Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.
Last week, two Indigenous women were each awarded the Governor General’s Award, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary achievements, for their writing: Michelle Good for her novel, Five Little Indians, and Kim Senklip Harvey for her play, Kamloopa: An Indigenous Matriarch Story. The announcement came a few days after the tragic discovery of the remains of 215 children on property belonging to the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Five Little Indians deals with the trauma of five residential school survivors as they mature into adulthood. It’s bleak and blunt, and the characters’ ability to survive is empowering. Kamloopa, while not dealing with residential schools directly, takes place in the town where the recent discovery occurred, specifically at a large pow wow, something the residential school authorities would have found extremely counterproductive to what they were trying to do – eradicate Indigenous culture.
Art has a way of shining a spotlight on difficult topics. And the topic de jour/mois/an – in fact, the topic of several decades – in the Indigenous community is residential schools. They are the source of deep trauma for generations of Indigenous families, and their existence (perhaps in a way that at first seems perverse) has inspired a sea of work that is painful, healing and beautiful, all at once.
It’s been said – by who I’m not sure, I was away that day in school (not a residential one though) – that the best or most affecting art, in whatever its form, is frequently inspired by times of stress and dysfunction. Many of the great novels, movies, visual arts etc., find their origins in war, famine, oppression and whatever else the rest of the apocalyptic horsemen bring. I’m sure entire libraries, or in these electronic times, entire thumb drives have been written about humanity’s need to translate horror into the beauty of art as both an attempt to understand the evils of what happened, as well as a way to remind future generations how screwed up societies can get. Picasso’s Guernica isn’t just a pretty picture.
Calm, peaceful times just aren’t that interesting to write about. How many great novels are written on the beach between Mai Tais?
What I refer to as the Contemporary Indigenous Literary Renascence began around the mid-1980s, with the sudden explosion of influential plays like The Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway, non-fiction like Halfbreed by Maria Campbell and novels such as Slash by Jeannette Armstrong. So as a result, the past 40 odd years of Indigenous literary output focuses largely on the horrors of colonization, with the residential school system being the lighthouse burning brightly.
I read somewhere, in America I believe, that there should be a clear division between church and state. Residential schools are probably the best example of why that’s important. They were a joint effort between the federal government and Catholic, Anglican and a few other churches who had a grievous misunderstanding of what “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” actually meant. Two alpha male patriarchal institutions combining forces to subjugate the innocent. It could be an Avengers story.
Entire generations of Indigenous children were abused and violated. Languages were attacked. Cultures threatened. All horrible in itself. But as was proven at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, children died. And yet, as some settler individuals have put it, Indigenous people keep complaining about this thing that happened a long time ago. “Get over it” I believe is the T-shirt term. There have been similar reactions to the Holocaust and slavery, usually just before many of these same people whine about something really important like their favourite team losing a hockey game. I know, apples and oranges, but I’d like to see a painting or musical explaining that tragedy.
Residential school stories have recently become an industry unto themselves. A genre of their own. People want to talk about their experiences. Sharing promotes healing. A quick glance at books published in the last decade or so shows the effect those large, ominous brick monoliths of tragedy have had on Indigenous literature. Witness the popularity and impact of Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, Kiss of the Fur Queen by Tomson Highway or Indian School Days by Basil Johnston.
The same could be said with theatre: Where the Blood Mixes by Kevin Loring, Children Of God by Corey Payette and my own contribution to the genre, God and the Indian.
In the medium of movies, Where the Spirit Lives, Rhymes For Young Ghouls and Indian Horse – adapted from Richard Wagamese’s equally powerful novel – all highlight the hypocrisy of government and church, pretending to do what’s best for Indigenous children.
The 215 children at Kamloops … well, we’ve been talking about this for some time. It was never a secret. I think people are now listening.
As Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s book about colonization once put it, “The horror … the horror….”