The Chat(ter) Box Interview with Drew Hayden Taylor

By Maryann Henck

DHTDrew Hay­den Tay­lor is an award-win­ning Cana­di­an Ojib­way author of plays, short sto­ries, nov­els, and crit­i­cal essays. He has lec­tured world­wide on a vari­ety of Native issues and earned the rep­u­ta­tion of a true cul­tur­al medi­a­tor versed in con­fronting cul­tur­al mis­un­der­stand­ings, stereo­types, and prej­u­dices – prefer­ably with humor. Recent­ly, I con­duct­ed a Skype inter­view with him that I’d like to refer to it as the “chat(ter) box inter­view” since it all began with some infor­mal chat­ting and turned into a bona fide inter­view. Curi­ous? Then read on.



South of the Bor­der – A Mat­ter of Perspective?

Maryann Henck: Hi, Drew. Thanks for meet­ing with me today on Skype. Are you ready for an inter­view for the Amer­i­can Stud­ies Blog? I’m think­ing of call­ing it “South of the Bor­der – A Mat­ter of Per­spec­tive?” What comes to mind when you hear that?

Drew Hay­den Tay­lor: South of the Bor­der… when I hear that term – based on cul­tur­al ref­er­ences I have come across com­ing pri­mar­i­ly from Amer­i­ca – it means Mex­i­co. How­ev­er, from a Cana­di­an per­spec­tive, it means Amer­i­ca for obvi­ous geo­graph­i­cal rea­sons – except for the city of Detroit, which is direct­ly north of Wind­sor, Ontario.

MH: Point tak­en. Allow me to rephrase: With the excep­tion of Detroit, the rest of the Unit­ed States is clear­ly south of the Cana­di­an bor­der. Now what do you think I’d like to have your per­spec­tive on?

DHT: So you are ask­ing for my per­spec­tive on Amer­i­cans!? Okay. No problem.

Cred­it: Nation­al Film Board of Cana­da. Pho­tothèque / Library and Archives Canada

MH: Exact­ly. Let’s start off with this ques­tion: As a Native per­son from Cana­da, what is your take on bor­ders in general?

DHT: Well, tra­di­tion­al­ly – and that is a loaded term – we did not rec­og­nize bor­ders. They are man-made cre­ations, sort of a geo-polit­i­cal state­ment of where things begin and end. Often those bor­ders are made by peo­ple who have noth­ing to do with that coun­try (e.g. the divid­ing up of the Mid­dle East and Africa after World War I), where­as Native peo­ple used nat­ur­al for­ma­tions to define bor­ders like rivers, moun­tains, deserts, etc. Often they are com­plete­ly arbi­trary like lon­gi­tude and lat­i­tude lines, e.g. the 49th par­al­lel or the bor­der divid­ing North and South Korea.

MH: In a nut­shell, bor­ders are arti­fi­cial struc­tures meant to sep­a­rate people.

DHT: And polit­i­cal philosophies.

MH: So how do these bor­ders affect Native rela­tions above and below the 49th parallel?

DHT: They are hard to ignore since how Native peo­ple are today is reflect­ed in a num­ber of ways. For one thing, we still try to car­ry on with our tra­di­tions and ways of life, and many nations exist on both sides of the bor­der: Ojib­way, Iro­quois, etc. How­ev­er, in the two hun­dred and how ever many years the Amer­i­can Gov­ern­ment has been inter­fer­ing with its Indige­nous peo­ple, the British and then Cana­di­an Gov­ern­ments have at the same time been deal­ing with Native peo­ple dif­fer­ent­ly – with dif­fer­ent man­dates and meth­ods that have sub­tly changed the cul­tures. Going way back to the Pequot Wars in the ear­ly 1600s until fair­ly recent­ly, the rela­tion­ship between Natives and Amer­i­cans has been one of aggres­sion; yet there was much more inter­ac­tion and co-depen­dence up here in Cana­da until basi­cal­ly the turn of the 19th/20th cen­tu­ry. As all cul­tures and soci­eties evolve, it can’t be helped that each com­mu­ni­ty is slight­ly changed and affect­ed by these cen­turies of dif­fer­ent atti­tudes and histories.

MH: Since you’ve trav­eled to count­less reserves and Native com­mu­ni­ties across North Amer­i­ca, you must have noticed dif­fer­ences or per­haps even advan­tages or dis­ad­van­tages on one side of the bor­der or the oth­er. Can you say some­thing about this?

DHT: In many ways it’s apples and oranges. Up here in Cana­da we have a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ship with the gov­ern­ment and access to a lot more grants and ser­vices. In Amer­i­ca, I some­times got the impres­sion that the gov­ern­ment treats their Indige­nous peo­ple almost like back­ward and impov­er­ished chil­dren. Up here, we have our own nation­al and polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions, our own tele­vi­sion net­work, many orga­ni­za­tions and busi­ness­es that put us on a par with main­stream Cana­da. With that being said, there are still many prob­lems in the approx­i­mate­ly 630 Native com­mu­ni­ties across Cana­da: pover­ty, ill health, poor edu­ca­tion, etc. My knowl­edge of the work­ings of trib­al life in the States is very lim­it­ed. In Cana­da, our Native com­mu­ni­ties run the gamut of poor to rich, with a strong mid­dle class in the cen­ter. From what lit­tle I know, in Amer­i­ca, oth­er than casi­no com­mu­ni­ties, most are poor, but I could be wrong.

MH: So, in your view, there are some seri­ous advan­tages to being Native on your side of the border?

DHT: I sup­pose so, but the grass is always green­er… or red­der on the oth­er side of the fence.

B2MH: Or the bor­der, for that mat­ter. Okay let’s take a look at your writ­ings. My per­son­al favorite is your cham­ber play, In a World Cre­at­ed by a Drunk­en God, the one in which Jason Pierce, a half-Native/half-white Cana­di­an man, gets an unex­pect­ed vis­it from Har­ry Dieter, an all-too omni­scient Amer­i­can busi­ness­man. Har­ry claims to be Jason’s half-broth­er and presents him with quite an unusu­al request. Not only do I find the moral dilem­ma of the play intrigu­ing, but I also like your take on Cana­di­an-Amer­i­can rela­tions. Would you like to com­ment on that play?

DHT: Well, as you know, it sprang from a cer­tain amount of my own per­son­al won­der­ing. I used the char­ac­ter of Jason to explore and height­en the sense of anti-Amer­i­can­ism that some­times occurs up here. Yet I tried to show a sense of equal­i­ty between them. I often view the sto­ry as a play about two broth­ers from the per­spec­tive of two sin­gle chil­dren, and the same can be said for Cana­di­an-Amer­i­can rela­tions. Both coun­tries are on the same con­ti­nent, descend­ed from British ori­gins, eman­ci­pat­ed, and trav­el­ing down the same roads but in dif­fer­ent vehicles.

MH: Yes, Jason is quite anti-Amer­i­can and likes to take jabs at Har­ry. Are the Amer­i­cans so unin­formed about their neigh­bors to the north?

DHT: Some are and some aren’t. Actu­al­ly one of the best quotes I ever heard was some­body say­ing that they don’t like Amer­i­cans (plur­al), but they like Amer­i­cans indi­vid­u­al­ly. Keep in mind, many Cana­di­ans get their knowl­edge about Amer­i­cans from TV or loud obnox­ious tourists. So iron­i­cal­ly, most Cana­di­ans often know more about Amer­i­cans than most Amer­i­cans know about Canadians.

MH: Thanks for tak­ing the time for a lit­tle Skype inter­view. Maybe we can per­suade you to be a guest blog­ger in the near future.

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