The Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway

Tomson Highway, Oct. 2011.

Tomson Highway, Oct. 2011. Truelight. 234 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Rez Sisters launched Highway’s career as a notable and influential playwright in Canada, and earned him a Dora Mavor Moore Award in 1987. The play was initially performed only in Indigenous communities, but then moved to major stages across the country.

The Rez Sisters is part of Highway’s Rez Cycle. The Cycle begins with The Rez Sisters (1986), it progresses with Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (1989), and ends with Rose (1999). Each play follows life in the fictional Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve (“Wasy”) and blends languages.

The play follows seven women from the reserve as they organize their trip to play bingo in Toronto. It integrates Cree and Ojibway languages (now commonly referred to as N?hiyaw?win and Anishinaabemowin, respectively), and highlights the importance of Nanabush, a figure who some anthropologists classify as a trickster.

Highway includes a note on Nanabush in the sequel to this play, Dry Lips, which follows seven men from the same reserve. Nanabush, he says, is

as pivotal and important a figure in our world as Christ is in the realm of Christian mythology … Essentially a comic, clownish sort of character, his role is to teach us about the nature and the meaning of existence … (12)

The Rez Sisters thus asks many of its implied readers to deal with an unfamiliar context (the reserve), unfamiliar languages (Cree and Ojibway), unfamiliar mythologies (Nanabush), and the lives and concerns of people who they might not otherwise encounter on the Canadian stage.

Questions to Keep in Mind while Reading

  1. Locations: Consider how specific spaces or locations such as the roof, the store, the van, and the urban bingo parlour contribute to characterization and the plot.
  2. Bingo: Why is bingo so important to these characters? What does it reveal about their hopes, dreams, and lives?
  3. Nanabush: If, as Highway notes, Nanabush is a figure whose “role is to teach us about the nature and the meaning of existence” (12), what aspects of existence are affirmed through this figure? What forms does Nanabush take, and how might these be important? What moments does Nanabush influence or inform, and what is revealed through his/her presence?
  4. Languages: At what moments does Highway shift from English to using Nēhiyawēwin (Cree) or Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway)? Why is this linguistic shifting important?

Works Cited

  • Highway, Tomson. Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1989. Print.
  • Highway, Tomson. The Rez Sisters. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1988. Print.