‘THOSE CRAZY INDIANS … or do I mean “humans”?’
Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda won the 2014 Canada Reads exercise hosted by CBC. This year’s theme and challenge was to identify one book that had the most potential to change Canada, which I interpret to mean to change the way Canadians think about and act in relation to some key issue. The Orenda was deemed to be that book. In my view, however, The Orenda fails miserably. Don’t get me wrong. The Orenda is a great read, chock full of interesting insights into 17th Century life in and around the North American Great Lakes, including a sustained peek inside the heads of the men and women there, primarily a Jesuit priest named Christophe whom the natives call ‘crow’ or ‘charcoal’, and two others: a kidnapped Iroquois woman named Snow Falls who becomes the ‘daughter’ of a Huron leader named Bird, and that adoptive father. The book is also beautifully written, with many a cracking good sentence. The plot is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the discerning reader may pick up on the specifics of the effects of chicken pox and influenza, brought to the so-called ‘new world’ by Europeans. There’s interesting bits about engineering innovations. And plenty about diet and clothing and so on. But, the general narrative reads no differently than any ‘quest’ story, from The Hobbit to the Hunger Games. In other words, it is a timeless story where good and evil face off against each other, there is a clash of world views, some romance, a handsome protagonist, young love that starts off as anything but, and lots and lots and lots (did I say lots?) of violence.
It is the last bit where, in my view, The Orenda fails mightily as a ‘book that can change Canada’. What it does, unfortunately, is reinforce stereotypes that ‘the average Canadian’ holds about native people: i.e. they are beautiful, at one with the earth, backward in their thinking, and blood thirsty savages, or sauvages as Boyden terms them en Français throughout the book. There is a video clip on cbc.ca of the book’s promoter, Wab Kinew, debating Stephen Lewis on the merits of what Lewis calls ‘torture pornography’. In Lewis’s view, the violence only plays into the dominant narrative regarding natives, so setting back the need to build consensus around issues such as native land claims. Mr. Kinew counters with claims of his own that the torture is a sort of ritualized respect – termed, in some instances, ‘caressing’ – for one’s captives. In his view, and in Boyden’s narrative, torture is a means of showing your antagonist respect. What a load of rubbish. Torture as respect? Let’s get this straight: torture is never ever ever justified ever. EVER. In some ways this book reads like a warped male fantasy nurtured by ultra-violent millenarian video games. And whether or not it is true to life, all that violence really put me off. At one level, the entire book reads as a testosterone laden cycle of tit for tat.
Did The Orenda, then, change me, as a Canadian, in any fundamental way? No. But it did reinforce something I’ve always said: people are people. Want evidence? Well, let’s just say Abu Ghraib. 400 years later and we are still engaged in the same stupid human tricks. What an underachieving species humans are, if there ever was one. The fact of Abu Ghraib should give pause, then, to the average Canadian’s perspective on native peoples. It should be replaced with, ‘Well, hey, look at that … we are all just the same!’ Goodbye misguided notion of the ‘noble savage’, hello joe you’re just an average schmo suffering the 7 deadly sins like me!
Along that line, there is the lovely tension between wanting to maintain one’s way of life versus all the bling that the old world brings. While knowing that this will alter their ways of life forever, the Huron welcome the charcoal into their villages hoping that it will help cement trade relations with the ‘iron people’. But as Boyden shows quite nicely, along with guns and pots comes smallpox, influenza and other infectious disease (not to mention Christianity! But I’m getting to that). Remind you of anything? I’ll give you a clue: can you say ‘Climate Change’?
The Orenda makes an interesting point at the very end: be careful what you think is dead and buried, for it may come to live again. Idle No More, indeed! An odd point to make, however, it seems to me, in a book where the intentions of French missionaries, through Christophe’s ruminations, are cast in quite a sympathetic light. What is missing? In my view what is buried beneath the avalanche of page after page after page of inter-tribal violence is the truly horrific but subtle and ultimately structural violence that is the coming of Christianity through the ‘good intentions’ of Pere Christophe Crow. But what is the crow really asking of the natives? He is asking them to admit that the way they live is wrong and must be abandoned or they will burn in hell forever. Today we call this ‘development’. While the reader is flinching at yet another passage of torture pornography, s/he is subtly buying into Christophe’s view that erasing native culture really is the right thing to do; after all, what’s to be lost besides their savage ways? Christophe Crow condemns bad behavior all around – drinking, whoring, rape, torture – but he never questions his own creation story. And while it is amusing to see each group through the naïve eyes of ‘the other’, there is never a moment presented where the non-native reader is asked to challenge his or her own belief system. How ultimately disappointing.