Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1151
The Rez Sisters opens on a late August day on the Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve (or as its residents refer to it, "Wasy") on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Pelajia Patchnose is found nailing shingles to her roof, with the assistance of her sister, Philomena Moosetail. Pelajia's first line, "Philomena. I want to go to Toronto,'' reveals her desire to escape what she sees as her dull life in "plain, dusty, boring old Wasy." "Everyone here's crazy," she complains. "No jobs. Nothing to do but drink and screw each other's wives and husbands and forget about our Nanabush'' —who is also known as ' "The Trickster," a mythological spirit that observes (and sometimes enters into) the action of the play. After complaining more about the fact that there are no paved roads in Wasy, Philomena lifts her sister's spirits with her wit (and by falling off the roof). Annie Cook, their half-sister, arrives and the three talk of their beloved hobby: bingo. Eager to run to the post office, where a parcel awaits her, Annie leaves and the two remaining sisters talk of how the bingo games in Wasy "are getting smaller and smaller all the time."
The scene changes to Marie-Adele Starblanket's house (down the hill from Pelajia's), where she is throwing stones at Nanabush, disguised as a seagull. When Nanabush tells her "Astum [Come]," she replies, "I can't fly away. I have no wings. Yet." Her conversation is interrupted when her sister-in-law, Veronique St. Pierre, enters with her mentally disabled adopted daughter, Zhaboonigan Peterson. Veronique and Marie-Adele discuss a used car purchased by an acquaintance before moving onto a more serious topic: Marie-Adele's cancer. Veronique questions Marie-Adele about who will take care of her fourteen children after she "goes to the hospital"; Marie-Adele replies that her husband, Eugene, will carry this load. The topic shifts to the real motive of Veronique's visit, to tell Marie-Adele that she heard a rumor that "THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD'' is coming to Toronto and to ask Marie-Adele if she wants to play. Annie arrives, learns of the upcoming bingo game, and all four of them walk together to the post office. On the way, Marie-Adele, Annie, and Veronique pause to tell the audience about their hopes for the upcoming game: Marie-Adele wants to buy an island where she can live with her family, Annie hopes to buy a complete country-music record library, and Veronique imagines herself cooking for everyone over a brand-new stove.
Arriving at the post office (which doubles as a general store), the women meet Emily Dictionary (Annie's sister and half-sister of all the others). Described as "one tough lady," Emily is an ex-biker who lived in California for years but has returned to Wasy. Instigated by only a few remarks, the women all begin a massive, free-for-all war of insults in which their suspicions and jealousies of each other are revealed to the audience. While the women bicker, Zhaboonigan wanders outside and talks to Nanabush, telling him of a time when she was sexually abused by two white boys. After the women stop fighting, Annie opens her parcel and finds a Patsy Cline record (a gift from her daughter) and the confirmation of the rumor regarding "THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD," which will take place in Toronto on September 8. Marie-Adele reads a letter from a hospital in Toronto, confirming her appointment for tests on September 10. The women decide to travel to Toronto, play bingo, take Marie-Adele to undergo her tests, and then return. But when they ask their local Band Council for a loan (which would enable them to rent a car), their request is refused.
In order to think of ways to raise enough money for their trip, the seven women hold a meeting in Pelajia's basement. They decide to use Eugene's van, but they also realize that they will need a total of $1,400 in order to pay for food and expenses. To raise this money, the women undertake a variety of odd jobs, presented to the audience in a long and humorous pantomime sequence. Finally, the money is raised and the women enter the van that, they hope, will take them to the $500,000 bingo jackpot.
En route to Toronto, the women have various conversations while others sleep; from these conversations, the audience learns about their respective pasts, hopes, and fears. Philomena, for example, explains that September 8 holds a special significance for her, since it is the birthday of her child that she had to give up as soon as it was born. Annie tells of her boyfriend Fritz, a Jewish country singer whom she hopes will marry her. Suddenly, a tire blows out and must be replaced. As the women change the tire, Marie-Adele wanders off and is attacked by Nanabush in the form of a nighthawk. Understanding that this is an omen of her death, Marie-Adele begs him for mercy: "Oh no! Me? Not yet. Give me time. Please."
Once the tire is changed, they resume their trip and conversations. Marie-Adele tells of Eugene's distress over her condition, which Pelajia explains with, "There's only so much Eugene can understand ... He's only human." Emily then reveals why she returned to Wasy: her lover, a member of her all-female biker gang, was killed on a San Francisco highway. The tension in the van is almost unbearable, until Emily acknowledges her gratefulness to the others. Relieved, she gives a "high-five" to Zhaboonigan and the stage transforms onto the site of the long-awaited bingo game.
The Bingo Master—who is also Nanabush, this time in a new disguise—greets the women and the audience, who actually play a warm-up game of bingo with the cast. However, once the actual big-money game begins, the women express their distress at their lack of fortune. Finally, they rush the grandstand and destroy the bingo machine while "out of this chaos emerges the calm, silent image of Marie-Adele waltzing romantically in the arms of the Bingo Master." The Bingo Master suddenly changes into the nighthawk and carries Marie-Adele to the spirit world, signifying her death.
The action then returns to Wasy, where the six women sing the Ojibway funeral song over Marie-Adele's grave and then talk at the store. As a kind of renewal in the face of Marie-Adele's death, Emily announces that she is pregnant with "Big Joey's" (a local man's) child. Veronique assumes the role of mother to Mare-Adele's children and is seen cooking for them on the departed sister's stove. The play's final scene occurs at the same place it began: Pelajia's roof, where she is still nailing shingles and joking with Philomena (who did win enough money to buy a new toilet). As Pelajia considers all of the changes for which she will work on the reserve, Nanabush dances to the beat of her hammer, unseen by her but appearing "merrily and triumphantly'' to the audience.