The play The Rez Sister was written by Tomson Highway, a Cree from the Brochet reserve in north-western Manitoba, at the end of the twentieth century. Through a group of seven native women, Tomson Highway’s The RezSisters portrays themes of empowerment and community development. A group of six native women, all sisters in one way or another, develop from their animosity of relationship to a close community. Through their journey to THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD the women are empowered to achieve a common goal, taking responsibility for themselves and for each other. The sisters find the strength in their community and within each other to face their fears. Each woman wants something from the BINGO they are missing something from life. They find their spiritual needs fulfilled through each other despite losing the BINGO and their monetary aspirations.
This play resembles the tribe, Cree who were reserved in the Wasaychigan Hill, and their spiritual belief. As described in The Gale Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes:
The Cree (kree) nation is the largest Indian group in Canada. Historically the tribe had two major divisions: the Woodland Cree, who lived in northwest Manitoba and the Forest of northern Saskatchewan and Alberta, and the plains Cree, who lived in the plains of Saskatchewan. A third tribal division, the Swampy Cree, lived on land from east of Lake Winnipeg to northern Quebec…. They lived as a nomadic people whose survival depended upon travel and mobility (90).
Each tribe believes in one powerful creator who is their guardian or helper. All the phenomena of the universe are under his control. The Rez sister believes in Nanabush who is the Native trickster god, whose presence and spiritual health is a core belief of the Native community. According to Highway “It’s a connection to this great energy, or God, which most people only perceive in moments of extreme crisis, or when they are close to death, can see into the spirit world”. (Highway, quoted in Drama for students). The writer articulates Nanabush throughout the play whenever there is some crisis in the community. When one of the characters named Zhaboonigan was raped, Nanabush came to heal her pain. Nanabush also shows up when Marie Adele dies. This scenario emphasizes people near to death can see the spiritual world. By placing Nanabush in the play, Highway shows that how deeply the trickster is related in Native peoples’ life. This play shows the women on the Wasy Rez, their native culture and beliefs being forgotten, the Wasy community in the midst of a breakdown (Highway, 517). Philomena and Pelajia, the eldest sisters, lament the loss of the old ways. Pelajia recalls when everyone could “rattle away in Indian” but now the old stories and the old language are almost all gone (Highway, 518-18). Culture, spiritual beliefs, and tradition play a big role on the Native peoples’ life.
The inhabitants of the Wasy Rez (Rez is short for reserve), including the sisters, are part of a community that is falling apart. Most of the women are stuck on the welfare, and just getting by on the dirt roads of the Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reservation. Moreover, they don’t have any control over their lives. As explained in the Encyclopedia of North American Indians “Reservation were first created by seventeenth century English colonizers and imposed on American Indian nation to remove them from the path of white settlement”(Hoxie,546). Throughout the play, the main characters shows, “Everyone here’s crazy” (Highway, 518). There is no work on the Rez which makes most of the people on welfare go crazy. Pelajia’s husband has to go hundred miles to find work while her boys had to go all the way to Toronto because its “the only place educated Indian boys can find decent jobs these days” (Highway, 518). There is constant drinking, fighting and adultery. There is “nothing to do but drink and screw each other’s wives and husbands…” (Highway, 518). Infidelity is so common in their society that Veronique marvels in amazement: “…fourteen of them (children)…Imagine….and all from one father” (Highway, 522). An article written by Daniel David Moses in Canadian Fiction Magazine in 1987 states that, “The majority of Native people, forced to inhabit ignored, economically disadvantages areas called reserves, are not encouraged to regard their own lives as important. The accomplishment of the Rez Sisters is that it focuses on a variety of such undervalued lives and brings them up to size” (206). Highway’s play conveys a social massage that if the Native people had enough job opportunities and freedom to live where ever they wanted, they would have succeed to build up their falling community.
