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january 2007

A Very Special "Occasion"

by Carole Quattro Levine

Drew Hayden Taylor is not what most people expect. No, not the fact that this tall, blue-eyed blond looks like a Swede but is Native to his core. 

Drew Hayden Taylor is not what most people would expect from a playwright with 75 stage productions from Toronto, Venice to Los Angeles, and who has written more than a dozen books, directed and worked on 17 television shows and documentaries including Redskins, Tricksters and Puppy Stew, has been a radio commentator, writes a humor column for five Canadian newspapers, and most recently added to his impressive resume a comedy television pilot called Mixed Blessings. 

You see, Drew writes how he talks. Or maybe he talks how he writes. After all, he spends an average of seven or eight hours each day behind a keyboard creating characters and plots and commentaries and satirical essays.  He's funny. Serious. And a thinker.  

No doubt about it, Drew is a funny guy who seriously thinks about what it is to be Aboriginal in a society that is more than 98 percent non-Native. What it is to be Native in a society that has victimized indigenous people for centuries through colonization, residential schools, and exploited Aboriginal lands, culture, women, and images. 

That being said, he isn't the kind of person who will lambaste you with cynical broadsides guised as "jokes." Nope—Drew communicates an honest clarity with a wink and a smile. He compares ethnic differences to chicken dishes, which may sound strange at first, but this trade school graduate eschews pomposity even though he spends lots of time lecturing to audiences of pointy-headed intellectuals at pointy-headed universities.  

Indeed, Drew is not what most people expect. You will enjoy hearing from this funny, serious, thinking man himself in a conversation we recently had over ersatz Italian food in Ann Arbor, where he was the "Writer in Residence" this past term at the University of Michigan's Residential College. Just another one of those pointy-headed universities filled with pointy-headed intellectuals who love Drew Hayden Taylor's work as much as the rest of us. —CQL 

Hey, I'm a great believer in starting at the beginning, so, we'll go for it. How did you become a writer to begin with? 

I'm from small Ojibway reserve in central Ontario called Curve Lake. Growing up, my reserve had about 800 to 1,000 people. I'm in the unique position of being raised in an Ojibway environment and looking the way I do. I'm sure one of the last things you'd think when you pass me on this street is "My God, doesn't he look Ojibway?" I like to say that I'm half Ojibway, half Caucasian, which makes me an "Occasion," I like to think a special Occasion, maybe even a memorable Occasion.

I was 16 when I first told my mom I wanted to be a writer and she said "why do you want to be a writer? It's not going to get you anywhere." Not long after that I asked my English teacher if it was possible to make a living from creative writing. I remember this distinctly; here he was in his office going through his file cabinet. He didn't even look up when I asked him that question. He said, "no, not really." So that ended my enthusiasm for becoming a writer, at least for awhile. 

My real break came in 1988. Have you heard of Thomson Highway? At that time, he was the artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts. He was looking for a writer in residence for the theatre and he was desperate. So Thomson, being desperate, did what desperate people do and he reached to the bottom of the barrel where he found me passed out.  He asked me to be the playwright in residence for Native Earth. Now, here's the funny thing. I had only one half-hour television show to my credit at this point. A Canadian show called the Beachcombers.  But like I said, he was desperate. 

So what did I say when Thomson made me the offer? I initially said no. I knew nothing about theatre; theatre to me was full of weird people. The education I got on my reserve was that theatre was dead white people. But I was out of work… So when Thomson called me and told me I'd get $500 a week for 20 weeks and all I'd have to do is come to two rehearsals and maybe at the end write a play, I said, "When do I start?"  

I guess you can say that I'm one of the few people you'll meet who got into theatre for the money.  

How did you come to specializing in writing humor? 

During the early years of Native theatre, from late 80's to early 90's, I found that most of the theatre was dark, angry and depressing, which is to be understood. When an oppressed people get their voice back, they write about being oppressed. It was a way of "bitching artistically." When I've traveled throughout the world, I've noticed that's pretty typical for oppressed people when they first get their voice back. 

The other interesting metaphor in the early years of native theatre was rape. You look at most Native cultures, and they have a definite matriarchal strength within them. When the Europeans arrived, with them came their church and government which was strongly patriarchal. So it's an understandable metaphor of what happened to our culture and understandable that almost every Native play you saw at that time had a rape scene in it. Thomson Highway has said that before the healing can take place, the poison must be exposed. 

I was looking at all this stuff, and it dawned on me. Theatre is the ability to take the audience on a journey using your body, your vision and your voice. It's just a way to tell a fun and interesting story. What was severely lacking then, was humor. Everywhere I went on reserves and the Aboriginal people I knew greeted me with a laugh, a smile, and a joke.  

This wasn't being represented on stage. All the characters were oppressed, depressed, or suppressed. I'd look at the women in my family, my cousins, and women I dated. They weren't oppressed, depressed or suppressed. This dark, bleak view was coming out of "getting your voice back."   

You've said that Native humor "pushes the envelope" between the politically correct and incorrect. How is this uniquely different from white humor?  

I explored the humor from my own community. Aboriginal humor is a form of survivor humor. It stems from 500 years of colonization, from boarding or residential schools, through being put on reserves. The humor comes through in a unique way and because it's survivor humor, it's sexist, it's racist; because of the society it is filtered through. 

