Historical Context

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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.

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 structured to pollute or hoard bombs.'' An interesting historical footnote to this comment is that, in 1986, a stalemate occurred in the nuclear disarmament talks between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Party Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, illustrating just how important "hoarding bombs" is to much of the world.

Literary Style

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When Pelajia Patchnose, at the opening of the play, tells her sister that she wants to leave Wasy and "go to Toronto," Philomena replies, "But you were born here,'' as if this is reason enough for her to stay. As the play progresses, however, the audience learns that this is reason enough; one of the play's chief issues is that home is where the heart is; how a group of people learn to respect then- homeland and stand up to the challenges that make then-lives' difficult—rather than run off to a different place. “This place is too much inside your blood,'' Philomena tells Pelajia. "You can't get rid of it. And it can't get rid of you." The sisters frequently lapse into Cree, such as when Pelajia says,'' Aw-ni-gi-naw-ee-dick [Oh, go on]" to Philomena or when Marie-Adele and Nanabush conduct an entire conversation in the same language.

Creating the play to occur in a specific place with its own language and identity reflects one of Highway's chief artistic concerns: “I believe that a sense of place applies to everybody," he said in an interview with Robert Enright in Border Crossings. "Where you come from, where your roots are—all that is extremely strong. I don't think that anybody is able to get rid of it." Unlike other plays with indeterminate settings, The Rez Sisters emphasizes Wasy to show that the setting is as important and as central to the play as the characters.

One of the chief appeals of The Rez Sisters is its array of colorful characters—the manner in which Highway presents his "sisters" is worth noting. Each of the women presents a different point of view about life on the rez. Pelajia, for example, thinks of a world elsewhere, where her "old man" would not have to "go the hundred miles to Espanola just to get a job." Philomena is more down-to-earth and practical, as suggested by her desire for a nice new toilet (and her casual opening of the bathroom door to yell at the other women while she is sitting on an old one). Annie is the town gossip, prying into the affairs of others. Emily is a contrast to her friends because she is tougher and more cynical, at first appearance less concerned with the others' welfare. Marie-Adele is tender and faces her impending death with great dignity. Veronique frets over her own childlessness but still cares for her adopted daughter, Zhaboonigan: a mentally disabled young woman whose honesty and joy springs forth to relieve the play's most tense situations. Denis W. Johnston has written in Canadian Literature that the play's complexity "lies not in its plot, but in a sophisticated pattern of character revelation and development." By offering his audience such a wide variety of characters and attitudes, Highway is able to more fully explore life "on the rez'' and the dreams of those who live there.

The foremost symbol used in the play (the one that opens and closes the story) is Palajia's hammer, which is first seen when she is attaching shingles to her roof. Unhappy with her life at Wasy, the hammer symbolizes the toil and labor that Pelajia associates with the rez. She also uses the tool to threaten the other women, in which case it becomes a symbol of her aggression and her role as a leader to the women. At their meeting in Pelajia's basement, Emily uses the hammer as a gavel, bringing order to their chaotic plans. Finally, as Johnston has remarked, Pelajia is using it at the end of the play, again on her roof, but with an important difference: now "her hammer has become a badge of purpose rather than just a physical tool." Tracing the way that Pelajia uses her hammer is like tracing the ways in which her character changes; it serves as a symbol of her growth and accepting responsibility to transform and improve her corner of Wasy. With it, she will rebuild her life and the lives of her "rez sisters."

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Further Reading
Enright, Robert. "Let Us Now Combine Mythologies: The Theatrical Art of Tomson Highway," in Border Crossings, Vol 1, No. 4, December, 1992, pp. 22-27.
This is a long and thorough interview in which Enright and Highway discuss the playwright's childhood, study of folklore, and the effects of Christianity on Native spiritual life.

Johnston, Denis W. "Lines and Circles: The 'Rez' Plays of Tomson Highway," in Canadian Literature, Nos. 124-25, Spring-Summer, 1990, pp. 254-64
This is a very perceptive and valuable essay in which Johnston discusses the stylistic and thematic similarities and differences between The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. Bach play is analyzed in great detail.

King, Thomas, editor. All My Relations- An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction, McClelland and Stewart, 1990.
An excellent anthology of Native fiction. King was the first to publish Highway's work in a major anthology, and his introduction offers some perspectives on the playwright's work.

Lutz, Hartmut. "An Interview with Tomson Highway," in Contemporary Challenges: Conversations with Canadian Native Authors, Fifth House Publishers, 1991.
In this interview, Highway discusses the role of mythology in Native life.

Peel, William. Review of The Rez Sisters in Canadian Theatre Review, No. 65, Winter, 1990, pp 62-64
Peel explores the narrative structure of The Rez Sisters and explains how Highway creates his "memorable portraits" throughout the play.

Bemrose, John "Highway of Hope," in Maclean's, Vol 102, no. 19, May 8,1989, p. 62.
Although he mainly focuses on Highway's Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, Bemrose does offer some valuable quotations from Highway on the differences between the Cree language and English.

Conlogue, Ray. "Mixing Spirits, Bingo, and Genius,'' in the Toronto Globe and Mail, November 21, 1987, p. C5
Conlogue explains how The Rez Sisters reflects Highway's concerns as a Native and as an artist, touching upon such topics as the Trickster, racism and the "matrilineal principle" in Native literature.

Edgar, Kathleen, editor "Tomson Highway" in Contemporary Authors, Vol. 151, Gale (Detroit), 1996, pp 244-45.

Moses, Daniel David Canadian Fiction, 1987.

Richards, David. "Bingo As the Way of Escape, at Dismal Odds" in the New York Times, Januarys, 1994, pp C15,C21.

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