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Survival Cree, or Weesakeechak dances down Yonge street - Heather Hodgson speaks with Tomson Highway
by Heather Hodgson

Born in 1951 in a tent on his father's trapline, Tomson Highway is a Cree from Brochet, a reserve in the extreme northwest corner of Manitoba. He studied classical music and English literature in Canada and England, but gave up his blossoming career as a concert pianist to work for Native support organizations. For six years (1986-92), he was Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto, where he produced and directed new plays by emerging Native playwrights. Since then he has served as writer-in-residence at universities across the country. Trilingual (Cree, English, French), he holds three honorary degrees and is a member of the Order of Canada. He is probably best known for his hilarious and ribald plays, The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughtta Move to Kapuskasing, which won him several prestigious awards and which were nominated for the Governor General's Award. His first novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen, was recently published by Doubleday and is a semi-autobiographical tale about two Cree brothers and the Trickster who watches over them.

In mid-October, my mother and I drove from Regina to Saskatoon for an interview with Tomson Highway. We met him at the Bessborough Hotel. Highway was startled, but delighted, to be greeted in Cree-the Cree-speaker being my mother. They spoke for a few minutes, laughing, which is typical for Cree, before I could break in. In English.

Highway (grinning): Eemanapiteepitat.

Mom (laughing): Niwawiyatêyihtên (in Cree, that's very funny).

Highway (laughing, and turning to me): Eemanapiteepitat is the name of the village where the Cree brothers in Kiss of the Fur Queen are from. In English it would mean "he pulls her teeth or his teeth", as a dentist would. But it isn't funny in English and that's what we mean. It sounds really funny in Cree to your mom and me but there's no humour in it at all when it's translated into English.

Dancing as Liturgy

A striking feature of the dust jacket for Kiss of the Fur Queen is the dancer superimposed on a snow-scape, which gives a visual impression of the importance of dance to Native cultures, and of the interrelationship between the spirit world and the world of the living. The dancer's circular movement evokes grace, beauty, and the balance important in Native culture. That balance was tipped when the Canadian government and the Catholic Church told Native people that they could no longer dance.

TH: Dance is a metaphor for everything in our culture: for ritual, for art, for religion. Dance is a metaphor for being, so if we cannot dance, we cannot pray.

In the novel, the brothers begin life as Champion and Ooneemeetoo, the youngest sons of Mariesis and Abraham Okimasis. Abraham is the first Native man to win the Trapper's Festival Dog Sled Race and, as part of his prize, he is kissed by the festival's Fur Queen. Nine months later, a son, Champion, is born to his wife, and when Champion is three, his little brother comes into the world. This beautiful boy is named Ooneemeetoo, which in Cree means the dancer. Later on, the boys are given Biblical names: Champion is renamed Jeremiah, and Ooneemeetoo becomes Gabriel.

Damaged Spirit

The Trickster follows the Okimasis boys everywhere they go. The Trickster is Native peoples' most important teacher. Known to the Cree as Weesakeechak, the Trickster can assume various guises and can change shape at will. Tricksters teach by negative example and, in doing so, they do something good and regain our trust, only to hoodwink us again. Tricksters are genderless, two-spirited creatures, elevated above human beings and who, at the same time, celebrate the most basic human needs. In this novel, the Fur Queen is one of the Trickster's many guises, and while some of these incarnations are hilarious, others are deeply disturbing. All are intended to provoke thought (the method in the Trickster's teaching). At her most provocative and hilarious, the Trickster is all: Miss Maggie-Weesageechak-Nanabush-Coyote-Raven-Glooscap-oh-you-should-hear-the-thing-they-call-me-honeypot-Sees, weaver of dreams, sparker of magic, showgirl from hell. Her mischief, humour, and wit are in stark contrast to the anger of what the boys come to experience as a judgmental and embittered, dreadfully unhappy, Christian God.

A major theme of the novel is the damage inflicted by representatives of organized religion on the Native spirit, particularly of those Native children who were wards of Catholic-run residential schools. The implications of such scarring are far-reaching, impacting not only on those directly involved but also on subsequent generations.

TH: My novel is about the killing of one religion by another, about the killing of God as woman by God as man. The novel is also about AIDS and how it is spread, but ultimately Kiss of the Fur Queen is about the revitalizing, life-giving force of art.

