What Was Lost: On Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda

I can remember when I was in elementary school- private French immersion amidst an Anglophone Albertan sea- there was a rolling hill behind our schoolhouse, at the bottom of which sat a large field. In one corner of the field stood a long, two story brick structure: the community hockey rink. Long disused, the building seemed shabby enough from the outside. Not that we ever really got close to it, for we were explicitly told by our teachers not to loiter around the rink.


Our teachers told us that the rink was a favorite place of congregation for “native kids” who liked to drink in its alcoved doorway. There was a reserve nearby, they explained, and the kids who drank near the arena were not the types of people we should be consorting with. Thus we never went down the hill without the supervision of a teacher. When we did so it was only in large groups, often for gym class when we used the hill for tobogganing. I can still remember the bitter jokes students made with one another, laughing about how the weakest of us would be left behind to be trapped by “drunken Indians.”

This was my first introduction, as a young Canadian, to the specter of aboriginal bodies: I was told by people of authority (my teachers) to stay away from them. The inference was clear: aboriginals could be drunk, dangerous, and criminal. We as upstanding young citizens were to be effectively segregated from them.

This was in the early 90s. Recalling it now, it almost seems too colonial to be true: private school children dressed in our white collard shirts and black pants, being told not to engage socially with the dangerous natives. We were amongst the first generations of Western Canadians to be educated completely in French, and as such were the very embodiment of a multicultural bridge between our country’s “two solitudes.” Yet if one from of historical inequality was being overturned by our very schooling (Quebecois isolation with the rest of the country), another form of inequality (anti-Aboriginal segregation) was being reinforced in an ever more strenuous fashion.

It is important to point out how subtle, almost unconscious, the racism concerning aboriginal people was at that time. The teachers were quick to point out that it was not “all” aboriginals they were warning us against, just those bad types who drank around our school. Yet our teachers couldn’t tell us much about what the rest of aboriginal life was actually like. The topic was always met with platitudes, knowing looks, weary silence. As children, we filled that silence up with the only connotations we had.

How could children of our age accurately understand a community who was Otherized so ruthlessly from the very start? How could you have expected us not to reproduce a colonial vision of white vs. native, civilized vs. savage, when the terms of our encounter began in such a fashion?

Monkman the treason of images

In middle school and beyond, future study of the history of Canada did little to overturn these initial associations. My textbooks told a story that began with Champlain and Cartier, the French and British conquests, Confederation and John A., and on to the opening up of the West. While the complexities of French-English tensions defined this history, the “nation” was written as if the land was essentially barren when it was found. Indeed, within our textbooks, the words “development” and “modernization” abounded, but never were they described for what they actually were: the violent imposition of one socio-cultural order (European capitalism, monarchism, and religion) over another (the complex eco-spiritual world of First Nations people).

When Aboriginals appeared in these pages, they did so as noble savages fighting valiantly for an arcane way of life, clinging to quaint ideas that were essentially good but out of place in the modern world. With patronizing confidence, the textbooks would often assert that, despite their early struggles, aboriginals would eventually find a renewed place within the emerging national order of things. Never once were the terms colonialism, racism, or genocide used. That entire history was excised from our national narrative, replaced by a triumphant vision of hardworking immigrants: Ukrainians and Irish and Russians settling across wind-swept, empty plains.

It’s odd to think of oneself as having been born into an education system- and an epistemic order- built on colonial racism. But if Canadians are to be honest with themselves, then we must admit as much. As writer and artist Lee Maracle puts it in the the CBC documentary 8th Fire, this country was founded on the negation of aboriginal people. A quick perusal of the 1857 Gradual Civilization Act, followed by the Indian Act of 1876, exemplifies how the Canadian state did not want to live with aboriginal people. Rather, they wanted to shutter them on reserves, keeping them physically away from the settlers who were doing the hard work of building the nation  It was hoped in time that the state could assimilate native people entirely, “enfranchising” them into being Christian citizens of the crown, cleansed of their savage customs.

Our very self-perception as a nation is defined by this violent negation, made all the worst because of our refusal to talk openly about it. As late as the early 90s things were still this way, and I have great doubt that we are in some kind of magically healed post-colonial moment just a scant generation later (though no doubt some progressive steps have been taken).

What I remember most about those textbooks was how easy Canadian history all seemed, as if there was no other way it could have gone but the way it did: the triumphant establishment of English common law, European settlement, the National Railroad, the War Effort and all the rest of it. The textbook assumed that history could only have moved one way: towards the “civilized” forms of commerce, industry, governance, and religion Europe imposed on the rest of the world, violently denouncing all that came before it.

