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. (See also Influential Indigenous Writers in Canada.)
Early Life and Education
Tomson Highway was raised in northwestern Manitoba, the 11th of 12 children, to a Cree family of caribou hunters. At the age of six, Highway was taken from his family by the Canadian government and placed in Guy Hill Residential School, which he attended until he was 15. (See also Residential Schools in Canada.) He completed his high school education in Winnipeg, boarding with white families, and later attended the University of Manitoba and Western University, where he studied music and English literature and worked with playwright James Reaney.
After graduating in 1976, Highway immersed himself in social work for the next seven years, working on reserves and in urban centres across Ontario. At the age of 30, compelled to record his wide-ranging experience of Indigenous life and to put his artistic training to use, he began writing plays.
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.
Some other Highway plays include The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito (1991); Rose (2000), which features characters from The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips; and Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout (2004). In 2013, Highway wrote The (Post) Mistress, a one-woman musical about the post office clerk of a small Northern Ontario town who shares the stories of the letters she handles every day. (See also Theatre by Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
Did you know?
Tomson Highway can speak four languages: Cree (his first language), English, French, and Spanish. Highway said in a 2022 five-minute film about his life by the National Film Board, Tomson Highway: kipimâtisinaw tapâhpeyahk, that if you count playing piano as a language, then he speaks five.
Books and Other Writings
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.
Aside from numerous plays and his novel, Highway’s work notably includes three children’s books —Caribou Song (2001), Dragonfly Kites (2002) and Fox on the Ice (2003) — and the critical essay Comparing Mythologies (2003), which explores how Canadian culture is defined by a fusion of Indigenous and Western mythologies . He has also written for anthologies. "The Lover Snake," a short story about a Sikh and Cree man appeared in An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English (1992). Highway also wrote for Our Story: Aboriginal Voices On Canada’s Past (2005) and for two collections edited by Drew Hayden Taylor, Me Funny (2006) and Me Sexy: An Exploration of Native American Sexuality (2008).
Highway wrote his memoir, Permanent Astonishment (2021). It explores the first 15 years of his life. The book won the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction in 2021.
Music and Film
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.
Awards and Honours
In addition to honourary doctorates from universities across Canada, Tomson Highway’s many distinctions include the following:
- Outstanding New Play, Dora Mavor Moore Award (Rez Sisters), Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts (1987)
- Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award (Rez Sisters) (1987)
- Outstanding New Play, Dora Mavor Moore Award (Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing), Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts (1989)
- Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award (Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing) (1990)
- Toronto Arts Award, Arts Foundation of Greater Toronto (1990)
- Member, Order of Canada (1994)
- Silver Ticket Award, Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts (1999)
- National Aboriginal Achievement Award (2001) (now the Indspire Award)
- Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction (Permanent Astonishment) (2021)
- Officer, Order of Canada (2021)
- Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award for Theatre, Governor General's Performing Art Awards (2022)
List of Publications
- New Song... New Dance, 1986
- Aria, 1987
- The Rez Sisters, 1986 (re-released in 2010 asIskooniguni Iskweewuk)
- Annie and the Old One, 1989
- The Sage, the Dancer and The Fool, 1989
- Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, 1989 (re-released in 2010 asPaasteewitoon Kaapooskaysing Tageespichit)
- A Ridiculous Spectacle in One Act, Rene Highway Collection, 1990
- The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito, 1991
- Rose, 2000
- Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout, 2005
- Kisageetin, 2009
- The (Post) Mistress, 2010
- Kiss of the Fur Queen, 1998
- Johnny National, Super Hero, 2001
- Caribou Song, 2001
- Dragonfly Kites, 2002
- Fox on the Ice, 2003
- Comparing Mythologies, 2003
- A Tale of Monstrous Extravagance: Imagining Multilingualism, 2015
- From Oral to Written, 2017
- "The Lover Snake" in An Anthology of Canadian Native Literature in English (originally published in 1992).
- Our Story: Aboriginal Voices On Canada’s Past, 2005
- Me Funny, 2006
- Me Sexy: An Exploration of Native American Sexuality, 2008
- Pimooteewin, 2008
- Chaakapesh: TheTrickster’s Quest, 2018
- Songs in the Key of Cree, 2017
- Cree Country, 2022