Cottagers and Indians by Drew Hayden Taylor

Taylor’s two-person play Cottagers and Indians was inspired by a years-long dispute between cottage owners on Pigeon Lake in Ontario and an Anishnawbe man seeding manoomin (wild rice) in their waterways.

In the play, Maureen Poole, a white woman at her lakeside split-level ranch house, and Arthur Copper, an Indigenous man in his canoe, face off over his seeding and harvesting of the once-flourishing Indigenous food, manoomin. The cottagers see the wild rice as a noxious weed that ruins property values, spoils their view and interferes with swimming and boating. The sound of ‘Gertie’, Arthur’s harvesting machine, irritates more than the noise of their Sea-Doos and power boats.

Maureen and her husband had researched the location for their cottage carefully before buying, even finding nearby ‘a nice First Nation’ with cheap gas and lovely beaded slippers for sale. Maureen is an obnoxiously self-righteous owner and yet as the play continues, we begin to empathize with her. She says, “Everything good in our family has happened out here in this cottage, on the lake.” They had planned to retire there, eventually leaving it to their children, but her husband has recently died. She returns to the cottage after his death with renewed determination to be the lake’s guardian.

Arthur is as convinced of the correctness of his position. The objects valued by the cottagers–Muskoka chairs, docks and skidoos to name a few–are an anathema to him. “A lake is so much more than a place to put your cottage,” he says. His bond with the lake is through his family’s long connection with the area and his Indigenous heritage. Manoomin provided his people with the protein and other nutrients they needed for good health in the past and he needs it for his own income. As the story unfolds, we learn that his daughter is another reason for his zeal. As well, his wife has left him and for comfort he heads out in his canoe. Again, we empathize.

“Why need a wife when you got a canoe? Now this here canoe is older than me. It’s got the wisdom of the ages in its keel, the knowledge of our ancestors in its ribs. The strength of our people in its gunwale. The varnish is all Caucasian though. I think that’s why it smells.”

In the same way as people changed the waterways and new plants choked out the manoomin, Arthur’s replanting is changing the lake back again. Arthur relates how “manoomin is more than just a plant” and how “we are more than just humans.” Everything is interrelated and “when a manoomin field dies, more than a few straggly plants are the casualties. It’s an entire biosphere.”

Maureen is a capable verbal adversary, but the best barbs are Arthur’s. He wrestles with how to reference white people. Are they ‘people of pallor’, ‘colour-challenged’, ‘pigment-denied’? Some of his best friends are white, or whitish … cream … snow … ivory… while Maureen is a ‘demon in khaki’, a ‘devil in flipflops’.

Cottagers and Indians raises weighty issues of food sovereignty, colonization, assimilation, property ownership, racism, and privilege. The play might be solemn except playwright Drew Taylor, a member of the Curve Lake First Nation, employs snappy humour to great effect, a feature which would be enhanced by live performance.

Cottagers and Indians: Shortlisted for the 2020 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour

About the Author: Ojibway writer Drew Hayden Taylor is from the Curve Lake Reserve in Ontario. He writes for the screen as well as the stage and contributes regularly to North American Native periodicals and national newspapers. Taylor’s many awards include the Canada Council Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award for Theatre (2009); the Governor General’s Award for Drama, Nominee (2006) In a World Created by a Drunken God; and the Siminovitch Prize in Theatre, Nominee (2005).

  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Talonbooks (April 27 2019)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1772012300
  • ISBN-13: 978-1772012309

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About the Reviewer: Patricia Sandberg escaped a law career and became a writer. Her short stories have been shortlisted in competitions, published at The Cabinet of Heed and in the Lit Mag Love Anthology. She is hard at work on a World War I historical novel. Her 2016 award-winning, nonfiction book Sun Dogs and Yellowcake: Gunnar Mines, a Canadian Story is about life in a uranium mine in northern Canada during the height of the Cold War.