canada Reads 2014. Not because of the books and defenders he’s debating, but because of the huge challenge The Orenda presents to people of all Nations, First, Second and beyond.

I wonder. Will you step out of the circle Sleeps Long mentions?


3 comments on “The Challenge posed to us all by Joseph Boyden’s “The Orenda”

  1. […] descriptions never seen by Harry and his friends or the Pevensie kids. Lightfinder owes more to The Orenda than to Narnia. It is this gritty realism that is pretty much Lightfinder‘s only similarity […]

  2. […] 4. The Challenge posed to us all by Joseph Boyden’s “The Orenda” […]

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