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Drew Hayden Taylor - Take Us to Your Chief

May 2017 

The Leacock Medal
and Other Living Things

“Imagine if we all looked at the water, at the earth -  as living things,” he said. “Maybe, just maybe, it would be different, better.”

Mohawk Elder Ka'nahsohon Deer opened the 2017 meeting of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO with a song, a solo on a water drum, and those words about climate change, toxins in the environment, and the perspective of Indigenous people. His comments stuck in my head that week, in part, because they were echoed by my Kindle at night when I laid in the hotel bed reading Drew Hayden Taylor’s book Take Us to Your Chief.

In his first pages, Taylor, a resident of Ontario’s Curve Lake Reserve, says he wants this book to move the boundaries of aboriginal literature and to invite more of us to see life in all things. Take Us to your Chief opens this door by presenting science fiction with a twist. Lots of aliens, space travel, and the like.  But always with a substantive First Nations reference, angle, or association. 

A 2001: Space Odyssey-style artificial intelligence realizes it is an aboriginal consciousness, and this has consequences. Orwellian Big Brother is linked to the ubiquity of dream catchers, time travel is facilitated by petroglyphs, and aboriginal radio broadcasts lead to fights over roasted raccoon drumsticks. In the process of applying skill, a smart sense of humour, and the Indigenous bent to the space and robots subjects, I think Taylor moved the boundaries of science fiction as much as those of aboriginal works.
For me, the transcendence of the Take Us to Your Chief stories comes from the humour, the poignancy, and the craft. I will buy hard copies of the book and push them into the hands of people I like not because of the cultural references or even the different point of view, but because it is fun to read - even when  passing through the reality of teen suicide and the perils of alcohol.

This is important because the book is short-listed for the 2017 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, and while the award has other criteria, influences, and agendas, being fun to read is a persistent one and the one I think is most important.
Nevertheless, I would bet that Take Us to your Chief might grab a few extra points in this year’s Leacockian competition because of its Indigenous associations and purpose.
Not that you could brand the Leacock Medal as an excessively First Nations friendly institution. The award carries the image of another era when homogenized small town Canada, the Mariposa of Stephen Leacock’s works, was celebrated as something distinct from the country’s aboriginal societies. Even though the inaugural Leacock Medal winner Ojibway Melody speaks with admiration of the Indigenous people around Georgian Bay, the book does so with the posture of something separate and observing. W.P. Kinsella’s Leacock Medal book The Fencepost Chronicles celebrated aboriginal humour and experience, but did so through the pen of an outsider censured for cultural appropriation, and passages in at least one early medal winner carried more than a little prejudice and offense.
But one element, besides the fun-to-read bias, of the Leacock Medal history bodes well for Take me to your Chief and may have helped it get onto the 2017 short list. 
A love of community.
It runs through most of the past winners of the medal and is glaring in the backdrop of Mariposa and Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches.
Leacock put an appreciation of community at the core of effective humour writing.
In defining humour as “the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life and artistic expression thereof,” Leacock did not demand, as some feared, that all humour be “kind,” but rather that we understand that all humour is peculiar to a community of shared experience and belief – our own kind, our kin.  For a long stretch, the accepted notion of “our kind” as reflected in the winners of the Leacock Medal, like many other Canadian institutions, did not shout recognition of many of the communities that form both modern and ancient Canada.  
Take Us to your Chief invites us into the affection and humour of the broad aboriginal community and, in doing so, to stretch the boundaries of our own.
Slowly, iteratively, over the years, the Leacock Medal has added a bit to its definition of “our kind” and, each time, added to its own credibility and that’s why I would give a few extra points in grading this book’s potential for success in this year’s competition. 
Like water and the earth, I think the Leacock Medal might be a living thing – one that must evolve and adapt to survive and to be different, better.

Writing Exercise
Tell how your life changed when you learned that your aboriginal parents had adopted you as a baby and that you were in fact an alien.