In Rez Sisters, the women are divided and unhappy. Depression and boredom moves them to speculate and gossip about each other. Pelajia is so unhappy here that she is ready to leave Rez. They make fun of Annie when she tells everyone her daughter “lives with this white guy in Sudbury” (Highway, 524). As described by Donna Hightower Langston in The Native American World,
Canada’s Indian Act of 1868 gave individual on boards of natives the right to gain enfranchisement as Canadian citizens in exchange for giving up their tribal status. Status women who married nonstatus men automatically lost their tribal status. Many Canadian Indians did choose to become citizens and thus forfeited their tribal membership. The effect of the act was a further disruption of tribal life and diminished tribal population numbers (342).
Even though the Rez sisters are unhappy, they are not ready to give up their tribal status. Philomena says in Rez sisters that: “the place gets in your blood, you can’t get rid of it and it can’t get rid of you” (Highway, 517). Since Annie’s daughter tried to get rid of her tribal status by marring a white guy, Rez sisters are angry with her.
Rez sisters have very painful experience with these white people. They are the reason of their dividing nation, Philomena got pregnant by a white guy who eventually abandoned her, And Zhaboonigan was raped by a gang of white youths who were penetrated her vagina with a screwdriver (Highway,529-530). According to Helen Gilbert’s Postcolonial Plays, “One of Nanabush’s function is to absorb and transform the pain resulting from atrocities associated with the colonization of Native land and cultures” (391). Whenever Zhaboonigan remembers her brutal rape incident, she sees Nanabush who helps to console her pain. Nanabush also helps removing her hatred of white guys, and leads her soul into something beautiful in the earth like the birds of the sky. By doing so, Nanabush tries to erase the brutal concept of race of the society from peoples’ mind.
In this play, all the bickering and accusations among the characters come to the light when a full-scale riot breaks out, and all the symptoms of the community’s breakdown come out (Highway,528).The Rez women seem powerless with all their angry rush of words. The women throw accusations that bring out their true thoughts about each other: ‘“you make promises you don’t keep”, you’re all tough talk - no action, you’re “damned bossy…pushy…have to get your own way”, “you have no morals at all”, “selfish, always putting on white lady airs”, “fuck, fuck, fuck, us Indian women have no business talking like that”, “white guys”, always sucking off everyone else’s life”’ (Highway,528). The pain and violence of their broken community becomes more and more apparent when they narrate Zhaboonigan’s rape (Highway, 529). As pointed out by David Richard’s Theatre Review of The New York Times, “The Rez Sister is rooted in harsh realities; joblessness, prejudice and alcoholism are endemic. The old sustaining Indian rituals have died, replaced by the platitudes of consumerism and country-western music. While the women don’t lack for get–up-and-go, they really have no place to go to” (Richards). In spite of having negative thoughts about each other, the Rez women seem to mingle with themselves right after a horrific fight.
The bond of Rez sisters’ begin to appear only after their fighting drags an undesirable incident. The illness causes Marie-Adele to loose her strength. All action stops to wait and see if she is all right. In her moment of weakness Marie-Adele brings everyone focused together on her, and they speak as one: “shhhh” (Highway, 529). This is the beginning of the reunification of their sisterhood. They also join forces over Emily’s black eye, admonishing her to “use her brains” (Highway, 529). As Carol Bolt remarks in her essay on The Rez Sisters, when seeing the play, audiences feel as if they, have been a part of an extraordinary, exuberant, life-affirming family”(203). Even though it seems they all have distinct characteristics, deep down their heart they are not really different from each other as if they are the flowers of the same garden. They are all full of affection and love.
Another major step in the sister’s community development is the speculation over THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD. Annie Cook leads all the women in a “march” to the post office for conformation of THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD with Nanabush merrily on their trail. At verification THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD coming to Toronto all the women, including Zhaboonigan scream as excitement takes over completely (Highway, 529). News of Marie-Adele’s cancer tests 2 days after THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD, cements their decision to go. It is decided. The women now have one common goal uniting them, to get to THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD. As pointed out in Theatre journal by David Krasner,
Bingo has dual significance: first as a contemporary replacement for traditional Native ritual, and second as a symbolic escape from loneliness, poverty and ennui. The desire of the Rez sisters to find life’s meaning in the big city suggests Chekhov’s TheThree Sisters; both Chekhov and Highway share the same notion that escape from the boredom yields existential motivation (399-400).
