Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 678

Describing the initial reaction to The Rez Sisters, Highway remarked to Canadian Literature's Johnston, "I'm sure some people went to [the play] expecting crying and moaning and plenty of misery, reflecting everything they've heard about or witnessed on reserves. They must have been surprised. All that humor and optimism, plus the positive values taught by Indian mythology." These values are found in the attitudes of the women towards both Wasy and each other, and the best way to explore the cultural context of The Rez Sisters is to consider what its author has said about the role of spirituality and mythology in Cree and other Native cultures. 1986 saw the disaster at the Soviet Union's Chernobyl nuclear power plant (which is estimated to cause anywhere from 6,500 to 45,000 future deaths by cancer caused by radiation); as if commenting on this tragedy, during his tenure as artistic director for the Native Earth Performing Arts, Inc., Highway once stated, “At a time in our history, as a community of human beings, when the world is about to get literally destroyed, and all life forms have a very good chance of being completely obliterated—at a crucial time like this, Native people have a major statement to make about the profound change that has to come about in order for the disaster to be averted." The statement to which Highway refers here is, of course, the play itself, which offers viewers a look at the spirituality of seven women and how this spirituality plays a role in their daily lives.

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In several interviews, Highway has talked at length about the Trickster (who appears in The Rez Sisters as Nanabush), his role in Native culture and the effect of Christianity on Native beliefs. The Trickster “occupies a central role for us," Highway told Conlogue in the Globe and Mail, "just as Christ does for [Christians]. But there are three important differences. Trickster has a sense of humor. He was never crucified. And he is neither male nor female," (The Trickster's sense of humor is found in The Rez Sisters, for example, when he transforms into the showy and bombastic Bingo Master.) "The way of Nanabush is the way of joy and laughter," Highway said in Maclean's. "Contrast that with Christianity—the way of pain and tears." Highway sees one of his artistic goals as reacquainting Native people with their own mythologies, which, as he stated in Contemporary Challenges, were "almost destroyed or... obliterated by the onslaught of missionaries." Describing the reaction to his second play, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, Highway told Ennght in Border Crossings that he was "shocked to discover that main-stream audiences knew more about the size of Elizabeth Taylor's breasts ... than they did about their own systems of gods and goddesses.''

This is not to say that only Native audiences can learn from Highway's depiction of Native spirituality; on the contrary, Highway has studied many mythologies from around the world and seeks to educate non-Native audiences about the way and teachings of Nanabush: "We're not a highly intellectualized or highly technologized society," he told Enright, "but we haven't sacrificed our spiritual centre."

While only two of his "rez sisters" can recognize Nanafaush, this does not imply that the others have lost touch with their spiritual heritage: other characters speak of legendary figures, such as Windigo, a giant and Bingo Betty, a local ghost who haunts "the rez," "hovering in the air above the bingo tables, playing bingo like its never been played before." However, Highway is not implying that one culture is superior to another or more inherently "right"; rather, as he told Bemrose in Maclean's , he feels that, "If we could combine the best of both cultures [Native and Western] we could create something really beautiful: a society that isn't...

(The entire section contains 1700 words.)

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