March 10, 2014

The Orenda depicts villainous Iroquois

An acclaimed novel about Indians is being called stereotypical by some:

Critical Review of Joseph Boyden's "The Orenda": A Timeless, Classic Colonial Alibi

By Hayden KingI wanted to like Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. I’ve been a fan of Boyden’s work. Three Day Road, Born With a Tooth and Through Black Spruce all had compelling themes of redemption amid loss. Moreover, the advanced reviews proclaimed The Orenda a masterpiece, Quill & Quire calling the book a “magnificent literary beast”. So I was eager to read and happy to get an advanced copy from the publisher. Within the first few of the nearly 500 pages, it was clear why it was receiving the glowing reviews. But it was also clear I wouldn’t like the book. The Orenda is a comforting narrative for Canadians about the emergence of Canada: Indian savages, do-good Jesuits and the inevitability (even desirability) of colonization. The themes that push this narrative are a portrayal of Haudenosaunee peoples as antagonistic, the privileging of the Jesuit perspective, and a reinforcing of old story-telling tropes about Indigenous people. These themes work together to convey the message that the disappearance of the Huron and the loss of their orenda was destined happen.

The book takes place in Wendaki, or contemporary central Ontario (in fact the community that I come from, Gchi’mnissing in southern Georgian Bay, plays an important role as a haunted safe haven). It covers the last years of the Huron Confederacy, after they’ve formed a trade relationship with the French and on the eve of their dispersal by the Iroquois in a period sometime between 1640 and 1650. To tell a fictionalized account of this story and provide space for each representative group Boyden uses a useful narrative device, shifting the perspective between three characters: Bird, a Huron warrior and leader, Snow Falls, a young Haudenosaunee girl adopted by the Huron, and finally and Christophe the Crow, a Jesuit missionary who comes to live among Bird and Snow Falls and based on Jean de Brebeuf (if readers don’t know the history of Brebeuf, this review includes what might be considered spoilers).

While less complex, the multi-narrative technique is reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It works for The Orenda especially well because it neatly divides the three central perspectives, often re-telling the same episode from each point of view. The device is also used, I think, to attempt to provide balance to the story and equal space to each of the three groups involved in French colonization. Indeed, in his review of The Orenda the Montreal Gazette’s literary critic Ian McGillis praises Boyden for his fairness and “refus(ing) to draw easy lines between good and bad” and if there are “nominal villains” they are the Jesuits. Boyden himself has said a goal in writing the book was to recount an accurate history without casting blame or making it about “white hats and black hats.”

But almost immediately black hats do emerge. It turns out that the Haudenosaunee are not represented well at all. The girl Snow Falls soon becomes Wendat and the only other Iroquois character of note is Tekakwitia, leader of the army that eventually destroys the Huron and tortures to death Christophe the Crow (and he appears only in the final chapters). In addition, the plot driving the story from the first pages is the threat posed by the relentless and terrifying Haudenosaunee. Bird, Christophe and many of the minor characters spend most of their time worrying and preparing for the inevitable attack, sometimes out-maneuvering the Iroquois, but always living in fear. So readers learn very little except that they're a menace, lurking in the dark forest, waiting to torture or cannibalize. In light of this limited (or skewed) portrayal it’s hard not to see the Iroquois as “nominal villains.”
The Orenda won Canada Reads and I feel weird about it.

By Christina TurnerMy discomfort with this novel is two-pronged. First, as is a risk with any historical fiction, that this book will now be taken as historical fact. But the historical basis for the novel has been widely contested. Boyden’s primary source for his descriptions of the Jesuit-Wendat interactions in general and torture scenes in particular was the Jesuit Relations, a series of reports sent back to France by the early missionaries. To say that these reports were biased would be an understatement—they were largely propaganda documents meant to raise funds to continue the Jesuit mission. In her historical review of The Orenda, Peggy Blair notes that the Jesuit Relations dramatize Haudenosaunee torture practices while making scant mention of the tortures the French carried out on their prisoners; similarly, they barely discuss Haudenosaunee clan mothers because the French saw women as powerless. And yet, The Orenda is already being taken as historical doctrine. In his review of the novel, Montreal Gazette critic Ian McGillis argued that the book should take "its rightful place on history course lists at every high school and university in the country."

My second issue with the uptake of The Orenda is the way it portrays the Wendat as the architects of their own demise. In the novel, the conflict between the Wendat and the Haudenosaunee is portrayed as largely baseless, arising from an eye-for-an-eye mentality that spurs each side to attack and torture the other year after year. At one point, Bird reneges on a treaty with the Haudenosaunee, wrecking a planned peace deal and setting up the final battle between the two nations (which the Wendat ultimately lose). And as Hayden King notes in his review of the book, "the unnamed Sky People who open each section of the book observe the carnage below and conclude the grim history was pre-determined partly because of the selfishness, arrogance and short-sightedness of the Huron."

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