Tracking The Orenda

I recalled all of this as I read Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, a novel set in the early 17th century on the land that would one day come to be known as Canada. Boyden’s novel centers around the initial moment of encounter between aboriginal peoples and the French Jesuit missionaries who came to convert them, backed by the colonial power of the French military. Though Boyden’s novel is set entirely during this moment of initial cultural violence, its concerns are clearly very much with the present day state of First Nations in Canada. The novel is divided into three sections, and before each one Boyden allows himself a moment of narrative commentary, as a storyteller-scholar speaks to us from the present:

We had magic before the crows came. Before the rise of the great villages they so roughly carved on the shores of our inland seas and named with words plucked from our tongues- Chicago, Toronto, Milwaukee, Ottawa- we had our own great villages on these same shores. And we understood our magic. We understood what the orenda implied.

But who is at fault when that recedes? It’s tempting to place blame, though loss should never be weighed in this manner. Who, then, to blame for what we now witness, our children cutting their bodies to pieces or strangling themselves in the dark recesses of their homes or gulping your stinking drink until their bodies fail? This, on the surface, is the story of our past. (Boyden, 1)

The novel is not simply a fanciful reconstruction of a moment of cultural “misunderstanding.” It is no exoticized retelling of an arcane period of far off history. It is an attempt at mapping out the origins of a crisis, one that shattered the way of life of First Nations people and is still being felt today, in the grisly reality of children “cutting their bodies to pieces or strangling themselves in the dark recesses of their homes.”

Boyden first acknowledges this specter of suffering as the precondition for telling his history, as the contemporary reality towards which this history must somehow speak. Our past and present can never be separated, the novel insists, and the story it tells is essential for understanding both.

Boyden locates the source of this crisis in the loss of what he calls the orenda: the spiritual-ecological life world that defined aboriginal communities before the colonial encounter. When the Europeans arrived, they not only brought with them violent armies who conquered land, as well as virulent diseases that wiped out entire native communities. They also brought an epistemic violence of the most extreme form: they declared aboriginal modes of language, spirituality, and community to be debased, unfit for the civilized world. As Bodyen puts it:

Once those crows flew over the great water from their old world to perch tired and frightened in the branches of ours, they saw that we had the orenda. We believed. Oh, did we believe. This is why the crows, at first, thought of us as little more than animals. We lived in a physical world that frightened them and hunted beasts they’d only had nightmares of, and we consumed the mystery that the crows were bred to fear. We breathed what they feared. But they watched intently, as crows are prone to do.

And when they cawed that our magic was unclean, we laughed, took a little offence, even killed a few of them and pulled their feathers for our hair. We lived on. But that word, unclean, that word, somehow, like an illness, like its own magic, it began to grow. Very few of us saw that coming. So maybe this is the story of those few. (Boyden 1)

Boyden’s novel is largely an account of what happened when that simple but devastating claim- the aboriginal as unclean- came to the land we now call Canada. And as my experience in grade school taught me, the notion of the impurity of the aboriginal body is still with us today, over four hundred years later.

Three Perspectives on Colonial Violence

The novel is told from three different perspectives- that of a Huron warrior named Bird, a young Iroquois girl named Snow Falls, and a French Jesuit named Christophe. Through hundreds of sharp, concise chapters, we immerse ourselves in the mental and emotional worlds of these characters. Each of them navigate a complex series of cultural encounters amongst one another and their respective nations, encounters that involve kidnapping, murder, adoption, proselytization, displacement, mourning, family, and love.

monkman flow

Christophe is inflicted with the disease common to all colonial agents: the belief that they are in a foreign land to save and better the natives, first by denigrating their culture, then by imposing a new order onto them that is seen as their only path towards salvation. For the Jesuits, this was the drive to get the natives to repent of their idolatrous orenda and embrace the salvation offered by Christ, as the one and only way to achieve eternal life.

Needless to say, for Bird and Snow Falls, such a ruthless denunciation of their culture is a point of deep struggle. A valiant warrior for his Huron people, Bird is at first completely dismissive of Christophe and the rest of the straggling Jesuits. Physically weak, geographically ignorant, and without martial ability of any kind, Bird can’t see how the Europeans can possibly thrive in the harsh landscape of the New World. When Christophe drones on about how impure aboriginal life is in the eyes of god, Bird merely laughs at his blatant disrespect to his Huron hosts.

