Cottagers and Indians by Drew Hayden Taylor
A lazy afternoon on a cedar deck that could be anywhere in Ontario cottage country. A casually dressed, mature woman from Toronto (her relaxed cotton shirt and pants might have been purchased from the Eaton’s catalogue in bygone days) reaches for her glass of Chardonnay and settles in. She surveys the lake beyond and with it the promise of decades of family tradition, stretching far into the future. No matter what happens, they will always have this place of refuge, with its titled ownership, the deed safely tucked away in a drawer.
Her (imagined) musings are interrupted by the figure already introduced to the audience- a man in a canoe downstage who has a long familiarity with the scent of the breeze, the plant life, the water. And now he can even smell her barbequed chicken and he wants some. Interrupting both her silence and her plans, he will turn out to be not just her real-life Aboriginal neighbour, who shares residency on this lake, but history’s ghost, in a haunting in which the storied white man’s burden, comically becomes what the play calls “cottager’s burden”.
For Drew Hayden Taylor, one of Canada’s outstanding Native writers who is a playwright, essayist, short-story writer, and, in all of these genres, a keen humourist, the comedy of the Aboriginal tragedy in Canada is never beside the point. Though the Blyth Festival’s outdoor staging of his two-actor play Cottagers and Indians (first commissioned and produced by Tarragon Theatre in 2018) confirms his signature tone, the production took place, this time round, against an historic backdrop – the visit of Pope Frances to Canada to deliver a long-awaited apology to First Nations people. “After much anticipation”, the playwright-humourist tweeted, on the opening week of his play’s Blyth performance, “the Pope has finally acknowledged the genocide that happened to Indigenous people. I am looking around. I don’t think much has changed. I’ll look again in an hour”.
The Pope’s circumscribed apology reopened old wounds for trauma survivors and left much unfinished business (as Hayden Taylor suggests, these include the refusal to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery as well as critical issues of reparation and the role the Catholic Church played in the sexual abuse and deaths of children at residential schools.) The attempt to wipe out all trace of indigenous language and culture easily meets the UN threshold for cultural genocide, and with the discovery of thousands of unmarked graves earlier in 2022, the crimes, always known to the Aboriginal community, were palpable in a national nightmare. As the playwright, himself, might have said about the accidental twinning of the papal visit and the Blyth production, “you can’t make it up”.
Director Deneh’Cho Thompson, is a Dene director, actor and playwright deeply involved in developing Indigenous acting pedagogy and Indigenous dramaturgies. As a written play text, the exchanges in Cottagers and Indians sometimes lean towards staged debate. It is to the credit of both the actors, and their director, that a genuinely dramatic relationship emerges between the two characters, in reciprocal tellings of dispossession which, though mutually felt, are clearly not equally weighted either as individual or collective traumatic histories.
Kelly McIntosh is suitably feisty as the beleaguered Toronto cottager, Maureen Poole, who has slowly lost the full use of the water at the edge of her beloved cottage, alongside losing the husband who dreamed this place of calm retreat with her. But it is James Dallas Smith as Arthur Copper who rescues the play from its tendency to sometimes undramatic colloquy. He is a wonderfully kinetic actor whose irony and gestural language of the comic mime (here in the service of deeply felt injustice and mission) animates the stage.
The set design by Beth Kates and Anishinaabe artist Moses Lunham is integral to the play’s story-telling. It wraps the outdoor stage with graphically strong depictions of Aboriginal figures and iconography to extend the space visually. And in the background looms what might well be seen as the central figure of the play, both material and symbolic, the wild rice or manoomin (Ojibway) which is at the very heart of their struggle.
No one who has seen the play will ever run their fingers through wild rice (or eat it) again, without a deepened sense of its place in Indigenous history and culture. But, what was the backdrop to this compelling manoomin story in Cottagers and Indians that continued in the courts long past Hayden Taylor’s writing of the play?
Starting in 2007, residents of Pigeon Lake in the Kawarthas were becoming increasingly concerned with the amount of wild rice growing in their lake, tangling up boats and hampering their activities in the water. It finally came to a head when they confronted one James Whetung roaring by on an airboat with a scoop on the front, visibly seeding the lake. It turned out that Whetung, a member of Curve Lake First Nation Ojibway community, that is part of the Anishinaabe Nation, had made it his mission to grow and expand the tall grass which had for thousands of years provided food security and been deeply embedded in indigenous ritual.
This story of Cottagers and Indians (itself a play on the childhood game of Cowboys and Indians, replicating racist Western film tropes) becomes, then, a potent symbol of a much larger ongoing struggle. The two characters hurl accusations at each other that repeat their ongoing battle in a historical past which is also fully present. While Kelly proclaims genteelly that “in principle we support Native issues”, Arthur is having none of it. “Bring it on, white lady”, he taunts her. In the end, it is a stand-off, an “Oka on water”
After writing the play, Hayden Taylor produced a documentary on the Pigeon Lake controversy and he continued to talk about it in interviews. It is fitting, though, that the most memorable vehicle for the event would be a comic play in a storytelling mode, with dialogue as well as voice-over soliloques. Despite considerable cultural and linguistic variation among Canada’s Indigenous peoples (read Haydon Taylor’s wonderful edited collection of essays in Me Funny for a half dozen versions of why the chicken crossed the road in Cree, Anishinaabe, Dene, and more), humour is a common denominator which is an indispensable feature of Indigenous writing, performance, art, and daily life.
There are stories and anecdotes in Me Funny that are laugh-out-loud funny, even where they riff on imposed stereotypes, and the deeply-felt dispossession of land and water at the heart of Aboriginal history and legal claims. One essay in the collection by Karen Froman, a member of Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, closes with an anecdote that provides a comic gloss on the more profound issues at stake in Cottagers and Indians.
When NASA was preparing for the Apollo Project, it trained on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. An esteemed Navajo elder who came to understand the nature of the mission asked if he might send along a tape recorded message in his own language. NASA, sensing useful publicity, agreed and then proceeded to have the message translated. One Navajo group after another refused, laughing out loud, instead, when they heard the words of wisdom of their elder to the moon. Even the official government translator laughed when he heard it . But, in the end, unlike the others, he was duty bound to translate the elder’s message from the Navajo to the moon in the plainest of terms: ‘Watch out for these assholes- they have come to steal your land.”
Blyth Festival Theatre, July 21-August 11
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This post was written by Barbara Gabriel.
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