Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894
Tomson Highway 1951–
The following entry provides an overview of Highway's career through 1994.
One of Canada's most highly regarded dramatists, Highway is primarily known for his award-winning plays The Rez Sisters (1986) and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (1989). In these works Highway uses Native humor, language, and mythology to address the effects of European colonization on Native North American cultures, the realities of reservation life, and contemporary Native issues. Commenting on the numerous influences evident in Highway's work, Denis W. Johnston has stated: "Highway is perhaps the first Canadian member of the international tradition of accomplished writers who work in their second language. Among playwrights, this tradition included Samuel Beckett in French and Tom Stoppard in English. Like them, Highway delights in linguistic estrangements and paradoxes. Furthermore, the fact that Highway's first language is Cree contributes to his unusual dramatic style."
Born in northwest Manitoba, Canada, Highway spoke only Cree until age six when he began attending a Roman Catholic boarding school. He stayed there until age fifteen, returning to his family for only two months each year. A musical prodigy in high school, Highway studied music in Canada and England and later obtained degrees in English and music from the University of Western Ontario. After spending several years working for various Native support organizations and with Canadian writer James Reaney, Highway stated that he "started writing plays, where I put together my knowledge of Indian reality in [Canada] with classical structure, artistic language. It amounted to applying sonata form to the spiritual and mental situation of a drunk." Highway was also the artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts, Inc., Toronto's only professional Native theater company, until 1992.
The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips, the first two works of a proposed cycle of seven plays, are set on the fictional Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island, Canada. The Rez Sisters involves seven women, who plan to go to the world's largest bingo game in Toronto, and a male Nanabush—the Ojibway name for "The Trickster"—a Native mythological being who can assume various guises and who is a central figure in Cree culture. While the women experience many difficulties, Highway emphasizes the importance of creativity and humor in their lives. He has stated: "I'm sure some people went to Rez 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 humour and love and optimism, plus the positive values taught by Indian mythology." Dry Lips revolves around a female Nanabush and seven men (who are mentioned but do not appear in The Rez Sisters). Considered less optimistic than The Rez Sisters, this work addresses such issues as alcoholism, rape, violence, and misogyny. Johnston has observed that "we find in Dry Lips a litany of disturbing and violent events, set within a thin frame of hopefulness."
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Critical reaction to Highway's works has been generally positive. Both The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips have won numerous prizes, including the prestigious Dora Mavor Moore award, and Highway has been called, by Johnston, "the most important new Canadian playwright to emerge in the latter half of the 1980s." Although sometimes considered stronger in characterization and humor than in plot, The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips have been acclaimed as revealing portrayals of reservation life and as insightful examinations of the cultural, religious, environmental, and societal issues confronting Natives in a contemporary, urban-oriented world. Critics note, however, that the spiritual insights and ultimately hopeful messages revealed in these works have universal implications. Highway himself has stated: "Native culture is beautiful, Native language is beautiful, Native mythology is beautiful and powerful, [and these] are very relevant, increasingly so, as time goes on. At a time in our history, as a community of human beings, when the world is about to get quite 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 kind of profound change that has to come about in order for the disaster to be averted."