The most complex character in the novel is Snow Falls, the young Iroquois who is kidnapped by Bird at the start of the narrative as payback for an Iroquois atrocity against his own family. Displaced from her Iroquois home, and trapped between the patriarchal authority of the Huron leader and Christophe’s evangelism, Snow Falls must navigate a complex cultural terrain.

While she gradually assimilates to life as a Huron, she is also intrigued by the spiritual world offered by Christophe’s unrelenting preaching. Caught between two profoundly different epistemic systems- the orenda and Christian monarchism- her body and mind become the prize that is contested within the colonial encounter.

Yet Boyden refuses to write her as merely a resigned victim of multiple patriarchies. Instead, she is shot through with wit, guts, and agency, a young woman unlocking the spiritual sustenance the orenda can provide, even as she must come to terms with the spiritual displacement that the French presence gradually produces in her community.

On What Was Lost

It is ultimately this displacement that lies at the heart of Boyden’s novel. What happens when two drastically different ways of knowing and being in the world collide together in an uneven social and military encounter?

Boyden expertly describes this epistemic clash when, using Christophe’s voice, he relays to us European exasperation over aboriginal orenda:

 The Huron…don’t live above the natural world but as a part of it. The key to their language was to make the connection between man and nature. I scoffed at this. A language doesn’t exist that can’t be learned by rote. And You, Lord, have given us the natural world for our use and governance. Man was not meant to grovel in the dirt with animals but to rise above them…In matters of the spirit, these sauvages believe that we all have within us a life force that is similar, if you will, to our own Catholic belief in the soul. They call this life force the orenda. That is the fascinating part. What appals me is that these poor misguided beings believe not just humans have an orenda but also animals, trees, bodies of water, even rocks strewn on the ground. In fact, every last thing in their world contains its own spirit. (Boyden 32-33)

If Boyden’s novel probes what happened when the orenda was denounced, it also celebrates its formative powers as a moral and communal system. For in telling his story, Boyden expertly reconstructs the spiritual and ecological sensibilities of pre-contact aboriginal communities, presenting the orenda to us when it was a living reality, a world complete unto itself, and not a degraded feature of an already denounced culture.

As such, Boyden provides us passage after passage in which the texture of pre-contact orenda abound, as we are introduced to its natural rhythms, its ceremonies and jokes, its harvests and seasons, its distinct sense of time and space. Here is Bird mourning his departed family at his tribe’s Feast of the Dead:

I hold you in my arms, my love. Since your passing to the land of Aataentsic and louskeha so many years ago, this is all I’ve ever wanted again. And I have wanted to cradle our daughters again, too, and now I finally do. We are all together once more…The three of you aren’t heavy on my shoulders as I carry you to the place of the Kettle. I stop at some of your favourite spots along the way. The place where the river splashes into the Sweet Water Sea. The cliff overlooking where the waves crash below it. The field that blossoms with berries in late summer…many gifts are given in your names. Necklaces of polished beads, furs, quill tobacco bags, moccasins, and moose-hair barrettes dyed the colour of strawberries. In your death you still bring smiles to the face of your friends, and they all tell me how they miss you, how they still dream of you, how they know for certain that you do well in the other world while you wait there for them and for me. (Boyden 86-86)

The orenda captured in Boyden’s prose was a way of being that existed long before European ways of knowing (and dominating) the world came to the land we now call Canada. Before the modern nation-state and its insistence on the sovereign consumer, before religion and its construction of a judgmental god, before capitalism and its strangehold of private property, there was the orenda. A complex structure of feeling, with distinct ecological and spiritual dimensions.

Boyden’s novel has thus done something quite miraculous: it has given us a way back, a means of sensing what that spiritual-life world felt like, before its denigration and attempted destruction. The novel is thus an important resource for us to think of forms of belonging, community, and spirituality that we have lost. One only need to look at the the violence of our contemporary moment, defined as it is by social inequality, military adventurism, and intense human anxiety, to see stark evidence of the loss we have all endured.

As such, Boyden’s work is a provocation of the most important kind: what would the orenda for a 21st century society look like? Can the orenda become a resource for all people, native and non-native alike, in our attempts at living in ways that are alternative to the strictures imposed on human life by capitalism, monotheism, and the nation-state?

How can we regain the sense of plentitude that once defined this land and the people who lived on it?

This is The Orenda’s challenge, one that I hope all Canadians take up. The post-colonial future must start with us, in our everyday acts of thinking and doing.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.

Paintings by Toronto-based artist Kent Monkman: http://www.kentmonkman.com/

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