In both plays, and particularly in The Rez Sisters, Highway uses the figure of Nanabush to explore the spiritual subtext of his writings, embodied in the character of Nanabush—a trickster figure—who offers commentary on the politics of gender as well.
Trickster gods linger in various folk culture, and the primary attribute of the trickster and their actions is an absence of moral dualism—the trickster is not good or bad, but rather playful and often manipulative, largely so as to expose the foolishness of others.
Nanabush (an Ojibway name) is an androgynous, liminal figure, often without determinate shape, language, or gender. In this way, he/she is a supernatural figure/deity, able to expose gender as an imposed concept, particularly in its imperial context (how gender roles were impressed upon First Nations’ women).
In The Rez Sisters, only Zhaboonigan and Marie-Adele can see/speak to Nanabush. They also happen to be the most bodily damaged of characters and because of this, somehow more able to tap into their world on a profoundly spiritual level. Nanabush's various forms seek to provide commentary on the nature and the meaning of existence, particularly as it applies to Marie-Adele and her battles as a woman. Nanabush is a figure who probes the dichotomy/divisions between men and women and the strained relationships between genders “on the rez” ("on the reservation"). Specific attention is paid to the women in abusive relationships with spouses and boyfriends and those who are set in opposition with the male leaders of their respective ethnic groups.
The tension between Native men and women isn’t as aggressively represented in Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, though the figure of Nanabush is equally as important. In Dry Lips, Nanabush plays with the tension between gender neutral Ojibwe pronouns by presenting themselves as simultaneously both man and woman, yet neither:
He/she is dressed in an old man's white beard and wig, but also wearing sexy, elegant women's high-heeled pumps. Surrounded by white, puffy clouds, she/he sits with her legs crossed, nonchalantly filing his/her fingernails. (117)
Nanabush seeks to push the buttons of abusive men like Big Joey. By removing any real allegiance to either of the genders that comprise the (European) gender binary, Nanabush (who we also learn enjoys occasionally masquerading as a hyper-sexualized woman) directly confronts men on the reservations who objectify and assault women and who, in most cases, want to control these women’s sexuality/sexualities. Nanabush is ultimately an “out of control” character who examines the hypocrisy and violence between the sexes.