Drew Hayden Taylor is an Anishnawbe playwright, novelist, filmmaker and journalist who first came to our attention last spring with a Globe and Mail column titled “Seven questions you shouldn’t ask an Indigenous person.”
Having spent a lot of time on the lecture circuit — pre-COVID, of course — Drew found himself routinely fielding stereotypical and downright offensive inquiries from certain audience members.
“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,” Drew says in the piece. “That’s a somewhat substantial responsibility.”
The Globe column, like much of Drew’s work, highlights issues pertaining to Aboriginal life with a humorous take on the topic — an intentional approach to his storytelling.
“Oftentimes humour, and I’m going to say the word the Indigenous way: all cultures use humour to both comment on and reflect the harm of society,” Drew recently said on the Leading With Nice Interview Series. “How I do this, how anybody does this? I don’t know. There’s no formula for it. I can’t tell you how I do it. It’s just experience. There’s that famous quote: tragedy plus time equals comedy, right? There are so many different ways.”
Check out our conversation with Drew below, where he expands further on the importance of humour in connecting with audiences, celebrating history and culture through storytelling, and much more.
One of the interesting things I find that so called allies then when they think they’re being empowering, but in reality they’re not. Is that wonderful phrase? A lot of BIPOC people do not like, I don’t see colour. You think think that’s a good thing, but it’s actually not because our colour is a characteristic of who we are, where we come from, our place in society, how we are viewed by society. And if you don’t see it, that’s a comment on you because we see it in so many different ways.
And welcome to the leading with Nice interview series podcast. My name is Mathieu Yuill, and we want to help you inspire others to build loyalty and get results. Now, today, as always, because I only do things that I think is awesome. I’m really excited about today’s guest Drew Hayden Taylor is his name. The reason why I invited him on today was I was reading the Global and Mail newspaper in Canada for those of you listening abroad. And there is a great article. And the headline was “Seven questions you shouldn’t ask an Indigenous person.”
And I’m personally very interested in learning more about my interaction personally with my friends who are Indigenous and learning more about some of their perspectives and whatnot. And so I was very interested to read the article. And then about halfway through, I was like the dry wit in it was outstanding. And I love if you’re familiar with me and this podcast, I really enjoy that dry piece of humour. And Drew’s writing was just exactly. And then when I learned about him, I was not surprised. So here’s a bit of his bio.
He’s an award winning playwright, novelist, filmmaker and journalist. He was born and still lives on the Curve Lake First Nation, which is just outside of Peterborough. He has done everything from performing stand up comedy at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C. To serving as the artistic director of Canada’s Premier Indigenous theater company, Native Earth Performing Arts. The author of Get this 33 books. His next big project includes season two of the Apt and documentary series Going Native, a series he co produced, co wrote and hosts, as well as the release of Me Tomorrow, the fourth in a series of nonfiction books exploring unexpected aspects of Indigenous culture.
Drew, then thanks. I really am honoured. Thank you so much for making time for this today.
You said that to all your guests.
Well, I do, but I am honoured. Like, you can be doing a lot of things right now, but here you are. So I do super appreciate that. And also I’m really excited to people who listen to this podcast regularly know that we share questions in advance so we can both be prepared. And I’m just really excited to hear your perspective and your thoughts and answers. And one of the things that she had just stood out from your article was one of the points you made is like, I’m going to paraphrase.
It was like, don’t ask me if I know Sharon, who’s Indigenous, right? Ask you like, we all hate it as Canadians when we travel abroad. And Jim, he lives across the country. But also there’s another one where somebody asks, what do you like? The Royal Youth think of this and you’re like, there’s like, 60 different languages and tribes or more than that, they all have different motivations and needs and wants so clearly. Today we have this conversation I have in mind. I’m talking to you about you and your point of views, but still, it’s so valuable.
So very sad. News came to the surface just before this podcast last week here in Toronto. So I’m dating this a bit where we’re recording in early June 2021. And that was the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of a former residential school in Camloops. And there’s a time this may not have even been used in Canada, but today it has, which is a positive sign that people care about it. So I think the question a lot of people have I have from where you sit, what can Canadians do to be better allies and stay motivated to make Canada a better place for Indigenous populations?
That’s a tough question. Their entire library is written on this and everybody, it’s like a Rorschach test. Everybody has their own interpretation of what that journey is. I can’t give you an answer for that. For me, I think a lot of it has to do with education, having to understand in reality, there are more similarities between our cultures than differences, and that’s always important to keep. And it’s those differences that I think makes us all unique and special and interesting. I cannot think of a more boring society than all one culture or one people, whatever.
