Critical Review of Joseph Boyden’s “The Orenda”: A Timeless, Classic Colonial Alibi

Posted September 24, 2013

It's a grim reality and a difficult book to read. At least it will be for many Native peoples. For Canadians, The Orenda is a colonial scribe and moral alibi.

I 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”.

Early in the book, the Jesuits don’t fare well either. Christophe is portrayed as bumbling and ominous. Yet he ends up doing the bulk of the storytelling and has to be considered the central character of The Orenda. He is the anxious and pious Jesuit who arrives among the Huron in a time of war, hopelessly inept until finding his footing (or in this case his voice, the language of the Wendat), and finally earning conversions, becoming an authority among the Huron, and eventually dying a martyr. His perseverance, dedication and selflessness in the wilderness seem familiar. It actually reminded me of Atwood’s take on the nature of Canadian literature generally. She writes,

“The central symbol for Canada -- and this is based on numerous instances of its occurrence in both English and French Canadian literature - is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance…it is a multi-faceted and adaptable idea. For early explorers and settlers, it meant bare survival in the face of "hostile" elements and/or natives…”

Atwood even cites literature about Brebeuf as an example or Canadian survivance. So The Orenda reinforces who and what Canadians believe they are. Christophe the Crow tells a story they know and can identify with. It’s through his eyes they see and interpret the New World. He becomes the protagonist, the doomed hero that reinforces colonial myths of savagery on the one hand, and salvation, on the other – “survival in the face of hostile Natives.”

Hostile is an understatement. The vivid descriptions of torture are excessive. I haven’t read a book as violent since McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Interestingly that was also a story about colonization, the violence reflecting a lawless, incomplete social order but also a comment on the universality of violence among humans. This is a contrast to The Orenda, where violence and torture is both the exclusive domain of the Indians and endemic in their societies since time immemorial. The inevitable conclusion is that Indians were really just very violent. It’s not a surprising conclusion considering that Boyden seems to rely heavily on travelogues (journals of Jesuits) for his historical information. This despite the obvious bias stemming from the interest Jesuits had in perpetuating tales of savagery among the Indians - it justified their own existence, after all. So problematic are these accounts of sadism, they’ve long been excused by critical thinkers, many academics, and Indigenous peoples themselves. The Haudenosaunee have insisted that some of the practices depicted in the book ended hundreds of years earlier.

There are other tropes throughout. There is mystical Indian, reflected in a “magical” Anishinaabe sorceress and to a lesser extent Snow Falls. Both can (or have the potential) to see the future and heal in inexplicable ways. There is also the child-like Indian, Hurons who are awe-struck anytime the French introduce something foreign: a crystal chalice, muskets, a clock. Finally there is the noble Indian, reflected in Christophe’s frequent caveat in his musings on their heathenism (i.e. these Indians are child-like savages but, oh Lord, they are as beautiful and stoic as the most impressive Greek statues). All of this is not to say the characters are one-dimensional. They aren’t. Snow Falls, Bird and others are complex, coming from a community with well developed culture, economy, spirituality, relationships, and so on. Yet their component traits resemble outdated narratives of Native people, which have been used in the past to justify civilizing policies.

The consequences of these themes - the marginalization of the perspective of the Haudenosaunee, the centering of the Jesuit point of view and the cultivation of old tropes, specifically the savage Indian - amount to a tale about the inevitability of colonization. The vanishing Indian was ordained (even desirable) because of his/her character. Indeed the un-named 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. Even Christophe’s torturer, Tekakwitia, will be converted: soon after the events of the book take place Kateri Tekakwitia is born, living a Christian life and eventually becoming a Catholic saint. It's a grim reality and a difficult book to read. At least it will be for many Native peoples. For Canadians, The Orenda is a colonial scribe and moral alibi.

Hayden King is an Assistant Professor of Politics and Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario. He is Ojibwe and Pottawotami from Gchi'mnissing in Huronia, Ontario.


Wow, your last statement "It's a grim reality and a difficult book to read. At least it will be for many Native peoples. For Canadians, The Orenda is a colonial scribe and moral alibi." says it all and perhaps will save me from completing my read of the book. I had bought the book with great excitiment, and even after reading the first few chapters was already becoming uncomfortable with the portayal of the Huron and Haudenosaunee. Especially now, in these times it is important to acquire an accurate sense of tese times and our true history of Canada.

I am not a native Canadian. I noted that the Crow realized that his own people were at the same time involved in the savagery of the Inquisition, so the Indian brutality becomes part of the times, not unique to them.
Also, the brave death of the Crow was shown to mimic the brave deaths of the Indians, whether Huron or Iroquois - it was by taking on Native ways that he died so bravely. Also it was clear to me that though the Hurons were described, the same story could equally have been told of the Iroquois since, as Snow Falls says,they had so much in common.

