Objective: This exercise invites students to identify and explain some of the key themes, ideas and issues explored in the play.
Materials: Access to Suzanne Keeptwo's article and bio (below)
- Share Suzanne Keeptwo's article and bio with students. Invite them to respond to the debriefing questions independently, in conversation with a partner or in small groups, or in a written reflection.
Tomson Highway's TheRez Sisters, written in the mid 1980s, is noted for being influenced by Michel Tremblay's Les Belles Soeurs written 20 years earlier. Like Tremblay's play, The Rez Sisters depicts a cast of inter-related women of a specific socio-economic status previously unexplored in Canadian theatre. If Tremblay gained notoriety by delving into Quebec cultural identity never seen before, Highway achieved the same by portraying seven reserve-based women from a fictional location but an all too typical First Nation reality. Although situated in northern Ontario, the sisters could be from almost any reserve community across the nation state of Canada. All reserves are federally legislated, meaning regardless of location, they must all adhere to the rules and regulations of the Indian Act. Highway successfully shines a light on the lived experience of women personifying the impact of the Indian Act while celebrating the resiliency and character of the First Nation feminine.
Interestingly, The Rez Sisters was primarily performed for reserve-based and urban Native audiences who had the chance to see themselves depicted as tight knit, honest, tragic, and ridiculous - for the first time - within the safety and magic of the theatre. In this sense, audience members living on or off reserve can recognize the similarities of First Nation women's lives, providing wide spread appeal. From an Indigenous perspective, this play offers a glimpse at solidarity regardless of the trappings within the overlapping lives of these all too familiar characters. In Tomson Highway's honest depiction of these women and their plight, we can laugh at ourselves and each other, otherwise we may very well cry.
Preparing, then traveling to play bingo for big winnings, then back again, is a simple enough plot but the antics between the women and their dialogue coloured with gossip, jealousies, heartaches and complaints are laced with subtle references to Indian Act realities that - to this day - influence the daily existence of all reserve-based status "Indians". The mention of the priest, the lack of services (no public transit, no paved roads), an unsatisfactory band council chief, unemployment, male absenteeism, poverty, alcoholism, sexual and domestic violence, suicide, and the desire to escape - with nowhere to go - are all symptoms of systemic racism and inter-generational oppression prevalent on too many reserves. Sadly, the common aspiration for the women of the play is to win big bingo money to acquire, for the most part, shiny new appliances, indicative of deeply imposed capitalist values that colonization has brought upon us all. Ironically, for Philomena, her dream is for a bigger, whiter toilet symbolizing the need to process all the "sh*t" that goes down on the reserve. It is no coincidence the dream toilet is white. Tomson Highway, just like Trickster mythology itself (described below), is clever with his choices.
The play itself serves as a metaphor of the "elder brother" entity common amongst Cree and other Indigenous peoples, frequently known as "Trickster". This is a mythological figure of the oral storytelling tradition used to teach about the complexities, foibles, and often outrageous nature of human behaviours. Within the play, Highway includes the Trickster character, naming it Nanabush as per the Ojibwe Anishinabeg. Traditionally, Nanabush can manifest into any human or animal form, and gender; the playwright chose to portray this Nanabush as a bird, a symbol of freedom with its ability to take flight - in Life or, by way of death.
Nanabush can be interpreted beyond the Trickster figure and effectively symbolizes pre-colonial Indigenous cultural identity. Present, albeit unseen, throughout the piece, this spiritual entity is witness to the impact of systemic oppression the women embody. S/he responds, in angst, at the recounting of the violent attack of Zhaboonigan and is accessible to those, like Marie-Adele, at the time when body crosses over into spirit or "going home". Within the context of the play, Nanabush - as a symbol of Indigeneity - is rendered invisible by the forces of colonialism but is held deep within the blood memory (ancestral knowledge) of all Indigenous peoples.
The presence of Nanabush provides the greatest source of hope to the rez sisters - and Native audiences alike - whether they know it or not. Like our Indigenous ways of knowing and being, our ancestral knowledge is there waiting for us all to (re)embrace. In spite of the impact of the Indian Act and policies of assimilation, Indigenous Peoples of, what many refer to as, Turtle Island (a.k.a. North America), have survived. Cultural revivalism, pride, sovereignty, and the cry for Indigenous Human Rights are increasingly on the rise. But, there remains a long way forward toward Canada's reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples of these lands, making Tomson Highway's The Rez Sisters still so very relevant to this day. The Rez Sisters provides non-Indigenous audiences the opportunity to glimpse inside this reserve dynamic, a world held-at-bay for far too long due to the same colonial controls.
 Michel Tremblay - French Canadian novelist and playwright from Montreal, Quebec.
 Les Belles Sœurs - Tremblay's play, written in 1965, revolutionized Canadian theatre (particularly Quebec's cultural identity) by introducing working class women speaking their regional dialect, and attacked the deeply religious and conservative society in Quebec at that time.
 Indian Act - A Canadian act of Parliament that concerns registered Indigenous peoples, their bands, and the system of reserves. It has a wide-ranging scope covering governance, land use, healthcare, education, etc.
 plight - a dangerous, difficult, or otherwise unfortunate situation.
 antics - foolish, outrageous, or amusing behaviour.
 absenteeism - the practice of regularly staying away from work, school or absence of duty or obligation without good reason.
 Inter-generational - relating to involving, or affecting several generations.
 aspiration - a hope or ambition of achieving something.
 capitalist values - capitalism - an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. NOTE: The reserve women are aspiring to live like the more financially well-off and have all the comforts and conveniences in their homes.
 colonization - the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the Indigenous people of an area.
 indigeneity - quality of being Indigenous; membership of an Indigenous group.
 colonialism - the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers and exploiting it economically.
 assimilation - the process of adapting or adjusting to the culture of a group or nation, or the state of being so adapted.
 revivalism - the tendency or desire to revive former customs, beliefs.
 sovereignty - the authority of a state to govern itself.
Suzanne Keeptwo, Métis (Algonkin) artist and professional educator, merges traditional Anishinaabe Teachings and artistic expression to enlighten others about Indigenous historical truths & contemporary realities. She has worked across the nation state of Canada as a professional facilitator with host clients including the Museum of Human Rights (Winnipeg), McGill University (Montréal), Full Circle: First Nation Performance (Vancouver) and the College of New Scholars, Artists, and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. Suzanne is also a freelance writer, editor, and consultant and the author of We All Go Back to the Land: The Who, Why, and How of Land Acknowledgements.. Her area of expertise is bridging cultural gaps of understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. She also enjoys leading the Four Nations Exchange, an Indigenous community theatre ensemble (Ottawa).
- Suzanneo Keeptwo talks about the, "deeply imposed capitalist values that colonization has brought upon us all." What do the women's comments about winning bingo reveal about colonialism and its legacy?
- How has colonialism influenced the women's understanding of material comfort and success? How might this influence their own identities and the world around them?