Tomson Highway

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What is Nanabush's function and significance in Highway's plays The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing?

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In both plays, and particularly in The Rez Sisters, Highway uses the figure of Nanabush to explore the spiritual subtext of his writings, embodied in the character of Nanabush—a trickster figure—who offers commentary on the politics of gender as well.

Trickster gods linger in various folk culture, and the primary attribute of the trickster and their actions is an absence of moral dualism—the trickster is not good or bad, but rather playful and often manipulative, largely so as to expose the foolishness of others.

Nanabush (an Ojibway name) is an androgynous, liminal figure, often without determinate shape, language, or gender. In this way, he/she is a supernatural figure/deity, able to expose gender as an imposed concept, particularly in its imperial context (how gender roles were impressed upon First Nations’ women).

In The Rez Sisters, only Zhaboonigan and Marie-Adele can see/speak to Nanabush. They also happen to be the most bodily damaged of characters and because of this, somehow more able to tap into their world on a profoundly spiritual level. Nanabush's various forms seek to provide commentary on the nature and the meaning of existence, particularly as it applies to Marie-Adele and her battles as a woman. Nanabush is a figure who probes the dichotomy/divisions between men and women and the strained relationships between genders “on the rez” ("on the reservation"). Specific attention is paid to the women in abusive relationships with spouses and boyfriends and those who are set in opposition with the male leaders of their respective ethnic groups.

The tension between Native men and women isn’t as aggressively represented in Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, though the figure of Nanabush is equally as important. In Dry Lips, Nanabush plays with the tension between gender neutral Ojibwe pronouns by presenting themselves as simultaneously both man and woman, yet neither:

He/she is dressed in an old man's white beard and wig, but also wearing sexy, elegant women's high-heeled pumps. Surrounded by white, puffy clouds, she/he sits with her legs crossed, nonchalantly filing his/her fingernails. (117)

Nanabush seeks to push the buttons of abusive men like Big Joey. By removing any real allegiance to either of the genders that comprise the (European) gender binary, Nanabush (who we also learn enjoys occasionally masquerading as a hyper-sexualized woman) directly confronts men on the reservations who objectify and assault women and who, in most cases, want to control these women’s sexuality/sexualities. Nanabush is ultimately an “out of control” character who examines the hypocrisy and violence between the sexes.

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The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing are based on the Native story-telling tradition, steeped in cultural memories and interpretations.  Nanabush is a mythical, spiritual creature of vast importance in the Native American  culture and he or she is not unique to these plays nor created by Tomson Highway. Nanabush possesses male characteristics in The Rez Sisters and female characteristics in Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.

Nanabush is a symbolic character and, as the only male presence in The Rez Sisters  he reveals that , in the long run, things do actually remain the same, despite apparent happiness or intense sadness. The characters themselves sometimes speak in Cree, the native language and it is significant that these are the characters that can relate to Nanabush as they have an understanding of the spiritual link.

Whilst essentially described as a "trickster," Nanabush adds an essence to the native people which is otherwise, seemingly, lacking in"Westerners." He / she is not a character or "hero" that, in western culture, people would strive to model themselves on, as Nanabush can represent anything and Tomson is able to use the character for his own purposes, depending on which play or circumstance he is describing.  

In The Rez Sisters, the characters that Nanabush represents are somewhat innocuous whereas in Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, the female characters that Nanabush represents are some of the worst sort and, mostly offensive revealing that Tomson sees this as a combination of the secular western world and the, perhaps overly-idealized world of the spirits in Native culture. The result is unpleasant and maybe even serves as a warning.

Spirituality, originally, was not just an art form but in the modern day, we tend to refer to it as such and treat it as perhaps a series of pictures, drawings, clothing and other tangible objects that actually contribute to the loss of the myth itself. Tomson wants to reveal the two different Nanabush characters - spiritual - and materialistic which enables Nanabush to contribute to the plot development.

In Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, Nanabush helps to expose the wickedness as there can be no transformation without first exposing evil. In both plays, Nanabush is able to transcend gender and the restrictions and expectations of a westernized culture.    

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