The Lens of Humour

Highway's humour is Cree to the core. Historically, and since before the arrival of Christianity, Native peoples did not feel a sense of shame associated with jokes about the body, and they often use humour to dull the pain, thereby creating an opening through which the wounds of life can be healed. This is crucial: Cree humour is not simply episodic; it is a distinctive way of being in and looking at the world. Conventional taboos are often filtered through the lens of humour.

Native theatre proceeds, or better still, seems to perform best through puns and jokes, even if the subject is tragedy or misfortune. Theatre is Highway's medium. He prefers the theatre because he sees it as a natural extension of the oral storytelling tradition. On the stage, actors speak their words to an audience with whom they have direct contact. The script is embodied. Also, the theatre is noisy. By contrast, in a novel, everyone, including the author, characters, and even readers, are passive, disembodied. And the text is quiet.

Kiss of the Fur Queen might very well have ended up on the stage were it not for the fact that, as he told us, he has trouble getting his plays produced-even after the remarkable success of The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughtta Move to Kapuskasing, and even after his stint as Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto. So Kiss of the Fur Queen became a novel by default, precisely the more interesting because it intersects literary genres, and contains elements of the oral tradition and plays. It is the novel as play; it is a novel which reforges "oral literature in printed form". As such, it is much like Highway himself whose particular upbringing has placed him at the intersection of different languages and cultures.

Highway said numerous times that Kiss of the Fur Queen had to be written. Keeping such a story inside results in the return of the repressed, in haunting nightmares-perhaps daymares too-that eventually induce sickness. Telling is healing. It is somewhat ironic that while the theatre is what Highway feels can best present Native issues to an audience, it is his novel that is likely to reach the widest audience yet.

Communing with the Past

The epigraphs illuminate Highway's calling as a writer and set forth his themes. At the beginning of Dry Lips Oughtta Move to Kapuskasing, the epigraph warns that "before the healing can take place, the poison must first be exposed". That play and this novel both expose some of the poison responsible for the suffering of Native people since colonization. Highway said that he may spend the rest of his writing life trying to sort out his anger at the Catholic church, the compulsory English language, and European cultural imperialism in general.

The first epigraph in Kiss of the Fur Queen is an edict from the Deputy Superintendant General of the Department of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, instructing his bureaucrats to "[u]se [their] utmost endeavours to dissuade the Indians from excessive indulgence in the practice of dancing." Dancing for Native people is iconic of the fullest human expression of being. In Kiss of the Fur Queen, dancing is the reason for being for the younger of the two protagonists. To stop dancing is, in a sense, to cease living and become an other. Ironically, even hypocritically, the top bureaucrat of Indian Affairs, who was also a poet and who wrote poems about Native people, was capable of issuing an edict for a Native spiritual holocaust.

The second epigraph in Kiss of the Fur Queen is from Chief Seattle of the Squamish, who in effect warns that the dead who still love this land, are here among us and have power as spirits to protect and be consulted. This communion with the ancestors, with the spirits of the dead, is central to Native beliefs and to the characters in Kiss of the Fur Queen.

North Wind Sonata

HH: I'm interested in how your musical training informs your work. You titled the chapter headings as if they were movements in a sonata and those headings foreshadow the mood and speed of the action in each chapter. The first movement is what every childhood should be: a joyful allegro that we wish would never end. It does-and the subsequent movements, six in total, all carry the emotional implications suggested by their Italian headings. We respond viscerally to the tempo of each part. The reader feels his pulse and breathing adjust to changes in the mood and speech.

TH: The novel is like a grand piano: it is built as a sonata, to which the younger brother dances. I have a degree in music. I'm trained as a classical pianist. And it's an education for which I'm infinitely grateful. My father was a musician. So was my grandfather. There was lots of music in my family all the time. I've always considered life and my art in very musical terms. I've certainly always considered language in musical terms, too-the sound of language and the sound of the human voice itself as musical instruments.

HH: But the instrument central to our culture is the drum because its rhythm feels like and echoes the heartbeat of Mother Earth. But drum sounds do not capture the same range of sound that the piano can capture: the sounds of water and wind, for example, from nature. A couple of times in Kiss of the Fur Queen, Jeremiah describes the sound of the north wind as the most beautiful sound he has ever heard.

TH: Yes... and piano music at its most basic divides and subdivides sound waves. But how our ears and bodies respond to these different waves of sound is still connected to the drum because the individual sounds correspond with the beat of the heart of the earth and that is why music is so powerful.