It has been our way of coping. That's why so much of Aboriginal humor is self-deprecating. Another trait is that we love to tease; Native people love to make fun of themselves. It's a good sign if you're being teased by a Native person—that means you are accepted. It's what we call "Permitted disrespect." 

Let me give you a quote I got from an elder from the Blood Reserve in Alberta. He says that "humor is the WD-40 of healing." His words clicked with me. I've talked with Indigenous theatre artists all over Canada and North America. Our humor is what has allowed us to survive in our darkest times. 

Like I said, much of our humor is self-deprecating and teasing. We can laugh at you; but as a white person, you can't laugh at us.  

Is that fair? 

It's not a question of whether it's fair or not. It's just a reflection of the politically correct times we live in, and what do you call a politically correct comic? Boring!  

Could you give me an example of a joke that's permissible for a Native to tell but not for a white person?

 "Two Indians walk out of a bar—it could happen, you know." Now, a Native can say that and it's funny, but a white person can't get away with that.  

Is it ever permissible for a white person, then, to tell Native jokes? 

I'm different than some Natives because I believe that if a white person has lived and understands the culture it can, in certain instances, be acceptable. One of the interesting exceptions is my aunt, who is French-Canadian. She married my uncle 46 years ago and has lived on my reserve since then. She has a thicker Ojibway accent than I do, she speaks it better. She has earned the status. Yes, I think she can tell an Indian joke. But she's the exception.  

When making self-deprecating jokes about Indians, are you concerned white audiences will be laughing at you rather than with  you? 

I can't worry about that. Most of the people who come to my talks and read my books and see my plays are white. Are they laughing at me? Who knows? I do know that most people find the same things funny. I was a big fan of Richard Pryor. Also, I just loved My Big, Fat Greek Wedding; I laughed and related to the character's huge family even though, quite obviously, I'm not Greek. I related because I have 50 first cousins myself, so when I saw her huge family, it was funny.  

What subjects are considered outside the bounds of good taste? 

Probably the same things that offend most people. I mean, it's hard to make a joke about child molesting. Then again, some of the funniest times have been at funerals. We'll make a joke about almost anything, probably because of the years of oppression. But everyone has their personal limits.  

Do you notice a difference in what Natives and non-Natives find funny? 

As Native humorists, we aren't reinventing the wheel. What makes me laugh, will probably make you laugh, and what makes you laugh, will make me laugh. I go home at night and watch the Simpsons and have a good time. Funny is funny. Many people think Native humor is a lot different, but really it isn't that different.

Humor is exceedingly cross-cultural. Ninety-five percent of the people who come to my plays are non-Native. For my comedies to work, the humor has to be universal. Let me give you an example: you have tandoori chicken, chicken cacciatore, you have McChicken. It's all chicken, but it's the spices you use to cook that chicken that give it its cultural uniqueness.  

Please explain what you mean by the "Ladder of Status" and how this applies to what is socially acceptable when one ethnic group tells jokes about another.

 In essence, I break it down into the world of geometry. Humor works from the bottom up; racism works from the top down. We can make jokes about people higher up on the ladder than we are, whereas people higher in the culture, white people, cannot. That's racism.

It gets less clear when you have two groups at the same level—say blacks and Indians. Is it acceptable for them to tell jokes about each other? That depends.  

What are the similarities and the differences between tribes regarding their style of humor? 

All nations like to make fun of themselves. There's a Cree comedian named Don Burnstick, and most of his routine is making fun of Native people. You know, jokes like "Honey, your kid and my kid is beating up on our kid." His style is similar to Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck if... " Don does a routine "You might be a redskin if."

There are differences between tribes, or even reserve to reserve. Some cultures have a very aggressive, in-your-face type of humor. You don't know if you want to laugh or punch them. This would describe the Mohawk, Iroquois, and Haida.  Other nations are more subtle and practice around-the-corner humor, such as the Cree or Ojibway. Sometimes you don't know it's a joke until they start to laugh.  

Recently, we're seeing more and more Indian comedy in film and television. Moose TV, Native Comedy Television, and others with a distinctly Native flavor are finally hitting the screen. Is this the beginning of a trend? 

I hope so. I was a consultant on Moose TV  and I've just written a pilot for Canadian television, Mixed Blessings, which can best be described as an Aboriginal Brady Bunch.  It's about a Ukranian dad and Native mom each with their own kids.  I think the audience is there, just like it is for theatre.  

Drew, what else can we expect from you in the near future? 

My play, The Berlin Blues,  will premiere at the Autry Center in Los Angeles this November. It's about how Germans are so fascinated with anything Native. Of course, I'm spending seven or eight hours a day working on new plays and I've just finished my first novel, which will come out next year. So I'm keeping busy. 

Drew Hayden Taylor's books are available for purchase through Amazon Canada or His documentary is available through the National Film Board of Canada at: 

For more information, visit his website:

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About This Article

©2007 Carole Quattro Levine
©2007 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Carole Quattro Levine is the editor of
NativeVue Film and Media and a regular contributor to Scene4 Magazine.
Check the Archives for more of her articles.

Love, Lies and Revolution
The Wafer by Arthur Meiselman • Red Columbian Sky by Katrina Elias
Opening February 2nd in Los Angeles at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre


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Scene4 Magazine-Special Issue-View of the Arts 2007

january 2007

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