And I grew up on a reserve. But as I was just telling you earlier, I love going out and getting Korean or Thai food. That has become so much a part of my life. And I shudder at the thought of the world without such unique and interesting cuisine. So how can I be a better ally? How to better understand It’s just keep your ears open, your mouth shut to watch, to learn to understand if we are as a nation, as an Indigenous people complaining about something, there’s usually a good reason we’re not doing it just because we’re bored.
And it’s the afternoon on a Tuesday. There’s a very specific reason why we have issues with various aspects of Canadian culture, and I think one of the best way to help is to understand that, not to dismiss it, not to argue against it, but to take an objective look, because chances are, I would say 99 times out of 100 people listen and do that they will come away going. I would probably feel the same way in the same situation. Yeah. No.
So I want to take that we just talked about and really Hone in on something specific then so oftentimes what happens with this podcast is there’ll be somebody in a leadership position that will hear an idea or hear, like, an actionable item, and I get an email back a few weeks or a few months later saying, oh, I tried that thing and I did it. So right now I know because it’s happening with clients that I work with. There’s a drive and organization saying, oh, we want to support Indigenous people.
We want to do some social action in our organization. And what I see happens in whether you swap out whatever it is for whatever. If it was the environment two years ago. And what happens is these companies, like spring into action and they think they’re doing good. Have you seen a good example of that in practice you tell us about?
Not really. I mean, I know it exists. I don’t scribble the stuff down. Most people are more pinned to remember the stuff that doesn’t work. That the stuff that does work. One of the interesting things I find that allies so called allies, then when they think they’re being empowering, but in reality, they’re not. Is that wonderful phrase? A lot of BIPOC people do not like it’s. The phrase I don’t see colour. Yes. I understand where you come from, where you’re saying, you think that’s a good thing, but it’s actually not because our colour is a characteristic of who we are, where we come from, our place in society, how they are viewed by society.
And if you don’t see it, that’s a comment on you because we see it in so many different ways. Yeah.
I find that so tone deaf.
My good friend Tristan, he was on we had a few episodes ago. I called him the only non white guy in this place called Karen Park, Saskatchewan. It’s a little tiny town, used to be a former military base, and we were talking about this very topic, how people at his town will say that to him. And he’s like, Well, you know, your neighbour, when I go to the grocery store and they just stare at me, they see colour, right. So they’re being more honest about it than you are.
And I was like, that is such good perspective to say, I want to see colour, and I’m helping you like, no, I totally get it. So one of the things, too, is that I’m always curious about and forgive me if I’ve done this because it’s not my intention. But you’re an artist, right. And you may have done this, but you may not have. So I don’t want to come from a place of assumption, like when you were growing up and you discovered that you had a talent and you found joy in this, were you or were you not thinking like, oh, I want to write about Canada’s First Nations or this just happened organically.
Was this something that you were driven by, or was it just a thing?
Well, I discovered when I was young I wanted to be a writer. But at that time, as I always tell people about 1,000 years old, when I was growing up, we had two or three television stations. And I say this and a lot of people don’t understand me when I say that those stations were very snowy.
And so I would read a lot. And the more I read, the more I realized I wanted to be a writer because I love the concept of writing. You’re creating a work of art out of a pigment of your imagination. It is very cool, very wonderful. And what I want to do one of the great things about being a writer is the universe that you create. You have more control over that universe than you have of the universe you live in. And I kind of like that.
However, in school, we never studied any Indigenous literature. There was no Indigenous literature that was in our school that was in our library. So I wasn’t sure Indigenous people wrote. And I remember asking some people I asked my grade of an English teacher if it was possible to make a living from creative writing. And without looking up from his desk, he said, no, not really. And my mother said she didn’t understand why I wanted to be a writer. It wouldn’t get me anywhere. So I gave up wanting to be a writer.
So I wanted to be a writer as a kid. But the older I got apparent to me that there wasn’t much point in being a writer. So I gave it up, and I didn’t re embrace my art until I was, at least in my mid 20s. It wasn’t really a burning pain when I was young because it had been stamped out. But it’s so much not a case of me finding my art. My art had to track me down, kick me in the ass and say, You’re a writer, snap out of it and get writing.
But I think that, on the other hand, the good part of that is it gave me a chance to season, to age like a good wine, like a good cheese, because I really didn’t have much to write about. I didn’t know if I probably wasn’t a good writer. When I was young, I needed to get out, have my heart broken, see the world before I became a writer, and it all turned out for the best. What I’m really excited about the way I describe myself is I’m a contemporary storyteller.
It used to be storytelling was an oral job, an oral way of telling stories. And then gradually, as civilization grew and changed, it went into theatre. It went into print, it went into television, it went into radio, went into movies, and in today’s day and age. Even video games now have intricate and deep narratives within them. And I work in so many different fields. As I said, I’m a playwright, I’m a novelist, short story writer. I do nonfiction, I do documentaries, television. I consider myself a contemporary storyteller because there’s so many different ways to tell stories in the same age, and I’m still exploring as many of them as I can.
