Once upon a time, many years past, there was a man who told a story from his wayward youth. As he so bravely put it, it was a long time ago in a reserve far far away, when he was but a young and innocent Aboriginal living with his family in the serene outdoors known today as Northern Ontario. Then one day, as often happens in tales such as this, a wandering group of archaeologists/anthropologists/sociologists (so grouped for they all looked and acted alike) appeared in his peaceful community.
Seems these intrepid academics were there in search of knowledge. They were fearless story hunters, wanting to document the legends and myths of these proud but oral people. Legends they wanted, and legends they were determined to get, for the annals of history and their publishers. First in their quest they went to the Elders of the village, saying "tell us your stories so that we may document them."
The Elders believing stories are meant to be shared with good friends and caring people, refused, saying to the puzzled academics "strangers do not demand a story, they ask politely." Thus they were chastised. With no story to bring back, and victory to print, the academics pondered and prodded until they found willing confidantes for their earnest though ill-conceived purpose.
The children of that community boldly approached these white warriors of writing. "We know the legends and stories of our people and we will gladly share them with you if you will honor us with gifts-financial ones," spoke their young leader.
Eager and anxious, the academics gladly brought forth their small change in trade for the fables and myths of these proud people. Every morning for many days, the children would entice these eager men with a legend, often about the Trickster, Nanabush, and his mischievous adventures, or about the animals that abounded in this forest primeval, or occasionally the people themselves.
Later, after the tale was told, the children of the community would retire to the woods and spend the afternoon enjoying the spoils of their barter. Down went the potato chips and pop while they pondered and created afresh each new tale they would tell these pale strangers. For they kept close to their hearts the real stories of their people, and instead, offered only the imagination and creativity of a child's mind. What they traded were new legends, barely a day old.
Many decades later, one of these children, now an adult, happened upon a book store. There, in a book of Native legends published many years before by a non-Native researcher but still used frequently as source material he came upon a story that was. . . oddly familiar.
Then it dawned upon him. In the pages he held in his hand were those same spirited stories commissioned in that bygone era of free junk food and gullible academics.
A smile played on his impish face as he replaced the book. The trickster of legend was alive and well and living in the glorious halls of academia.
Some are tall, some aren't. Some are fat while others have a lean and hungry look about them. Most wear glasses or contracts but not all. And believe it or not, some could be your next-door neighbor.
I am referring to academics.
There's an old joke in the Native community. What's the definition of a Native family? Two parents, a grandparent, five kids and an anthropologist (or academic). Get the picture?
Not a week goes by in the offices of Native Earth Performing Arts, Toronto's only professional Native theatre company, that we don't get a call from some university or college student professor doing research on Native theatre in Canada. And each time I put the phone down I struggle to suppress a shudder. I can't help but wonder what wonderful images they are going to get from our work.
When is a door not a door? When it's a jar. When is a symbolic metaphor describing the Native individual's relationship with the Earth, or Turtle Island as they call it, and the spiritual and physical sustennce that it provides, as well as the water being an allusion to the blood of said Turtle Island, or perhaps in this reference the term Mother Earth would be more accurate, not a symbolic metaphor?
Sometimes you just wanna yell: "He's just fishing, for Christ's sake!"
This is a strange race of people who spend their entire life in the constant study and analysis of other people's writings and work (in this case Native works) but seldom attempt the same work themselves.
It's sort of like people who watch pornographic movies but never have sex.
I remember reading an article by British playwright Willy Russell, author of such plays as Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine. He was relating a story of a lecture he secretly attended, a lecture about his work.
At one point the academic brought up for discussion the final scene of Educating Rita, where as a going-away gift, the former hairstylist Rita cuts the professor's hair. "This," said the man with letter behind his name," was a direct metaphor to the Samson and Delilah legend where she is taking his strength by cutting his hair. The author obviously . . . "
At that moment Russell stood up and said, "Uh, sorry you're wrong. I just wanted to end the play on a funny and touching note. It has nothing to do with Samson." They proceed to get into a rather tense argument over the interpretation of the scene.
As a writer I recognize the fact that all stories, in whatever form they are written, are the equivalent of literacy Rorschach tests, all open to interpretation and understanding. Often times that's the fun of taking a literature class, dissecting the piece for the underlying imagery. And I might add, adding subtextural elements into the stories I write adds a certain amount of fun to the writing process. However, as Freud used to say, sometimes a cigar is just a good smoke.
Case in point: a non-Native friend of mine wrote his master's thesis on Native theatre in Canada. In one of the chapters he examined some of y work. One night in a drunken celebration after successfully defending his thesis, he let me read his dissertation. As he celebrated his newfound academic status, I sat there reading some new and interesting theories about the symbolism in my plays.
To put it bluntly, they were wrong. Completely, way off, not correct, inaccurate, barking up the proverbial wrong tree. Especially the section whether he thought a crow in the text was a manifestation of Nanabush, the Ojibway Trickster figure. I sat there for a while, on that bar stool quietly debating if I should tell him of the error.
But looking at the sheer joy in his face-all those years of university finally complete-I held my tongue. I'd rather have him drinking happily than in a fit of depression. If he thinks a crow is Nanabush, let him. There's a whole flock of Nanabushes living around my mother's house. He'd have a field day.
That seems to be the latest fad with academics. Subscribing all actions and at least one character in a written piece to the Trickster figure. As playwright/poet Daniel Davie Moses describes it, "they all like to play 'Spot The Trickster.'"
But then again, these self-same people, the academics of this world, are responsible for introducing my books and other writings to the curriculums of various high schools, colleges and universities. The very computer I'm writing on I owe to their influences. I guess I mustn't bite the hand that feeds me.
So perhaps, just for clarity's sake, I should take the time to make sure these no doubt intelligent people understand that it's just the inherent Trickster tendencies that exist on a subconscious level in all literary works penned by Aboriginal writers. In other words, I'm not responsible for these views or criticisms, the Trickster is at fault here.
The Trickster made me do it.
Yeah, they'll buy that.