Day 6

'Cottagers and Indians': A timely play about Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships

Drew Hayden Taylor's latest play looks at the real-life conflict between an Indigenous rice farmer and the cottagers who feel that he's ruining their vacation getaways.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright, novelist and filmmaker. (drewhaydentaylor.com)
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Missing and murdered Indigenous women. Cultural appropriation. Colten Boushie.

These are names, topics and stories that warrant heavy and sometimes upsetting discussions.

Curve Lake playwright Drew Hayden Taylor is working to make those conversations a little easier.

For Native people, humour is the WD-40 of healing.- Playwright and humourist Drew Hayden Taylor

"Because Native humour is a form of survival of humour, that's frequently the best way to explore the issues that are important to us," he says.

    

The play

Taylor's latest play, Cottagers and Indians, debuts at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre on Feb. 21st. It explores the relationship between Indigenous residents and recreational cottagers living on the same lake in the Kawarthas region of Ontario and it's based on a true story.

Conflict arises when the cottage owners revolt against the Indigenous rice farmer, arguing that he's ruining their vacation getaways, furthering the conversation around traditional water usage and property owners.

Although the situation that inspired Cottagers and Indians was anything but funny, Taylor uses humour to deliver the story.

Canada's first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald is shown in an undated file photo. (National Archive of Canada/CP)

Mixing conflict and comedy has helped define Taylor's playwrighting career.

He tackled the topic of residential schools through last year's Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion. To Taylor, it makes perfect sense to approach the tough topics this way.

"I think the vast majority of contemporary Native literature explores and details the darker aspects of Aboriginal history and deals with the with being oppressed, depressed and suppressed, which is all valid," Taylor explains.

"I'm a firm believer that you can teach, you can explore, you can heal through humour as much as you can through anger or sadness."

Indigenous humour, Taylor says, is different from other styles of comedy. The construction and delivery are unique in the way they're approached.

"There's jokes that I think have Aboriginal DNA all through them, and then there are jokes that have been appropriated and Indigenized," Taylor says.

"Here's what I think is a native joke written by Native people for Native people: Why do Native people hate snow? Because it's white and all over our land," he recites.  

 

It still hurts

None of this is to say that Taylor is not affected by news, such as the controversy surrounding Colten Boushie's death. Boushie, a young Red Pheasant Cree Nation man, died after being shot by Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley in 2016.

"Talking about [the case] my fists are clenched in frustration and anger, wondering how this could happen. Where do we go from here? How do we heal the wounds that that one court case has caused among Indigenous people?" he asks.

"When these things happen, yes, it does make it difficult to be humorous," he offers.

Drew Hayden Taylor, an award-winning playwright, novelist and filmmaker, refers to himself as a "blue-eyed Ojibway". (Drew Hayden Taylor)

"There was an elder from the Blood Reserve who once told me that in his opinion, for Native people, humour is the WD-40 of healing. So I try and use that in all my work. I try to be a healer."

Cottagers and Indians, directed by Patti Shaughnessy and starring Herbie Barnes and Tracey Hoyt, will run at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto from Feb. 13 to March 25.


To hear our full interview with Drew Hayden Taylor, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.