I had a ticklish moment some time back when the artistic director of a native theatre group asked me to adapt a Tlingit creation story, How The Raven Stole The Sun, into a dance theatre piece for her company. Truth be told, as an Ojibway from the wilds of central Ontario, I know very little about the Tlingit except that they live along the northern BC coast and in the Yukon and Alaska and that there's probably some salmon involved somewhere. But, I thought, what the hell.
Not everyone in the aboriginal community would see it this way. Ears prick up these days when native writers start looking over the fence at other First Nations' stories. In the case of the Tlingit adaptation, however, I felt there were a number of reality checks. The version of the raven legend I would be using was put down on paper from the oral tradition by Alaskan Tlingit Maria Williams, who was flown into Toronto as a consultant. The artistic director certainly didn't think we would have hordes of politically correct Tlingit storming the production offices.
Still, at the Native Playwrights Summit in Toronto several months ago, one Tlingit writer/actress/storyteller asked why I didn't get a Tlingit writer to do the piece. Hire me, she said. Give me the artistic director's number.
Renowned Cree playwright Tomson Highway is no stranger to this kind of dust-up. For a long time he's come down on the side of colour-blind casting and says the whole appropriation discussion annoys him no end. At the Playwrights Summit he confessed that someday he plans to write a play in French, with three white girls as central characters.
This month, his first mainstage play in 14 years, Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout, opens at the Western Theatre Company in Kamloops, BC. It takes place in Kamloops, and all the major characters are Shuswap, Okanagan or Thompson. The playwright is Cree. Is this an issue? Some think so, but Tomson says he consulted with the local aboriginal cultural centre to keep him honest.
In my own and Tomson's defence, a sense of collective understanding seems to exist between First Nations, regardless of what part of the country we're from. It's a shared experience, born of oppression, of survival, of too much baloney (in both the literal and metaphorical sense). I believe this allows us to relate to one another's existence. It has certainly motivated what assignments I've taken.
My very first writing gig, a thousand years ago, was for an episode of The Beachcombers. There I was, conjuring a story about Jesse Jim and his wife, Laurel, two of the show's native characters. They were Salish, if I remember correctly. I was not. Nor had I ever been to BC at that point.
I was also once a writer on North Of Sixty, a show about the Dene of the Northwest Territories. A Dene critic of the show was once quoted as saying it was "a show about my people written by Jews and Crees." And, I guess, unbeknownst to him, one lone Ojibway.
When you write a script for television, or some other dominant-culture medium, the specifics of your nation become irrelevant. Non-native producers only seem to care that you can wave around a status card and tell the difference between a bagel and bannock.
I can even write about white people if I've got the inclination. Hey, I've been known to throw a few Caucasians into my scripts just for lack of colour and to find out if anybody would accuse me of culturally appropriating Oshawa culture. Hasn't happened yet.
One woman on my reserve was uncomfortable with this cultural borrowing, but then she shook it off, saying, "Well, at least you the writer are native. That's something.' Maybe it is something. Maybe it's nothing. It's a question for those far more intelligent than I. In the meantime, I've got an idea for a story about a physically challenged black albino lesbian from South Africa. But it's OK - her car has a dream catcher hanging from the rear-view mirror.