In mid-October, I had the opportunity to host the acclaimed aboriginal writer Joseph Boyden with his new novel, The Orenda. A blistering saga set in the 1600s, the novel tracks three intersecting lives: a Huron warrior and community leader, a gifted Iroquois girl captured in a revenge raid, and a newly-arrived Jesuit priest determined to bring salvation to the “sauvages.”
Boyden sweeps us into their endlessly shifting alliances by alternating the point of view between these three voices. We bounce around, inhabiting one, then the next, then the third. As readers, we are not just witnessing the challenges, suspicions, misconceptions, and hopes of these characters, we are experiencing them. It’s a rare opportunity to understand conflict—and tenuous, fleeting resolutions—from the inside.
Running throughout the novel, both background and foreground, is the orenda, the aboriginal concept of a life force or spirit that animates each thing, from humans to animals to plants, rivers, sky, and stones. To live well is to respect all things, including the wild world around you and even your mortal enemy.
Shadowing our conversation about The Orenda that night was the sudden escalation of trouble in New Brunswick. Snipers and rubber bullets, burning police cars—the clashes between Elsipogtog First Nations protesters and provincial law enforcement had a contemporary face, but resonated across 450 years of colonial history to the novel’s charged politics of first contact.
Also there, clear as anything in both the historical narrative and the present-day news story, was the ongoing impasse around the value we assign to the natural world. Is it ours to use or ours to protect?
I was profoundly uneasy with the media coverage. It’s true the Elsipogtog First Nations were defending their treaty lands, but their environmental concerns are shared by many. Protecting water and climate from the effects of fracking are human issues, not aboriginal issues. “How,” I asked Joseph, “do non-aboriginal allies offer respectful support to our First Nations neighbours?” Joseph spread his hands open to all of us in the theatre. “That’s not the right question,” he said. “It’s not us and them—we are all part of one community.”
Which brings me to jazz, an art that emerged as a form of resistance to cultural segregation and prescribed social hierarchies. Just over a century of jazz hasn’t mended the terrible history of disenfranchisement and dehumanization of African-Americans, but it has at least offered resounding proof of the spirit and intelligence and artistry of oppressed people and the richness that emerges when divergent cultures intersect.
In our time and place, we have the opportunity to listen to—and engage with—the vital, angry, funny, and wise voices of First Nations artists and thinkers. It’s time to bring the jazz spirit to bear on the fragile social ecology of our country, to find out what kind of music we can make if we will listen and respond to one another with curiosity and respect and warmth. I believe our lives depend on it.