Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright and humorist.
As an Indigenous writer, I used to spend a lot of time on the lecture circuit in pre-COVID times, spreading the gospel of Native literature. Many of the questions I would get from the audience dealt with the art of writing. But habitually, I would be asked questions requiring me to answer on behalf of the entire First Nations population of Canada, all 634 communities, and the more than 1.6 million people in Canada who identify as Indigenous. That’s a somewhat substantial responsibility. Full disclosure – I don’t personally know all 1.6 million. There are a few hundred in the Northwest Territories who were out of town when I was last up there.
I’ve travelled a bit. I’ve powwowed, corn souped, canoed and beaded with the best of them, but still, that is an awesome obligation, being asked to speak for an entire country of Indigenous people. And as an innate storyteller who has been told he’s one-seventh trickster (in the Native community, you become oddly good at fractions), I might have occasionally exaggerated the truth a bit.
Regardless, I would like to share with you the top seven frequently asked questions by the settler community that I have had to slalom through in my career.
I used to know a Native woman named Sharon. Don’t suppose you might know her?
Real Answer: Don’t suppose you have a last name? A province? A nation, maybe?
Annoyed Answer: Actually, yes, we were in rehab together, just after we met at Oka. She makes a mean dreamcatcher.
Indigenous people don’t have to pay taxes, right?
Real Answer: Only if the money comes from a source on the reserve – i.e. if I have one of those lucrative jobs at the gas station, convenience store, band office or post office, I’d be sitting pretty. Unfortunately, the theatre district on my reserve doesn’t pay a lot of royalties. So yes, many of us pay taxes.
Annoyed Answer: Actually we don’t, but it’s augmented by the dominant culture when they pay their PST (Privileged Status Tax).
Do you have an Indian name?
Real Answer: An increasingly politically incorrect question but still frequently asked. Drew Hayden Taylor is the name on both my birth certificate and status card. So therefore, it is both my Indian name (or as the current political winds blow, my Indigenous name) and my colonized name.
Annoyed Answer: Kumar Mukherjee
Do you have a spirit name?
Real Answer: Having a spirit name is a personal gift, usually from an elder. It’s not something you share with a stranger. In fact it’s kind of a rude question. Sharing it is a private decision.
Annoyed Answer: Casper.
What do you people want?
Real Answer: Well, first of all, not to be grouped as one people. At time of contact, it’s estimated there were approximately 50 to 60 separate languages and dialects spoken in the soon-to-be-named Canada. They represent completely different nations with different priorities. That is like discovering Europe. It would be like asking, “What do Europeans want? Stronger cheeses? Wine with subtler tannins and more of an oak aftertaste? Longer sausages? Fewer immigrants? More immigrants?” There is no one answer to that question.
Annoyed Answer: Well, to stop having our women disappear or die. Stop kidnapping our children. Let us drink decent water. And to stop answering stupid questions. Let me know if this doesn’t translate well.
Isn’t the fact you speak (or write) in English its own form of cultural appropriation?
Real Answer: Cultural appropriation is usually something done willingly, eagerly, if it’s sometimes not morally correct. I have a group of friends that speak pretty much in The Simpsons and Star Trek quotes. That’s a form of cultural appropriation and they love it. The fact I and the vast majority of Indigenous people speak English was not generally done willingly or eagerly. It was done at the end of a metaphorical gun, with little choice involved. Some might argue no more than rape could be considered consensual sex.
Annoyed Answer: Yes, I do so enjoy learning the difference between split infinitives and dangling participles. Thank you, Britain, for that and rice pudding.
And my personal favourite. It’s been almost 40 years and still going fairly strong:
You don’t look very Native …
Real Answer: As Popeye (whom I believe was one quarter Cherokee) once said, I am what I am. I’m diabetic. There is a boil water advisory on my reserve. I frequently hear the owl call my name. What more do you need? And my blue eyes, they’re just a reflection of the sky above us.
Annoyed Answer: Where did you do your undergraduate work in identifying Indigenous people? Is this your post-graduate work?
I hope you paid attention. There will be an exam in the morning.