By Drew Hayden Taylor
Originally published in September 2012
Anybody familiar with Woody Allen’s recent “Midnight In Paris” will understand my nostalgia. It tells of a man magically traveling back to the 1920s where he would rub elbows with such seminal artists as Hemingway, Picasso, Dali and Fitzgerald who had no idea they were in a defining time.
Upon reflection, the end of the 1980s and early 1990s were to me like the 1920s of Paris. While I have little interest in travelling back to those long gone days of 10 cent chicken wings and leaner tummies, I do remember socializing and partying with the likes of little known Native actors and writers like Tomson Highway, Daniel David Moses, Graham Greene, Gary Farmer, and others. We’d all sit around wondering why we weren’t rich and famous, and bitching about how expensive chicken wings were.
Today, we’re just wondering why we aren’t rich.
To most Canadians today, these names are well known and prime examples of Aboriginal excellence. To me, that special era was the beginning of what I refer to as the Contemporary Native Theatrical Renaissance.
Someday books will be written about those halcyon days, of “The Rez Sisters” and “Dances With Wolves.” Over the years, this kind of Indigenous cultural renaissance has spread to a variety of other disciplines and fields, far too numerous to mention.
But this wasn’t always the case. Growing up on the Curve Lake First Nation (back then before the political renaissance when it was simply called a reserve), such national and international examples of Indigenous talent and expertise were unknown to me.
As a struggling young writer trying to find his voice, it was disheartening that there were very few literary role models of Aboriginal descent for me to emulate and embrace. There was the odd book, most notably Marie Campbell’s “Halfbreed” or the fabled “Tales From The Smokehouse,” written by the great Aboriginal author Herbert T Shwartz, but even those didn’t make their way to our small village library or the school library till long after I had left to find my own personal renaissance.
Luckily, today’s First Nations youth is not suffering that same fate. There has been a humongous shift in the larger Canadian Aboriginal universe.
As a result, there are numerous masters of many disciplines frolicking about in Canadian society. There are fields of study where you can’t shake a Ph.D. without hitting an Aboriginal expert (that is to say, an expert that is Aboriginal, not an expert on Aboriginals).
There’s a prominent non-Native woman in the States, an ex-con of some sort I believe, who is famous for saying ‘It’s a good thing.’ Up here in the Native community, we think it’s a great thing. And every year, it’s celebrated and broadcast on television for Canada to appreciate.
As a freelance writer, one of the projects I have been privileged and honoured to be involved with is the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards. I have written the show for the last two years. This is a gala evening that celebrates the highest achievements of Aboriginal people in 14 challenging and diverse fields like medicine, arts, law, business and commerce, education and politics. This is truly an expression of the renaissance at its finest.
For thousands of years, Native people were highly successful as businessmen, artists, politicians, soldiers, and displayed a plethora of other highly sought talents. Past and present, you could not survive in this country that would eventually be called Canada without a healthy and vast knowledge of the land.
Then, through no fault of our own, there was a multi-generational dip, a black hole if you will, in social, political and artistic accomplishments due to the supposed and questionable educational environment supplied by residential schools.
Keeping with the renaissance metaphor, those could be considered as the Dark Ages that preceded the European Renaissance. Ironically, it was the church that kept the light of civilization burning during the original Dark Ages (several murderous Crusades notwithstanding) , and then a few hundred years later in residential schools, the churches were the ones peeing on the Aboriginal light. Still, it burned bright and today it continues to light the path.
In today’s world, it’s been said education is the next buffalo – free range and plentiful. The more you consume, the healthier and stronger you become. My people, the Ojibway in central Ontario, never had the buffalo but we understand the symbolism. When necessary, we substitute deer, pickerel or KFC. And as you know, you can’t have a decent renaissance without a good meal.
A lot has changed since my childhood in Curve Lake, and my young adulthood in the big city. Maybe someday Woody Allen will do a movie about those decades long past.
Midnight In Toronto. I want Johnny Depp to play me.