A VOICE FOR NATIVE THEATRE AND LITERATURE IN CANADA
In the late 1990s, Native playwrights were not a mainstream topic of study in Canadian university theatre and dramaturgy programs. I do not recall having heard of Tomson Highway and his works when I was studying at the University of Ottawa. In fact, testimonies about traumatizing experiences in residential schools were only beginning to emerge at the time. After many years of silence, the voices of Canadian Native artists were heard again in the 1960s and 70s. The author of plays, novels and children books, Tomson Highway has contributed to the healing process of Canadian Natives and to their re-appropriation of their own culture.
Life and Career Path
Highway was born on December 6, 1951, to caribou hunters Joe and Pelagie Highway. He grew up on Brochet Reserve, on the tundra of northern Manitoba, close to the eastern boundary of Saskatchewan, and in the vicinity of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Historically, in remote locations like northern Manitoba, Cree trappers like the Highway family had limited access to roads, used dog sleds as a means of transportation during winter, and lead a nomadic lifestyle following animal migrations. Even today, some roads in northern Canada are not accessible all year. Many Cree families still spend time “in the bush,” pitching tents on campsites which can only be reached by boat or small aircraft. It is in such a context that, after being suspended for a few generations, the transmission of knowledge from elders to youth can continue to take place in order to keep Native traditions and lifestyle alive. As we have discussed in class, this has not always been the case for First Nations people in Canadian history.
In an article published in the winter of 2005 in Journal of Canadian Studies, Jerry Wasserman writes that residential schools replaced day-schools for Natives because daily teaching was considered ineffective while pupils were still in close contact with their families, language and culture. The Indian Act of 1876 was amended in the 1920s to make school attendance compulsory for a fixed number of years. Thus, children were often taken from home by force. Wasserman adds that “Canada’s educational apartheid policy lasted until 1951 when the Indian Act was amended again to allow Native children to attend integrated public schools (. . .)” but residential schooling, however, “remained the norm well into the 1960s” (27). As a result of this slow change, Tomson Highway was sent to a residential school in The Pas, Manitoba, when he was six years old. He travelled almost five hundred kilometres every year until he was 15. Following his residential schooling, he studied Music and English literature at the universities of Manitoba and Western Ontario (London). Subsequently, he decided to get involved in social work with Native communities and organizations, first in Toronto, then in Ontario, and finally across Canada. He has worked with families, penitentiary inmates, visual artists, politicians, activists, healers, and many more.
Reaching the third decade of his life, Highway set out to write about all this knowledge and experience gained from his people. Through his characters, he was going to let the audience know what it felt like to have been dealt with as a “problem” by non-Native government and religious authorities. From 1986 to 1992, he has been playwright in residence, actor, director and artistic director of what is now known as Native Earth Performing Arts. Some of his well-known plays, such as The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, have been presented for the first time with Native Earth. As stated on the Native Earth website, Highway was working there when the company “instituted an annual development festival of new work called Weesageechak Begins to Dance.” Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing won the Dora Mavor Moore Award in 1988. The author was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1994.
Thomson Highway’s work was groundbreaking because no other aboriginal artist had done as much for Native theatre before him. Of course, oral traditions and performing arts existed for the First Nations, but access to these riches of Canadian culture was limited, if not nonexistent, for non-Native Canadians before the nineteen seventies and eighties. Also, because of the systematic assimilation operated in residential schools, generations of Natives have been alienated from traditional practices. Before Highway started writing, very few non-Native Canadians were aware of the challenges faced by native populations in their own country due to the residential school solution to “the Indian problem.”
In Dry Lips, Tomson Highway shows what effects the remnants of residential schooling can have on a group of men. The play is set on a fictional reserve, which to me indicates that the trauma could have happened to any Native across Canada. It also makes the reader understand how excruciatingly painful it can be for grown-ups to talk about the physical or sexual abuse they suffered when they were children if they want to heal from what Wasserman calls “the poison” (41) and move on. “Dry Lips finally celebrates survival and renewal, and the need for people to deal with the consequences of their own behaviour.” (42)
A glimpse at the Fur Queen
Tomson Highway’s father Joe was the 1951 winner of the World Championship Dog Race. The event is part of the Northern Manitoba Trapper’s Festival held each winter in the town of The Pas. Just like in Highway’s novel, a Fur Queen is actually crowned during this festival held in February. The beauty pageant is real; however the author has given a magical dimension to this trickster figure in Kiss of the Fur Queen. There is a lexicon of words and expressions in Cree which help the reader to understand the universe and cosmology of the novel. A parallel can be drawn between Cree not having a system of feminine, masculine or neutral gender for each word and the varying gender of the trickster figure from one Native story to the next. In her Quill & Quire review of the novel, Suzanne Methot writes that “the women are one-dimensional, assigned to roles as mother or clown or tough girl or victim;” but that it is also “a reflection on one Cree man’s struggle to understand his place within two worlds.”(56)
By Stéphanie Roy
"An dah stories you know
Dats dah bes treasure of all to leave your family.