A conductor's skill in indicating the right tempo is crucial, and Highway, the pianist, is also a master conductor, correctly gauging the meaning of each movement and the intent of his entire composition. Kiss of the Fur Queen is both sombre and hopeful as a piano sonata, but it is also an honour song for those who were sexually abused in residential schools. There is something incongruous between Highway's choice of that quintessentially European genre and his apparent aversion to that culture. Yet it is the sonata and the novel forms that offer him the structural complexities required to organize this book.

Father Lafleur

Not only music, but the novel's distinctly Cree elements score the story: the simultaneous telling of many stories, a mutually-informing past and present, the circularity of time, the enigmatic incarnations of the Trickster that enable Highway to infuse the dark subject of sexual abuse with some redemptive light. His prose is light, in spite of the tragic story it bears. Such plainly elegant writing and musical lyricism strongly intimate that Highway has made himself at home and can move in the straightjacket of the English language. And the anger and indignation he expressed in our interview toward the English language are hard to discern in these pages. But his frequent use of Cree words and phrases does not only convey the identity of the novel's author and characters, it also subverts the dominant language itself because Highway's stamp is on it-he forges his own idiosyncratic vocabulary just as a strong writer on the margins should.

The striking beauty of the prose is attributable to Highway's grasp of the inadequacy of English as he finds it and of direct description. Referential language would only diminish the force and the horror of certain aspects of the story. In its darkest moments, the book is far less graphic than might be expected. "Cloth brushing against cloth, stopping briefly and then swishing on" and a "crucifix... rubbing its body against a child's lips" say more about the predatory sexual activities of the clerical custodian, Father Lafleur, as he moves among the slumbering children than any graphic description could. Reading certain portions of this text gives the reader a sense of the terror these children felt.

How to Make English Laugh

Highway creates and dreams in Cree. He imagines his plays in Cree, and translates them simultaneously as he writes. Yet, the limits of translation are immediately acknowledged by his insertion of Cree words and phrases that pepper the English prose, tickling it, and trying to make it laugh. Humour and laughter are sorely needed in a culture trying to heal from the effects of colonization, and whose history is so full of strife. In fact, the Cree language seems to work like a salve.

TH: Cree, unlike English, is a laughing language.

HH: Whereas English is a humourless language of institutions, the language responsible for the abuse of Natives. So Cree puns and laughter rupture the complacent conventional semantics. They Cree-ate a window of surprize for the Other, as it were.

TH: Our Native languages are too valuable a resource. They have many crucially valuable things to say.

HH: That can't be said in English?

TH: Right. And that's why I write Cree into my work. Cree is also a very musical language. You can play music with its sounds in such fantastic ways.

HH: In the novel, it's suggested that Cree is a language you can almost taste. You get angry at the English language and what happens to Cree in translation.

TH: The hardest part I find in the translation process is that the English language is not terribly funny. It's a language of the head, it's a cerebral language, it works from up here. Cree is a very visceral, physical language, an instinctual language...

HH: You mean it's very connected to the body.

TH: Yes...and to the earth.

Highway generously included a Cree glossary at the back of the novel. While the glossary orients the reader and enables the reader a glimpse of the humour, it also undercuts Highway's linguistic subversion by annihilating precisely the sense of the otherness of the other. Hence the problem of translation reasserts itself.

And Cree translated into English does lose something essential: its humour. Yet, readers may wonder whether what Highway diagnoses as his relation to English is not simply the sense that a speaker has about his mother tongue, contrasted with his experience of linguistic exile in an other's language.

Still, Highway's biggest challenge in translation is to try to make English laugh. Although I've long heard this from my Cree mother, I still find the idea of a laughing language difficult to grasp. Yet it does offer an explanation about why Cree and other Native people seem to spend such a lot of time laughing and teasing each other.

Collective Panic

Not too long ago, Native history could be gleaned from the old stories, but colonization and the printed word interrupted that oral tradition and made it vulnerable to extinction. About fifteen years ago, a slow-growing, collective panic set in. A whole generation became acutely aware that many of its children could not speak their Native language. The danger of the disappearance of Native languages went hand-in-hand with the danger of the disappearance of the old stories and the Native version of history on this continent. As the storytellers died, with them were buried their stories. This stark realization of the vulnerability inherent in the oral tradition prompted the appropriation of writing so that the stories would be preserved and handed down. The residue of this determination is the subsequent flowering of Native literature.

