Early last December, Market Hall Performing Arts Centre hosted a performance of Cottagers and Indians, the highly-popular play written by renowned playwright and author Drew Hayden Taylor. This two-person act follows a feud between a seasonal cottage-owner and an Indigenous wild rice harvester.
If this tale sounds familiar, that’s because you’ve probably heard it before. Hayden Taylor based his script on the real-life ongoing dispute between a group of cottage owners on Pigeon Lake, an area located just north of Peterborough, and James Whetung, a Curve Lake resident who has been planting and harvesting wild rice in the Kawartha region for just over half a decade.
These cottagers view Whetung’s harvesting activities as a nuisance detrimental to their summer activities. Whetung, however, is unapologetic and uncompromising. He notes that the harvesting of wild rice in the region long predates the arrival of the cottagers, and claims that the residents’ outrage is primarily the product of their racism towards Indigenous people.
Enter Cottagers and Indians. In many ways, this fictional saga mirrors its real-life counterpart. Its main characters, Arthur Copper and Maureen Pool, serve to represent each side of this contentious clash. Quite humorously, Pool embodies the stereotypical white, upper-middle class southern Ontarian and the irate cottagers of Pigeon Lake. She has a condo in North York, and — although she only makes it up to her family cottage a couple times a year — she insists that it’s her “true home.” A glass of white wine always in hand, she listens to CBC regularly to “expand her worldview,” and maintains the authenticity of her care for Indigenous peoples by virtue of the fact that she’s read Tom King, watched Dances With Wolves, and even attended a powwow — once. You get the picture.
On the other hand, Copper, the play’s rice harvester, is a long-time resident of the region and views the planting of wild rice (or “nmoomin”, which roughly translates to “the good seed”) as an issue of Indigenous land rights and food sovereignty. Like Whetung, Copper harvests nmoomin in the lake surrounding the cottage land, and is largely unsympathetic to Pool’s concerns of degraded property values and shoreline views. He strives to frame Pool and the other residents’ frustration within the broader context of the historical degradation of Indigenous lands and the subjugation of his people.
Like much of Hayden Taylor’s work, this play is marked primarily by its humorous approach, despite its often-serious subject matter of treaty rights and the grim history of Canadian settler-colonialism.
“I mean, in principle, we support native issues, but to do something like this without consulting us…” Pool muses to herself, as the audience erupts into laughter. Indeed, when it comes to Indigenous issues, it is too easy to pay lip service to a need for positive change, but to view injustice through the prism of self-serving ahistoricism when the results may have an impact on our daily lives.
The outcome of this fiction is one of optimism; through their shared stories of familial loss, both parties come to a greater understanding of one another’s differences and perspectives, and for a moment, the ability to find common ground appears just a bit less daunting. Only time will tell if the same can be said of Whetung and the cottagers of Pigeon Lake.