For the better part of three decades, Drew Hayden Taylor has been shining a light on contemporary Indigenous life and culture, and doing so with humour and style. He has written award-winning comedic and dramatic plays, articles, novels, non-fiction, short stories, TV series, and documentaries, but what remains consistent is an insightful, compassionate, and fiendishly clever look at modern society.
This career has included (as a few examples) exploring his own biracial identity in Funny You Don’t Look Like One: Observations of a Blue-Eyed Ojibway, adding an Indigenous twist to the gothic teen vampire novel genre with The Night Wanderer, and getting pretty much everyone mad with a satirical Indigenous ‘apology’ to Canadian colonizers that was published in the Globe and Mail (archived here), resulting in over 1,200 angry comments.
This month, Taylor will be emceeing a local benefit for the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. Wenjack was a 12-year-old Indigenous boy who was taken away from his family and shipped to a residential school during the 1960s. He passed away after leaving school and attempting the 600-kilometre trek back home. Downie highlighted Wenjack’s story during the Tragically Hip’s final run of concerts, and the Downie Wenjack Fund continues in their memories, promoting education and reconciliation efforts in Canada. The concert will also feature the Sadies, Wshkiigomaang Curve Lake Women’s Hand Drum Group, Mayhemingways, Keara Lightning, and more.
I spoke to Taylor from his home in Curve Lake.
1. I always find cultural humour interesting—the particular character of Jewish humour, say, or British humour. You’ve actually made a documentary about Indigenous humour, Redskins, Tricksters, and Puppy Stew (2000). What do you think defines it?
I think it’s an offshoot of what you’re talking about: Jewish humour, Black humour, it’s a form of what I call survival humour. It’s humour that’s been filtered through 500 years of colonization, and the reserves, the residential schools. It comes from a people who used humour as a way of reflecting, reacting, and commenting on their place in society.
As a result, it has multiple roles. It’s very healing. In other cases, it’s protecting against those same issues by taking those reflections of the colonizer and turning them inside out and shoving them right back in their face. It’s a protective, almost prickly sense of humour that I think many would consider politically incorrect, because it’s filtered through colonization, and as a result it can get kind of angry.
A thing to keep in mind as well: at the time of contact, in 1497, it’s estimated there were probably 50 separate languages and dialects spoken in Canada, so there’s no one Native anything. The Cree sense of humour is different from the Iroquois sense of humour, the Haida sense, etc.
2. Much of your work is very political, and also very funny. Why do you think humour works as a tool for political action?
You have a message, and so you stand on a box on a street corner yelling at the world. People will stop, they’ll look, they’ll shake their head, and they’ll move on. Whereas if you coat that same story in humour, they’ll stop, they’ll listen, they’ll laugh, and they’ll take that message home with them and perhaps spread it.
3. Both political writing and humorous writing can inspire some pretty strong reactions from people. Any particular memories of public response to your work?
I wrote a play called AlterNATIVES that dealt with Native/non-Native relationships, a very socio-political piece and very comedic. When it was produced in Vancouver, someone left a message on the machine saying that, if this theatre company is going to continue to produce plays that are racist against white people, don’t be surprised at what we leave behind. It was a bomb threat. And my first reaction as an up-and-coming playwright was, that is so cool! I got a bomb threat! That’s when you know you’ve arrived!
My most recent play, Cottagers and Indians [about the ongoing dispute between cottagers on Pigeon Lake and Indigenous people who use the lake to farm wild rice], I was expecting to have Muskoka chairs burnt on my front lawn. But more than anything, the cottagers who live in Toronto went and they loved it! I think that the vast majority understand the sociological and the political nature of the issue. There’s only a handful that have that hardline perspective on saving their ability to go motorboating off the shorelines. The play did 91% interest at the box office, and they’re planning a fall tour of it in southern Ontario. [A Peterborough stop is being planned.]
4. It seems like you’re always exploring new genres and new mediums. What drives you to continue experimenting like this?
[Playwright and Governor General’s Award winner] Tom King and I have an ongoing contest. We’re trying to see who can write in the most genres, and right now we’re tied. He hasn’t written a play, and I haven’t written a book of poetry yet.
The big interest right now is putting the Indigenous fingerprint on genre fiction. Native people, we wear shoes, we wear jackets, we drive cars, we cook with lamb; all these things the dominant culture brought over. Why not exploit and explore their genre fiction too?
I remember when I got into theatre 30 years ago, there was a tendency where a lot of our writers like to explore and detail the more dysfunctional aspect of First Nations communities. The plays were mostly dark, depressing, bleak, sad, and angry. All the characters were oppressed, depressed, or supressed.
And I wanted to be much more positive. I wanted to celebrate Indigenous culture. That’s why I started writing comedy, and why I started working on stuff that wasn’t as dark as other writers. Many of our other writers are doing that quite wonderfully, quite detailed, and quite fabulously, and I just want to sort of provide other options.
5. You’ve become quite involved with the Toronto scene, and many people wind up living in Toronto from that. What brought you back to your hometown of Curve Lake?
I was in Toronto for like 20 or 25 years, and a series of things happened. One, this absolutely beautiful house became available in Curve Lake, and I had sort of grown tired with Toronto. I just wanted to come home, look at trees and birds, and hang out amongst my family and my friends.
I love living in Curve Lake but I’m also very well-aware of the positive aspects of life in Toronto. Unfortunately in Curve Lake there’s very few Greek or Thai restaurants. My significant other has one of those things called a “real job”—I’ve always been meaning to try one of those—which is in Toronto, so we go back and forth. It’s the best of both worlds.
Drew Hayden Taylor appears live at Market Hall on May 11 as part of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund Benefit Concert (more info).