Putting the ‘you’ in ‘humility


By Drew Hayden Taylor

Originally published in August 2012

Last month I talked about respect, one of the more important components of the Anishnawbe teachings known as ‘the Seven Grandfathers’, all important for healthy, adult living.

And I am not just talking about Native lives. There’s enough truth here for everyone.

For those not in the know, these beliefs consist of wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility and truth, each with a special teaching behind it.

This month, I would like to talk about humility. In this case, my own.

As an individual and an artist, I have been blessed with a certain amount of success. Twenty-three published books along with a host of theatre productions, television shows and awards. The most recent being the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal for contributions of Canadian culture.

So I have been frequently told I have a lot to be proud of. And I am. However, that in itself can be a double-edged sword. Culturally, Native people by nature are humble… so I blame any arrogance I may have on my White half.

Still, there are many things that happen in my life that help to keep any overly developed sense of pride down to an acceptable level. Every time something fabulous happens, what I call the Law of Trickster occurs, meaning that something equally and reciprocally embarrassing happens, helping me keep my feet on the ground.  I’ll give you some examples.

Recently I was in Toronto, nominated as a finalist for the White Pine award, an honour bestowed on the most popular novel in the Ontario High School library system. I, along with the other nine nominees, were asked to man an autograph booth so an estimated 2,000 students from all over the province, who were the selection committee, could get their books signed. So there I sat, waiting for the throngs of eager young writers to show up so I could sign my Governor General award nominee book, Motorcyles & Sweetgrass.

The first young student arrived and pulled out her book.  I raised my pen in eagerness, and she said right off the bat “I really didn’t care for it.  It’s okay I guess. But I noticed a bunch of technical mistakes.”

She spent 10 minutes going through the book to show me numerous typos. And to top it off, I didn’t win. I didn’t even make the top three.

Just a month ago, at a local restaurant, I happened to run into an old retired English teacher of mine from high school. Briefly, as he munched away on some pickerel, we caught up. He told me how proud he was of me and to keep up the good work. I thanked him and moved on into the other room.

As he was about to leave, he spotted me again and came over with one last thought. “Oh by the way, if you should run into Joseph Boyden, tell him my wife and I absolutely love his novel, Three Day Road, and he has two huge fans in the Kawarthas.  He is truly one of Canada’s great writing treasures.”

As my English teacher walked away, I managed to say in a small voice that I don’t think he heard… “But I… I’ve written two novels… pretty good ones I’ve been told.”

And people wonder why I drink.

Humility, thy name is Drew.

But as most people know, there is no greater force for keeping a man’s (or woman’s) ego down than family. No matter what I do, where I go or what I achieve, I am still basically a 12-year-old boy with an over-active imagination.  I am almost 50 and I don’t think that will change.

So when I get too pleased or proud, I remember the words of a cousin of mine. Frequently when I lecture here in Canada or around the world, one of the first things I mention is that I’m from Curve Lake, and all my stories and my sense of humour come from my family and community. Some time ago I happened to run into one of my cousins who lives in a big city that I had recently done several readings and lectures at.  I hadn’t seen this cousin in a while and was catching up.

I asked if he/she (don’t want to tell too much) had ever run into anybody who had been to one of my lectures or read my books. This person shook their head and said, quite emphatically, that they never tell anybody that they meet or work with that they know or are related to me. For some reason, he/she didn’t want to be associated with me, in any way. Needless to say that was a bit of a surprise. And it hurt a bit.

If that doesn’t make you humble, I don’t know what will.