By Drew Hayden Taylor
Originally published in June 2013
One of the perks of my profession is getting the opportunity to travel. Lately I have really been abusing my carbon footprint all across the country, with several trips to B.C. and other equally exotic domestic lands, as always spreading the gospel of Native literature to the interested masses.
But most recently, I was basking in the warmth of the midnight sun in the majesty known as The Yukon… Perhaps ‘basking in the sun’ is an exaggeration since it actually snowed, twice, while I was there… in mid-April to boot. Unlike your typical snowbird, I do like my four seasons, but sometimes you have to say enough is enough. To paraphrase that old Byrds song, ‘there’s a time for frostbite and a time for sunburn.’
Whitehorse is an interesting town full of interesting people; over 20,000 of them, I’m told. On the night I was scheduled to read, I had a conversation with one such gentleman who had moved up to the ‘hood from Vancouver. We got to discussing the pros and cons of living in the country versus living in the city. Urban existence had taught us both the wonders of having pizza and Chinese food transported right to your front door… kind of hard to do when you live deep in the Yukon wilderness or on my reserve.
“Back home,” I told him, “if you want food delivered to your door, you have to put out bait.” It took him a moment to get the joke.
Whitehorse is also a happening town. On the opening night of the Yukon Writers Festival, we didn’t get the audience numbers the hosts were hoping for. Evidently, we were competing with the Cowboy Junkies who were also playing town. All week I met people who kept telling me ‘I meant to come to hear you guys read but I was at the Junkies concert.’
It reminded me of the time I was being interviewed on stage at an event in Peterborough – sort of ‘An Evening With Drew Hayden Taylor.’ As I approached the theatre, I noticed a school bus from a local First Nations community. I thought to myself, “Cool, Alderville sent a whole busload of people to this event.” I was feeling very proud, until I noticed there wasn’t a single face from Alderville in my audience. They were all next door at the Robert Munsch reading. Sigh.
I should also point out that in Whitehorse, the town was plastered with signs indicating CATS, the musical, was coming to the city in a month’s time. Of course it’s going to be a local amateur production, but still, CATS! It’s a big show with big possibilities. I wonder if they will be adapting it to reflect the local ecology and environment. Mr. Mistoffelees is a mountain lion. Grizabella is a lynx and Rum Tum Tugger is a bobcat. Now that’s northern theatre at its best.
But perhaps the most unusual event happened on my way to a town called Burwash, almost four hours west of the ‘horse. But first you need some background to appreciate the story.
A few more hours down that same road is a place called Alaska. You may have heard of it. There are a lot of army and air force bases there, remnants of the Cold War. When soldiers from the lower 48 are posted up there, they get little or no travel bonuses to relocate. They have to cover the costs themselves. So most of them opt to drive north, through B.C., up into the Yukon and across to Alaska, pulling a trailer or just stuffing their cars full of what they can. We kept passing cars from Texas, Massachusetts, Oregon, just chalk full of suitcases and boxes.
We stopped at this roadside gas station, the only sign of life for over an hour. Stuck to the window, I noticed a bumper sticker that reeked of American army ego. It said “If you can read this sign, thank your teacher. If you can read this sign in English, thank a soldier.” I stood there for a moment, in the gently falling snow, pondering that statement, and appreciating the irony it presented.
I was in Tlingit country. The vast majority of people who live in the Yukon are of Native heritage. The Yukon had residential schools. I fought the urge to walk up to the sign and cross it out and replace it with “If you can read this sign, thank your teacher. If you can read this sign in English, thank a residential school teacher.” Isn’t it amazing how one little bumper sticker can have two different realities?
Next month I’m off to the big twin metropolises of Rainy River and Fort Frances. I wonder what mischief is waiting for me there.