At the same time, such genres as the short story and the novel with their European origins began to eclipse the Native oral storytelling form with its tricksters and its multiple and multiplanar stories. Then, television, the most "nefarious influence on Native cultural traditions", according to Highway, entrenched itself in the chipboard living rooms of almost every reservation home. Natives in the inner cities had even more distractions to contend with which often conflicted with the values of their traditions and cultures. But after decades of repression, and after nearly disappearing altogether, the old stories began to come back. These old stories, along with the Trickster who takes all the credit and insists on leading the way, have been experiencing a rebirth.

Highway witnessed first-hand the recovery of the storytelling tradition. In fact he has helped to bring back the Trickster, and he continues to inject new life into the old stories. In the hybrid genre which Highway has created, the Trickster takes a conventional literary form and rearticulates it to suit the needs of its own culture.

Highway describes this recovery as having started when Natives migrated to the cities for education and employment in the early sixties, and how Friendship Centres gave urban Natives a home. Because of these centres, Native people in the cities felt less alienated from their surroundings. Hence, they were soon able to flex a new kind of muscle that manifested itself in artistic expression. Today Native people are entrenched city-dwellers, and the Native arts community is flourishing there too. And the tricksters, bush or urban, are helpful in this process of urban recreation.

TH: Traditionally, our tricksters, our mythological figures, were rural. Weesakeechak always lived in the bush. Well, that's all changed. We brought Weesakeechak to the city, and now Weesakeechak lives in the city and he plays there too. Weesakeechak walks down Yonge Street; in fact, he prances down Yonge Street.

Here, we are tripping over the fact that Highway appropriates that quintessential European genre, the novel, for his own literary purposes. What to make of this perceived tension? No doubt it is a transgressive and creative tension: with the help of the city-trickster, Weesakeechak, Highway recreates the novel, planting it in Native soil.

The Trickster Strikes Back

HH: Cities for many of our people are lonely, scary places. I think that's why Native city-dwellers connect so quickly with your plays: the settings are so rez and they've known that setting, long for it, perhaps. You've referred to the dichotomy between Toronto and the fictitious reserve, Wasaychigan, saying you chose a reserve near enough to a city so you could explore the movement, physically and psychologically, back and forth, between these two worlds.

TH: That's an exploration that continues.

HH: Well, the city in Kiss of the Fur Queen again turns out to be an alienating, isolated, and lonely place for Jeremiah and Gabriel. And I think we've both known this fact in our own experience of the cities we've lived in.

TH: Yes, but I think it's our responsibility to make cities good places to live for Native people. The Native population in this country is in a state of transition and we have certain problems that plague our communities. There's confusion, there's a lot of abuse-especially wife abuse and wife-battering-in Native communities across the country. There's a very high incidence of marital dysfunction and the worst thing about that is how it affects the children. All those things create a terrible confusion and I think I wrote this novel as one, hopefully, among a whole series of novels and plays and other works of art, addressing the basic issue of religion, spirituality, because I think this is at the origin of all these problems.

HH: And Native art is the best vehicle through which to address these issues?

TH: The arrival of Weesakeechak was a magical moment for the Native arts community in Toronto where about 65,000 people, in a population of four million, are Native.

HH: And you think that Native art can be a more effective healing instrument than social workers or the courts?

TH: Yes, I do think so. Weesakeechak is making the city into a home for Native people. But Weesakeechak followed close behind Native artists. The first wave of artists to come forward with statements from their own culture, history, and mythology was the painters. In the early sixties, the landmark first exposition was by Norval Morrisseau, who took the oral literature of Native people and put it on canvas and paint. For the first time, non-Native people had access to our stories and myths. Many had thought the history of this country began in 1492! The stories then moved from the medium of paint and canvas to the medium of the stage. Native actors translated the oral literature from the painters' canvasses into a performance with light, space, sets, costumes, and the human voice.


The Fur Queen, as the most prominent incarnation of the Trickster in Highway's novel, follows the Okimasis brothers, renamed Jeremiah and Gabriel, to the city. She flickers in the text like a flame. Sometimes she makes us laugh; other times her guise provokes and startles. Usually she reveals some relation to the evils of temptation. More often than not, the Trickster serves as a warning, a lesson in how not to be.

In fact, temptation enslaves mainstream culture in Kiss of the Fur Queen. As shopping malls supplant churches in the consumer capitalism, greed is the contemporary vertigo that eats up human souls and spits them out. The dominant culture, presented here as spiritually malnourished, seems intent on filling up its emptiness with all the wrong things, running after and acquiring new addictions. That spiritual emptiness is what Highway suggests holds such an attraction for non-Natives to Native culture.