I, too, was looking forward to reading this book by Boyden, as I had quite enjoyed reading The Three Day Road. That book took me to the Battle of Hill 70, in which my own great grandfather died in. I had to put the book down several times, just to get through it, thinking about this man that my grandmother barely knew.
It wasn't until after I bought The Orenda that I read an interview with Boyden about his book. My concerns came up with his description of, and separation of, the Indigenous Peoples. Now, I'm no expert, but I am Onkwehonwe through my mother and her mother. None of us grew up within the culture, as both my mom and her mom grew up in orphanages, and I grew up in a large city, but, I have done a fair amount of reading, and talking to Elders and others, about the histories of our ancestors, the Peoples of the Eastern Woodlands, (aka The Beaver Hunting Grounds). So, correct me if I am wrong here, but the Native People that he uses in his story are ALL Haudenosaunee ... they are ALL People of the Longhouse. They are ALL Iroquois. They may not all be if the Iroquois Confederacy, but they are all Iroquois. They are all Iroquoian Language based People, and cousins, of sorts, to each other. The Huron ARE Wendat. As they are Haudenosaunee. As they are Iroquois. The 'Iroquois' people could be any Nation that are currently part of the Confederacy, (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, or Tuscarora), or any number of People who came in under the protection of The Great Law. The Peacemaker, Deganawida, was of the Huron Nation. (Are there any Anishinaabe in the story? I haven't heard about any yet.)
To me it seems he just hasn't done his research. I have only reluctantly read the first 30 pages or do, and the writing feels like that of a student. Perhaps these are his revamped writings from his Jesuit run high school?
(My apologies for any typos, I'm writing this on my phone).

Well, to be fair, the Jesuits are also depicted as foul-smelling pedophiles who facilitate an indigenous youth's addiction to alcohol. In this way the story was to me an exploration of the origins of the genocidal practices that would follow. Their relations with the Wendat is often shown to be condescending and manipulative.

The Wendat, on the other hand, are portrayed as smart and sexy.

There's also an interesting depiction of the complexity of the political, commercial, and military culture that the French encountered.

Yes it's violent but the violence is countered by descriptions of the extreme reverence the Wendat had for their deceased ancestors. Moreover, that the Crow imagined himself a martyr like Joan of Arc is totally plausible. Crow also reflects on the violence of his own church.

Overall I found the indigenous characters in this book to be believable, fully realized characters, as in all of Boyden's work. I really have difficulty with the reviewer's response to this book. It's commentary like this that I suspect keeps aboriginal stories out of the mainstream.

I, too, am not native. I searched for 'aboriginal reaction' to the book because I was moved by the book, recognized various geographical places and am generally interested in the lives of my native, fellow Canadians.

I was looking for a good book, and got one. I had expected a solely aboriginal narration , but a multi-narrative device was used to clever affect.

My simple, hegemonic knowledge of Canada's indigenous people make me realize that I'm incapable of commenting further, but I will return to read others thought.

I await your novel.

A moral alibi? Oh, absolutely not. As "a Canadian", as you say, I did not feel the things from this book that you so confidently claimed I would. This book made me feel incredible shame for the disgusting practises of colonisation and assimilation that occurred. It filled me with a sense of dread and deep sadness, and it brought to life for me the great tragedy this truly was--how Europeans worked to deliberately destroy these complex cultures of civility and beauty.

It was the Europeans who angered me the most in this book, especially Christophe. I think you believe all "Canadians" are Christians, based on the narrow-mindedness of your review, and that's a shame and folly both. The more I read of the crow's attempts to force his beliefs upon the Wendat, the more furious I became. The Wendat's ability to laugh and pose sound-minded arguments to the simplicity of Christian thinking made the Native peoples in this book the intelligent and enlightened ones. In my eyes, this only deepened the tragedy of ultimate European victory in destroying these cultures.

While I do agree with you that the Haudenosaunee were portrayed rather unfairly, I do understand why this had to be so for this book... after all, it was concentrated on a specific tribe. Unless this novel were to become epic in proportion, and thus lose its focus, I don't see how the Huron could have depicted the Haudenosaunee any other way. You have maybe failed to understand this, or you chose to overlook it. Boyden mentions throughout the novel that both tribes practise torture and "savagery" (as we see it today), and characters express surprise when they hear a few Haudenosaunee warriors tried to rape Snow Falls, claiming this was not their way. Bird repeatedly notes with awe at their bravery and intelligence and resilience. Their fear is one based on the knowledge of the unity of the Iroquois.

So you are very wrong: this book is absolutely not a moral alibi. It was a slap in the face, and it left me feeling winded. Throughout it and afterwards I was left feeling a shame like I've never felt before. This land that "we" see as our "native land" for the first time feels to me like the lie it is. It has stoked a flame in me to read and learn more about these beautiful cultures and lands that Europeans raped. You could not be more wrong in your assumptions about how "Canadians" will feel about this book.

I think you responded to the book exactly as the professor predicted Canadians would.

i have not read the book but the strong presentation made by Wab Kinew on Canada Reads made me want to read the book.
In the debate on CBC between Wab and Stephen Lewis I knew i would feel like Lewis about the descriptive torture but Wab's explanation made me think i might be able to get thru it knowing the background
I thought tho from the debate that Wab failed to honour the extensive experience of suffering in the world that Lewis has experienced.
It seemed he became an FN guy talking down to a white man/settler
I regard Stephen Lewis as an elder.
Your review has not been seen probably by many Canadians and now I will be keeping it in mind as i read the book
As I follow FN issues on twitter i am aware of the differences of opinions among FN activists as well as what seem to be divisions

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