Tomson Highway

MUSICIAN/WRITER/NOVELIST

Tomson Highway, OC, playwright, novelist, pianist and songwriter (born 6 December 1951 in northwestern Manitoba). Highway is one of the most prominent and influential Indigenous writers in Canada. His works discuss and explore important issues affecting First Nations people, including residential schools, reserve life, Indigenous identity and more. Highway is an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 1998 was named one of the 100 most important people in Canadian history by Maclean’s. Tomson received the Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement at the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards in 2022.

Tomson Highway’s early plays — which concern Indigenous society and dramatize the beauty, durability and optimism of Indigenous culture — include The Sage, the Dancer and the Fool (1984), A Ridiculous Spectacle in One Act (1985), New Song…New Dance (1986), Aria (1987) and Annie and the Old One (1988).

Highway’s two best-known works, The Rez Sisters (1986), which focuses on the dreams and fears of seven female characters, and its flip-side sequel, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (1989), which features seven males struggling with various preoccupations, both won the Dora Mavor Moore Award and the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award. Both were also nominated for Governor General’s awards. Set on the fictional reserve of Wasaychigan Hill in Ontario, the two plays include a highly theatrical Trickster who, as Highway describes it, is “as pivotal and important a figure in the Native world as Christ is in the realm of Christian mythology.” In contrast to the life-affirming impulse and humour of The Rez Sisters, Dry Lips is a darker, more violent and disturbing drama, though it offers hope that healing can take place. It was the first Canadian play to receive a full and extended run at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre. In 2010, Highway republished Rez Sisters and Dry Lips in the Cree language.

From 1986 to 1992, Tomson Highway was artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts, one of the most prominent Indigenous theatre companies in Canada. His brother René, a dancer and choreographer, was also heavily involved in Native Earth. In 1990, René died of AIDS, a personal loss that triggered Highway to write his autobiographical first novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998), about two Cree brothers who are removed from their homeland in northern Manitoba and enrolled in a boarding school. Subjected to abuse, hostility and humiliation, followed by violent confrontations on the racist streets of Winnipeg, the boys suffer a harsh transition to city life. The novel, however, also traces the brothers’ artistic destinies and their lifelong triumph over tragedy. The book was shortlisted for the Canadian Booksellers’ Association Fiction Book of the Year Award and the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award.

In 2005, Highway wrote the libretto for an opera in Cree and English, Pimooteewin, an adaptation of a story about the Trickster’s visit to the land of the dead. It premiered at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto. He also wrote the libretto for the opera, Chaakapesh: The Trickster’s Quest (2018). The documentary Chaakapesh (2019) documents a tour by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra to perform the opera in 2018.

In 2017, Highway premiered Songs in the Key of Cree, a musical performance made up of his songs from some of his plays. The songs are all written and performed in the Cree language. Songs in the Key of Cree features accompanying performers Patricia Cano (Peruvian-Canadian cabaret singer) and Marcus Ali (jazz saxophonist). Tomson released Cree Country, a country music album, in 2022, also featuring Cano.

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