Beyond a Rhetoric of Envy

Mom: Kiss of the Fur Queen is the closest thing to Cree that I've ever read in English. You've included in it the spirit world, Weesakeechak the Trickster, and many peoples' stories, all of which eventually connect at some point. You also present time as we do in Cree time: as something that works in a circular way because the past and present inform each other. These things make the novel so very Cree to me. I remember I felt the same about The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips, both of which contain multiple stories, and both of which also occupy two realms: this world and the spirit world.

TH: Yes, you're right. The Rez Sisters is eight stories written simultaneously: stories about seven women and the Trickster. And Kiss of the Fur Queen is like that too. It contains more than one story and it travels on several different planes simultaneously.

Mom: It's very Cree...

TH: Yes, absolutely. It's the Cree way of thinking: not hierarchical but communal...and simultaneous.

Mom: Our stories are so different from those of the dominant culture. There is usually so much going on in them, and on several different levels. In fact, they only get to the point after they've reached into many different perspectives. I think you managed to represent that aspect of Cree culture very well in the novel.

TH: Native people have something to offer the rest of the world, especially as we approach the millenium. It's very ironic that while Christian missionaries tried to stomp out Native spirituality, it not only survived, it bloomed. Our spirituality comes from our dreamworld...We're very connected to everything else in that way. We acknowledge that the spirits of our ancestors are still with us, that they still walk this land, and are a very active part of our lives and our imaginations. We still have that while mainstream culture doesn't. It's lost that faith, that magic, that wonder. So I think they kind of envy us.

Healing Stories

We are living in the aftermath of a decade of disclosures about the abuses suffered by Native children in residential schools. In the early eighties, I worked in this field, and at that time, a certain quietism prevailed on the front lines of Native alcohol and drug abuse programs, in which Highway also worked. It wasn't long after those programs were established, however, that the poison began to be exposed and it was far more horrible than anyone could expect. At that time, the effects of sexual abuse were seen as the problem which needed treatment, while the root causes were entirely overlooked. Furthermore, no one knew where to begin as financial or human resources were minimal. Much has come out publicly since then, and all kinds of institutional apologies have been made; but the public disclosures by victims about their abuse seem to do more to effect the healing of Native people across the country than any amount of money can. Perhaps this relates to the old system of Native justice and sentencing circles in which the punishment of the perpetrator included being confronted by his victim. The shame and embarrassment of such public confrontations were often as much as any wrongdoer could bear.

Today stories of abuse can be found in the literature. The number of examples of this increases with time, adding to the first literary healing efforts by Native writers like Beatrice Culleton and Maria Campbell. Perhaps the wounds will continue to heal through voices like Highway's and others, which articulate victims' suffering and give them enough strength to carry on. Storytelling has always had a healing quality. Can literature and theatre live up to such great expectations? Well, Highway's work already suggests that it can, even though there is a limit to the adequacy of words to capture that suffering. To our benefit, he pushes these complacent limits of what can be said and enacted in words.

for you, little brother

Kiss of the Fur Queen is dedicated to Tomson Highway's younger brother, René, who died of AIDS. In Cree, the dedication reads: Igwani igoosi n'seemis. This means, roughly, for you, little brother. How much love and loss are packed into that little phrase! As always, however, something essential is lost in translation. I listened to Tomson and my mother lament this fact as they unsuccessfully searched for equivalent English words. For them, of course, it is not possible to retrieve the deep resonance the Cree phrase has, rooted in the context of family and of Cree life. I in turn lamented the loss that I could not even feel the loss of the meaning they experienced!

Kiss of the Fur Queen sings with hope despite the almost unbearable suffering and loss, and it is the music and the dance that carry the reader safely to the end of its journey. Tomson's strength in writing this novel was born out of a precious memory-that of his brother, René, dancing to his music.

TH: For me, the novel is like a new instrument, and the act of writing has become a form of prayer, the only form of prayer. This novel is like a grand piano that Jeremiah the pianist receives from his brother, Gabriel, at the end of his life. Jeremiah plays his sonata on the grand piano, and his younger brother dances.

Thank you for the dance, René-and Tomson, pray, dance on! 

Heather Hodgson is a lecturer in the Department of English at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, University of Regina. She is the editor of Seventh Generation: An Anthology of Contemporary Native Writing (Theytus Books).


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