There’s gold … and then there’s fool’s gold. The same can be said for the contemporary Indigenous art world. Recent tales of inauthenticity are still reverberating in our community. The Latimer/Boyden specifics aside, the lines of legitimacy are constantly being drawn. And redrawn.
The latest shocker to hit the Indigenous literature world: Tiger Lily from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan may not actually be an Indian princess. Though described as “the most beautiful of dusky Dianas and the belle of the Piccaninnies [tribe], coquettish, cold and amorous by turns,” there is no evidence to confirm her Indigenous heritage. It looks like she too will end up on the literary scrap heap of history, watching soap operas with Chingachgook and Tonto.
These are tumultuous times in the arts. If you claim the Indigenous voice, you better be an Indigenous creator … right? Not necessarily. It may seem like that’s an unshakeable requirement to get acceptance in the First Nation universe, but it’s not a hard and fast tenet.
Let me preface this by saying that in our community there are a few rules by which acceptance is granted. Firstly, anybody who for some reason has a fascination with us and has made it a life’s mission to claim our identity without doing the necessary homework is called a wannabe. Because they “wanna be” us.
Then there are those who understand that the origins and histories of both our people are separate, but they share our goals and concerns. They are called allies.
And then there is that third and rare group, non-Native people whose heart and spirit, though mired down by colonizer DNA, beat the same as the original inhabitants of this land. We call them “shouldabeens,” because except for a twist of fate they shoulda been born Indigenous. Few and far between, they – and only they – are taught the secret muskrat handshake.
This “shouldabeen” rule also applies to literary, cinematic and other forms of art. Representations of Indigenous people, created by non-Natives, are still warmly accepted on First Nations across the country. I offer up some examples.
The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, written by George Ryga
Premiering in Vancouver in 1967, this play, though somewhat dated now, still packs a punch. It explores the tragic journey of Rita Joe, an Indigenous woman in the city. Ryga, though non-Native, revealed important issues that were pertinent then and still are now. This play exists in a bit of a grey zone: It’s unlikely it will be produced again though many acknowledge it was the first to shine light on the difficulties of urban Aboriginal existence.
When asked about the play’s continued popularity, Ken Williams, Cree playwright and assistant professor of drama at the University of Alberta, said he “believes there are two reasons why. One, we got to see a ‘realistic’ story of First Nations people for the first time. Second, and more importantly, First Nations actors were onstage. Chief Dan George, Willie Dunn and August Schellenberg were featured. It was revolutionary for that alone.”
Run To The Hills by Iron Maiden
White man came across the sea/He brought us pain and misery/He killed our tribes, he killed our creed/He took our game for his own need
Told from an Indigenous perspective, this heavy metal opus to the evils of colonization can be heard loud and proud blaring from cars on most First Nations in this country, without an ounce of guilt. (Adding to the irony, Iron Maiden is from colonizer central, England.) An interesting side note about the song is it specifically references the Cree.
Out on the plains we gave him hell/But many came, too much for Cree/Oh, will we ever be set free?
Waubgeshig Rice, an acclaimed author, former broadcaster and music aficionado, has his own theory on why this song remains so popular when others, such as Tim McGraw’s Indian Outlaw, have fallen out of favour. “It came out in the early 1980s at a time when hardly anyone in mainstream popular culture was speaking out for Indigenous people. So here you had the biggest heavy metal band in the world – from a colonizing country, no less – taking up the Indigenous plight with a power metal ballad. ... So having such a huge song written and performed on our behalf by outsiders – even though they’re all white dudes – was and still is a huge deal. Also, Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson could probably belt out a big lead at the powwow drum, so as far as I’m concerned, he’s always welcome in that circle.”
Billy Jack, directed by Tom Laughlin
And then there’s this movie, a truly iconic film in the Indigenous community. It’s amazing the charisma you can generate with jeans, a black T-shirt and a black hat with a beaded band. For a brief period, it made the term “half-breed” kinda cool. If you’re over 30, chances are you can quote from this movie. All together now: “I’m gonna take this right foot, and I’m gonna whop you on that side of your face, and you wanna know something, there’s not a damn thing you’re gonna be able to do about it.”
My personal favourite line was, “An Indian isn’t afraid to die.”
I don’t think we know the same Indians.
Michael Greyeyes, Cree actor, dancer, choreographer and York University associate professor of theatre, loved Billy Jack. “I love it because I’m a dude and this was literally made for me. He put the side of his boot on the oppressor’s face. But I completely understand that its critics rightly point out that the story didn’t come from us, nor involved us in its telling. Not unusual in its time. I think it’s time to see it updated. Take it back!”
There are persistent rumours that a remake is in the works. So if they’re looking for a slightly over-the-hill half-breed whose crescent kick is a bit rusty, you have my number.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.