Everything else on dis eart
He gets los or wore out
But dah stories
Dey las forever."
(Stories of the road allowance people, 1995)
Maria Campbell is a Métis author, activist, playwright, volunteer, theatre producer, community worker, professor, storyteller, and filmmaker born in Northern Saskatchewan in 1940. She has a mix of Cree, Scottish, French, Irish and English blood. Bruce Sealey wrote: “In Canada the term Metis is loosely applied to all persons of mixed White and Indian blood who are not classified as Indian by the government”(1978) . Being Métis had a great deal of influence over Campbell’s life; she had to face exclusion, prejudice and indescribable poverty from her early childhood. As Danielle Baxter wrote, “The Métis people lived (and in many ways, continue to live) outside both the White dominant culture and that of status Indians, belonging to neither and marginalised by both. The community Campbell grew up in was literally on the margins- having no land of their own they lived as squatters on the road allowances”(p.2-1984)
As a Metis woman, she went through a lot, as told in Halfbreed published in 1973. After joining Alcoholics Anonymous at age 33, she stated to get better and better and started fighting for Halfbreeds’ rights. She did a lot of social work most of it related to children’s and women’s welfare. She also started to write, publishing many books such as: People of the Buffalo: How the Plains Indians Lived (1976); Little Badger and the Fire Spirit (1977); Riel’s People (1978); Achimoona (an anthology, 1985); The Book of Jessica: A Theatrical Transformation (1989) and The Road Allowance People (1995). Her books have had a great deal of influence over Native writing, influencing many women to speak up. She has received several awards, one of the most famous being the Molson Prize in the Arts. Awarding Maria Campbell: “The brilliance of her breakthrough memoir, Halfbreed, which changed perceptions of the Métis experience forever, has been followed by other significant work, making a profound contribution to Canadian theatre, film, television and radio. Her status as a teacher, mentor and inspiration to Aboriginal people and all Canadians is unparalleled” (Molson Prize of Arts). She is the recipient of several other awards such as: The 2008 Order of Canada, the 2006 Distinguished Canadian Award, and the 1992 Gabriel Dumont Medal of Merit. She also received honorific doctorates from University of Regina, Athabasca University, and York University for her work. She is also teaching native literature and history in University, helping non-natives to better understand Natives and Metis. She also did a lot of work to teach the young natives about their history and wrote children books.
Her work has been received in various ways, many critics affirmed that Halfbreed was written for non-natives, was not written truly, followed the Whites’ written patterns and had a linear aspect. Agnes Grant has observed: “Though the book was written for Non-Natives Maria keeps them at a distance. She writes of things she knows, which she believes her readers do not know. The humour and irony are very effective in pointing out to the readers that, indeed, Maria is right.” Some have argued that even though she wrote Halfbreed to explain the life of Halfbreed women in Canada, her story is highly personal. As Gretchun M. Bataille wrote: “Although one learns a great deal about the life of Halfbreed women in Canada from Campbell’s story, it is the individual story of her life that is at the center of the narrative. The dramatic moments, the frustrations, the fears are clearly hers, and the concern is with her life not with the larger group of Indian women who might share similar experiences.”(p.162-1984) Some critics such as Danielle Baxter affirmed that the Book of Jessica was more representative “Jessica speaks primarily to Campbell’s own people, and is both more honest and less linear, uses symbolism extensively, offers no explanations. It is far darker, more painful and more powerful”. (p.3-2006) There is also a debate about whether Halfbreed is humorous or angry. From my point of view, Maria Campbell wrote Halfbreed out of “frustration and anger” as she said herself, but humour is present through the text. Kate Vangen wrote: “Campbell’s humour takes the form of humorous anecdote and situational irony. Nevertheless, what she chooses to highlight indicates a defi-irony controlled, yet fuelled by frustration and anger” (1997, p.207) which explains very well that point of view.
Maria Campbell is also known as a writer because of her distinctive writing style. In fact, because she is Métis, she herself is a living example of hybridity. She also uses a filter: the English language. In stories of the allowance people Maria uses a form that she calls “process of decolonization of the language.” “In order to keep the printed forms as true as possible to their origins, she took each one through a series of translations from the original Michif, through formal English, and then to an orally-oriented English that is made to be heard as much as read’’. (2006-p.3) It is clear that Maria Campbell’s writing is a strategy of survival, survival for her and survival for her people. “I didn’t start writing, making films or working on theatre because of the need to create. I did that because I need to survive” (strategies for survival 7). A great example is Stories of the road allowance people where she is writing stories for them to survive time. In several ways she helped her people through her work. She helped them cope and remember.
"I write this for all of you, to tell you what it is like to be a Halfbreed woman in our country. I want to tell you about the joys and sorrows, the oppressing poverty, the frustrations and the dreams." (Halfbreed, 1973)
By Kristel Bérard