There’s a great commercial. I think it plays in front of movies, or I forget where I’ve seen it. But it’s a black actor who is saying, like, hey, Gatekeepers, those who, like, write the plays in movies and television shows. My first five years of additions were all like, drug dealer, gang member. So when you were coming up as a writer, were people expecting a certain kind of content from you? Or was that because writing is sometimes anonymous from seeing somebody, at least, did you not find that?
Well, I remember I wrote an episode of a show called Street Legal.
Oh, yeah, of course.
And I actually saw notes from the story editor to the other writers, from the producer to the story Editors on a native character. I’d written saying, cut back on his lines and make him sound more Indian. And so he was walking around going, always, you ask questions, all this sort of weird stuff and annoyed the hell out of me. And I also worked on orth of 60, which was a horrible experience where they basically just rewrote everything. The interesting is today. For obvious reasons. I’m known as the native writer.
I could call in to work on native projects, which isn’t a bad thing. I don’t mind that it’s the world. I know, but I frequently get asked, do I ever want to work on projects that have absolutely nothing to do with the Indigenous culture? And I go, yeah, I would love to. There’s a wonderful writer down in the States named Rebecca Roanhorse, who wrote a very amazing award-winning science fiction fantasy novel called Trail of Lightening of Lightning, and it takes place on a Navajo reservation. And it’s what would happen after some apocalyptic environmental problem where the novel reservation builds a wall around itself to keep all the hungry white people out.
But because of this, whatever happened, all the Navajo gods and demons come back to life. So it’s these people living regular, everyday existence on a reserve, suddenly having to deal with these pesky gods and demons. And it won all the major science fiction awards. And it was so good that she was hired by Star Wars to write a Star Wars novel. And she did. And that’s one of the kind of dreams I have. Except I’m more of a Star Trek fan than a Star Wars fan.
But that kind of thing I would love to do. I’m very happy writing Indigenous stories. What’s really interesting about this time in history is the concept of genre writing. It used to be that in the Indigenous community, Indigenous writers. There are basically three themes that were coming out of the Indigenous community, both in terms of novels, plays, poetry, et cetera. They’re either historical narratives, victim narratives or stories exploring the concept of post contact stress disorder. But in the last ten to 15 years, there’s been this explosion of genre fiction where Indigenous people are culturally appropriating all these different genres of fiction from the dominant culture and Indigenizing them.
So you have people writing. Daniel Heath Justice wrote a trilogy that’s basically his version of Lord of the Rings, where there are dwarves and elves and swords and magic. Another friend of mine wrote a collection of Indigenous international Indigenous erotica Tom King. When he’s not writing award winning fiction nonfiction, his hobby is writing murder mysteries. Right? And now there’s this big explosion of Indigenous science fiction. Robbie’s wrote a book called Moon of the Crested Snow, which is more of an apocalyptic book. Sherry Demerlane wrote a book called The Merrill Thieves, which was highly successful.
I wrote a collection of Indigenous science fiction stories. My first novel was a Native vampire novel. I’m just about to sell my new novel, which is an Indigenous horror novel. So what’s happening right now is really exciting is we’re beginning to tell our stories, not just in his original three themes, but the sky is the limit.
Very cool. I think one of the things when I was 20 or 21, I spent a couple of summers just nor the Perry Sound. And I met a guy that was a social worker. He was Indigenous, and he was a social worker.
And we would meet.
Like, how many days off? He just happened to be in the hangout at the cafe and he would tell me stories. He’s a great story teller about his work, right? What I found often about it was like he wasn’t telling me Indigenous stories. He was telling me stories but were flavored by his experiences. And it really grew me to appreciate that thing. I don’t have a word for it. And I love that. You say, of course I’ll take other work. I’m a writer. That’s what I want to do.
I’d be stupid to turn down.
The interesting thing about this whole thing is say, at the end of the day, when I go home from wherever I happen to be, 95% of the books I read, the television I watch are mainstream. I watch The Simpsons Big Bang Theory, et cetera. And I enjoy them, and I laugh. And 90% of the people who buy my novels and go see my plays. Just because of the ratio of non Native people to Native people, 90% of the people who are familiar who read my work are actually non Native.
So again, I keep going about there are more similarities and differences. People can enjoy the stuff I write because I enjoy the stuff other people write. Other non-Native writers right.
It’s behind a paywall, but it’s worth the mail subscription. I’m going to put a link to the article I read of yours, the Seven Things you’d never say to an Indigenous person. And what reminded me to do that is you talk about some of your friends who have appropriated that talk exclusively in Simpsons Quotes.
