Tomson Highway's 1989 play Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing is indeed a critique of the myriad conflicts that have riven the Native North American tribes, and it can be considered a call to action, although Highway is too astute to expect much positive to happen there. Highway's play is a serious indictment of the effects of European colonialism on Native cultures and peoples. His characters, in this particular play, are mostly men, with the main female character, Nanabush, or Patsy, ultimately victimized in the playwright's attack on the pernicious effects of that colonialism on those tribes, including the one to which Highway is a member, the Cree. It is no accident that Highway's men are continuously depicted holding and drinking from bottles of whiskey, these ubiquitous props a subtle reminder of who introduced this potent and ultimately destructive substance to the indigenous tribes. While none of the characters in Dry Lips Oughta Move are beyond redemption, neither are they at likely to actually find that destination.
Among the main conflicts in Dry Lips Oughta Move is that between the indigenous tribes' native system of beliefs and the European import known as Christianity. Note the following introduction to the character of Spooky Lacroix, the play's representative for this alien belief system forced upon the indigenous peoples. Spooky is addressing Dickie Bird Halked, the 17-year-old teenager who, we are given to believe, suffers the enduring effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and whose name was adopted from a tavern:
Spooky (to Dickie Bird): "When the world comes to an end? The sky will open up. The clouds will part. And the Lord will come down in a holy vapor. And only those who are born-again Christian will go with him when he goes back up. And the rest? You know what’s gonna happen to the rest? They will die. Big Joey, for instance, they will go to hell and they will burn for their wicked, whorish ways. But we will be taken up into the clouds to spend eternity surrounded by the wondrous and the mystical glory of god."
Spooky serves as Highway's reminder of the hypocritical nature of many converts to alternative systems of belief. By embracing Christianity while condemning "nonbelievers" to an eternity in Hell, Spooky is manifestation of the perversion of the Gospels that is all-too--familiar to readers of scandal sheets announcing yet another moral transgression by those who claim a level of moral superiority. Spooky's words are meant to be harsh and incriminating, as they reflect the spiritual conflict at the heart of this play.
The conflict between Christianity and Native spirituality is only one such conflict in Highway's play. Another involves the role of ice hockey, another alien import that has captured the Native soul, and it is ice hockey that provides the connecting theme throughout the play. One of the play's more politically-minded characters, Pierre St. Pierre -- note, again, the European influence evident in the traditionally French name and the "saint" component -- is the most outspoken purveyor of revolutionary sentiments, although his admonitions receive little real attention. It isn't just hockey that occupies the play's central motif; it is women's ice hockey. Pierre's semi-coherent observations invariably center on the role of women's hockey is setting the stage for the transformative experience yet to come. Note in the following exchange the confusion surrounding Pierre's declarations of revolutionary fervor amid the near-constant setting of the women's hockey matches;
PIERRE: The women. I’m gonna be right smack dab in the middle of it all. The revolution. Right here in Wasaychigan Hill.
SPOOKY: The Chief or the priest. Which one are they gonna revolution?
PIERRE: No, no, no. Dominique Ladouche, Black Lady Halked, that terrible Dictionary woman, that witch Gazelle Nataways, Fluffy Sainte-Marie, Dry Lips Manigitogan, Leonarda Lee Starblanket, Annie Cook, June Bug McLeod, Big Bum Pegahmagahbow, all twenty-seven of ‘em. Even my wife, Veronique St. Pierre, she’ll be right smack dab in the middle of it all. Defense.
SPOOKY: Defense? The Americans. We’re being attacked. Is the situation that serious?
PIERRE: No, no, no, for Chris’sakes. They’re playin’ hockey. Them women are playin’ hockey. Dead serious they are too.
This exchange, which occurs fairly early in the play, allows Highway to bring together the various themes that he intended to emphasize. The scene takes place in a kitchen, on one wall of which hangs a crucifix with which Dickie Bird becomes infatuated. Spooky, accustomed to Pierre's political nature, can't figure out precisely what his friend means, and the latter character hardly clarifies the matter by indicating that, when he states that he's "going to be right smack dab in the middle of it all," he is referring to his role as a referee, the objective observer and enforcer of the rules.
Finally, the impotent call to action conveyed in Dry Lips Oughta Move is embodied in the figure of Big Joey, a large, powerful man whose references to one of modern North America's most important symbols of Native identity, the site of the Wounded Knee massacre, are but a facade behind which hides just one more helpless native. Again, referencing women's ice hockey as a metaphor for the broader conflicts that run through the play, Big Joey refers to the site of the 1890 massacre of Lakota by the U.S. Army and the 1973 armed rebellion by the American Indian Movement that involved the execution-style slaying of two agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation:
BIG JOEY: (Getting the bottle back from CREATURE and PIERRE.) So tonight, Bear-who-went-and-gave-youa-real-Spooky Lacroix, we’re gonna celebrate another new page in our lives. Wounded Knee Three! Women’s version!
These men will be cheering on a women's hockey team while injecting into the proceedings the history of injustices to which their people were subjected by outside colonizers. Wounded Knee, also referred to as Pine Ridge, the site of the Indian reservation where the armed rebellion took place, remains a powerful symbol for the Native American communities, and Big Joey's recourse to that symbol while constantly partaking in the whiskey that has played such a deleterious role in his people's demise illuminates the playwright's internal struggle for a more hopeful future for his people.
European influences, especially the unspoken-of-but-constantly-present bottles of whiskey passed around by the male characters, are used to highlight the conflicts that have crushed the Native American peoples. That Highway expects his audience to feel motivated by the scenes he has depicted is nowhere more evident than in the brutal, dehumanizing rape of that one female character, Patsy, by Dickie Bird with a crucifix. Dickie Bird's thrusting of the crucifix -- the ultimate symbol of Christianity -- into Patsy is the playwright's most forceful condemnation of the conflicts injected into Native American communities by European interlopers. The violence of this scene suggests the violence to which those Europeans subjected the indigenous tribes of the Americas, and it isn't subtle.