In the afterword to his Governor-General's Award-winning play Where the Blood Mixes, Kevin Loring describes the first day of a workshop with noted Cayuga actor Gary Farmer, a man of considerable size.
The actor slammed the script down violently onto the table and said, "Thirty-five years in the business and here I am playing another drunken Indian in the bar. So what? He's a drunk in a bar! So what now?"
After that, the writer adds a faux stage direction: "The young playwright pees himself."
But times have changed. In these days of political correctness, it's hard to find a decent drunken Indian on television or in the movies. Realities have shifted and the public's perception of native people has been altered, at least somewhat.
Take, as an example, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1. It's the latest in the series of novels and movies detailing the rocky romance between a teenage girl and her two suitors, a vampire and a werewolf. (I feel lucky I only had to battle with acne in high school.) I'm fascinated by both the positive and negative portrayals of the native characters in the movie.
First of all, the natives are the werewolves, who conveniently provide a roadblock (or blockade, for cultural accuracy) for the young lovers, Edward and Bella. The werewolves want to kill the vampires, making them essentially the enemies, the black hats (or furs, as the case may be). The vampires and the werewolves are the Capulets and the Montagues from Romeo and Juliet, or the Jets and the Sharks from West Side Story.
There's a particularly shocking scene in the previous movie where one of the werewolf braves hugs his girlfriend and we see she has a large gash down the side of her face – evidently due to her out-of-control boyfriend.
The same character, in full werewolf mode, later attacks our heroine Bella, who is saved at the last moment by Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). Ten minutes later, when they meet again, the young native man just shrugs, grins at her and says, "Sorry." For obvious reasons, this image concerns me a little.
But on the more positive side, there's Mr. Lautner, a young man who has made more aboriginal women's hearts flutter than a defibrillator (and a few non-native ones too, I've heard).
He's of Dutch-German descent, with a little Potawatomi and Odawa thrown in for colouring. And he has definitely put the abs in "aboriginal." For a man of limited aboriginal ancestry, he has really raised the bar substantially for those of us who suffer from chronic bannock belly.
It's a good thing if the image of the drunken disgraced street Indian is slowly being replaced by gym-going, fit, handsome young men. As the Jesuits used to say, "Give them to us when they're young and they'll be ours for life." So if this is the first image the younger female population of Canada and the rest of the world have of native people, it sure beats the hell out of all those drunks Mr. Farmer used to have to play.
Unless of course, the new Twilight film ends the way I suspect it does: The handsome native guy loses the girl to the pasty, skinny white guy. Will the young native man then start to drink to numb the pain in his heart? It's a vicious cycle.
Still, in keeping with the changing face of the public aboriginal person, I have for years been trying to get an anthology off the ground – a collection of native science-fiction stories, from the best aboriginal writers in the country. But I always get the same response: "Native science fiction? Isn't that an oxymoron?"
The public believes that native people are mired in the past. It's Indians and buckskin, not natives and rocket fuel; Plains Cree and buffalo, not Haida and black holes. Other than Chakotay from Star Trek: Voyager, who else can they see dreaming that impossible dream?
Yet my friends who are aboriginal writers are all excited by the idea – Joseph Boyden, Lee Maracle, Richard Van Camp, Eden Robinson, etc. I even had a brief conversation with famous U.S. Chippewa/Métis author Louise Erdrich several years ago about it, and she told me that she had written a science-fiction story once but was unable to sell it. The market evidently thinks that native people don't write science fiction, but we heartily disagree.
If people can believe an aboriginal man can change into a wolf (or that a girl would pick Edward over Jacob), why can't they believe an aboriginal man can change into a rocket pilot or a planetary explorer? If movies get made from those stories, maybe the producers can hire Mr. Farmer to play a non-alcoholic Indian. And they can hire Mr. Lautner to play me.