Sims, Star Trek quotes.
I have the same friends. You have this line in there. It’s like, Well, what can we do? And you’re like, well, how about stop making our women disappear? So what I’m curious about is how do you take these subjects that are heavy, but you write it in a way that is so approachable. And it’s because of humour. Is that just the way you were raised, or is that something you’ve crafted over the years?
Oftentimes humour. I’m going to say the word the Indigenous way, but it’s all cultures use humour to both comment on and reflect the harm of society. How I do this, how anybody does this? I don’t know. There’s no formula for it I can’t give you. I tell you how I do it. It’s just experience there’s that famous Woody Allen, I think quote, tragedy plus time equals comedy, right? There’s so many different ways I can’t tell you how I do it. There’s some stuff where you go. No, I can’t do that.
It’s either too soon or that is not funny. Like, the whole thing about the 215 in Cam Loops. I don’t know how to make that funny unless you make a really ironic black reference to something using that term. But it’s like something I wouldn’t want to try right now.
Yeah, I also find because I’ve been accused of being funny sometimes, and I just find like, I look at things and I see humour and a lot of it right away. And that could be maybe that’s a coping mechanism. I don’t know. But I feel the same way because people say, how do you be so funny? It’s like, I don’t know, man. Also, I ingest a lot of humour. It’s funny. The two references to snowy channels in Street Legal, could you imagine, like, if you wanted Binge watch Street Legal back in the day, you’d have to commit four years and watch every Thursday night or whatever it was.
Yeah, man. So three decades of writing, you’ve been celebrated, which I think is fair to say. You’ve been awarded. You’ve traveled the world. I mentioned a few things you’re working on in your direction. But what do you have on the go right now? Because before we started recording, you mentioned a few things you’re working on. You wrote, like, 400 plays or something during the Pandemic as well.
I wrote two plays during the Pandemic, and we’re going to be workshopping them, hopefully August, September. I have meet tomorrow coming out, I think in September, October, and hopefully my new novel. As I said, I’m waiting to find out. I have a meeting on Friday with a publisher about it. I’m in pre production to start shooting season two of Going Native. I’m still writing articles for the Globe. There are so many things. My mind is constantly going going. I adopted one of my plays into a screenplay.
Just a few things hanging around.
Here’S. One reflection. I want to just say very plainly for people that look like me and might sound like me. And this is my learning. You might be tempted when you meet somebody like Drew. You’re like, oh, Indigenous. Oh, writer. How can we get you to do Indigenous writing things for us and what I want to encourage you with, man. Honestly, I promise Drew, like, 20 to 30 minutes, but I can easily take him the whole afternoon. Just like shooting the Poop. I need some good laughter today.
I’ve laughed. So my learning for you, if you look like me, sound like me, is like, Drew is a dude who writes. It’s not about not seeing colour. Definitely be aware of it. But it’s not about like, oh, there’s a person who’s not white. Well, let me make sure to make sure that they get the front seat in any question they have about this. That’s not necessarily the right way. Let people be themselves. Read the Globe, read your stuff, read other authors and ingest other media.
So that’s what I say. Thank you so much for being here today. It was a pleasure.
It was fun, sir.
Before we go, I just want to thank the people that put this together. Austin Pomeroy man. He’s the audio editor. He does a great job. Geoff Anhorn takes this video, makes it look great. Jamie Hunter is our content manager. If you saw this, you probably saw it online. He did all that work. Sam Forson did all the graphic designs for the posts for the podcast logo. Cindy Craik does all the booking. Kerry Cotton is our account manager, and as I do this podcast, she keeps the company running, so I appreciate it.
And Naomi Grosman helps with research and writing the questions. I just sit here and get to talk. It’s amazing. I have the best job at all. So thank you, everybody who helped put this together. And again, thank you. We will see you next time. Oh, before I go, where can we find out more about you? Where should they go? Aside from Googling your name?
Well, yeah, I’m all over the net. You can go to my website, www.drewhaydentaylor.com. That’s a good beginning. And I’m on Twitter.
Oh, yeah. Oh, my gosh. There is one. As I was getting ready. Okay to I have pull this up. You had one today that made me howl. Oh, yeah. I love this. About So tweets. Read Out Loud by Mathieu you all Drew Hayden Taylor. I’m envisioning a musical called Eagerton Ryerson. Sort of a cross between Sweeney Todd. Don’t eat his Indian tacos and send her the opera where he’ll be prowling the secret quarters of the University. Wondering what Indigenous people are doing there. That was so good, man.
I loved it.
That is all. Check it out. I’ll let you guys again.