As a teenager my biggest fear coming home late at night was making it safely to my front door without encountering a raccoon. In Ontario, there were so many raccoons. Having spend a lot of my childhood in the Prairies, these nocturnal creatures terrified me. Their eyes shone in the night and their human-like hands always made it look like they were up to no good.
Luckily my encounters with the racoons were few, but that fear still lingers. So reading Drew Hayden Taylor’s book Motorcycles and Sweetgrass allowed me to laugh at myself and my fears.
Motorcyles and Sweetgrass tells the story of Nanabush (the Anishnawbe trickster) coming to town (well, the reserve) and causing all kinds of trouble. As John (Nanabush) rides into town on an Indian Chief motorcycle, strange things start happening. My favourite moments were John vs. the racoons. Nanabush and the racoons have a generations-old feud and the antics they pull against each other had me cheering for the racoons. (Mostly because they are assuaged by piles of junk food.)
While reading the book, I often found myself laughing. Fried bologna= Indian Steak. Petroglyphs across the country and the generations are just graffiti by a bored Nanabush. I was endless entertained by a sneak in the humourous world Drew Hayden Taylor creates on a reserve in Ontario.
My absolute favourite part of the book is the dream John has: Nanabush and Jesus having a conversation. Please, allow me to share some the best lines (well, what I think are the best lines!):
Jesus: “You know, I have a cousin named John.”
John/Nanabush: “I read that book about you, your biography . . . Needed an editor. No offence, but it went on forever. And repeated itself. But man, you had a rough life.”
John/Nanabush: “You’ve got a nice smile . . . You should smile more.”
This conversation made me excited to get my hands on Alanis King’s play If Jesus Met Nanabush. Here is the synopsis of the play:
“If Jesus Met Nanabush, When Jesus disappears from the bible as a young man, he emerges here, in Canada during the turbulent 1970s.The first person he meets up with is trickster Nanabush, the great Anishinaabe impersonation of life. Together the two make an odd cosmological couple. Nanabush is earthy, irascible, hard—drinking. Jesus is formal, a little naïve and a whole lot introverted. Yet as they adventure through downtown streets and bars and bus depots, the reader will discover that the two are not all that different after all.”
The idea of looking at the connections between religions is very interesting, especially because so my FNMI people in Canada believe in Jesus. On the CBC radio show Revision Quest, they have an entire episode (Jesus vs. Nanabush from 2009) looking at religion in Canada and the mix between FNMI religions and Christianity. Again, humour! They are on the quest for the “Real Red Road.” Behind the humour, we can see a tragic truth and the interview looks at the Government/Church’s history with Canada’s First Nations people.
This last week Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission made it’s report and the numbers are staggering. There are over 90 recommendations for changes in policies and programs. It was an important week in Canada’s history.
Even within Motorcycles and Sweetgrass, Drew Hayden Taylor does not overlook those in Canada who are without a voice. In novel, John/Nanabush stays with a Residential School survivor, a man who can only speak in Iambic Pentameter, even in his own language. Within Sammy’s tragic story of his experiences at a residential school, Drew Hayden Taylor is able to see some humour in this character by having him speak in Iambic Pentameter, and therefore beating the English teachers at their own game.
The problems within Canada are very real. The truth of what the Government allowed to happen to thousands of children is real. The effects of generations of Nations within Canada without parents is very real. Yet healing is starting.
The way forward? Truth, and also humour. Drew Hayden Taylor’s novel shows that humility and understanding are required to move forward. And also a laugh or two.
It’s my belief that it’s our sense of humour that’s allowed us to survive 500 years of colonization. I like to celebrate the native experience, not lament it. (Interview with Drew Hayden Taylor)
A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. (Proverbs 17:22)