Both Highway and Chekhov share the theme of boredom and frustration which lead the community people into a different direction to get rid of their problem. The Rez sister seems to get relief from their monotonous life by playing Bingo now and then.
United with a common goal, the Rez women are then faced with a common problem. Emily points out they “are all welfare cases” and have no money (Highway, 531). They turn to Pelajia, who does have some money, to help. Pelajia suggests they apply to the band office to ask the chief for a loan to fund their trip because the winnings could go towards paving the roads and solving all the problems of the band. The “grand and ridiculous march” to the band office is the women’s first surge of communal energy and self-empowerment. Again, Nanabush, the spirit of Native Culture, trails merrily along with the women as they march. Elated by their newfound empowerment the women are shocked at the chief’s refusal (Highway, 531). Now more than ever the women are passionate about reaching THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD. Empowered to meet the challenge of their goal, the women meet in Pelajia’s basement to work this out on their own. United, the women now argue over how to accomplish the goal. As needs appear the sisters offer ideas and help for the trip. They decide, they can borrow Big Joey’s van, stay in a single room at Philomena’s son. And Emily and Annie can drive throughout the trip. (Highway, 532-33). The biggest obstacle is for these welfare women to find $200 apiece in ten days.
The second serge of communal energy and self-empowerment to reach their goal is fundraising. The effort used by the women in securing their attendance at THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD creates a dizzying cascade of movement on the stage (Highway, 523-530). The play portrays throughout the fundraising, Nanabush is watching over the women, adding to the furious rush to succeed. Through the worlds biggest bake sale, babysitting with “babies attached like fungus”, laundry in every direction, blueberries from Zhaboonigan, house repair, the worlds biggest garage sale, the worlds biggest bottle drive, and country singing at the Anchor Inn, the sisters help each other to raise $1493.65 in ten days. Each woman does what she is capable of and helps the others to complete each task. Pelajia does her “man” work of repairing things, Annie and Emily sing, Veronique bakes, each person has something unique to offer to the drive (Highway, 534-535). Empowered by a goal, the women work together and became an active community.
Having reached their goal the sisterhood of women heads for THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD. Big Joey’s van becomes an intimate travelling community as the women find emotional closeness in the physical closeness of the van (Highway, 536). They share up their real emotions and fears to one another, exposing the spiritual needs tied to winning THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD. Marie-Adele shares her fear of her children being forced apart and of loosing her husband to Annie: “That’s exactly what I’m scared of. I don’t want them kids split up. You come near Eugene you start drinking messing things up me not there and don’t matter where you are…” (Highway, 536). More than loosing Eugene, Marie-Adele is afraid of dying and what will become of her family. After Nanabush comes as the Nighthawk to warn her that her time is close, Marie-Adele admits her real problem is having lost the comfort of Eugene. She says, “een-pay-seek-see-yan”which means she is scared to death (Highway, 537).This is the first time they open up with each other that shows the core of their relationship.
Strengthened by their shared success and the self-empowerment, the Rez sisters are approaching to reach their goal. They take a final step to liberation from the past as they take over THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD. Even before the women knew about THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD, they all knew what they would buy if they won. The sisters’ monetary dreams are a manifestation of the spiritual need they represent. Philomena admits she really needs the money from the BINGO. For hiring a lawyer to find the child she had with a white guy. She was forced to give her up. Initially Pelajia seeks the BINGO money to pave the road in front of her house. Annie wants to have a different way of life based on her love for Fritz and country western music. Veronique wants to have biggest stove on the reserve and cook for all the children of Marie Adele. Emily and Marie-Adele don’t want to buy things they want to escape, Emily her past, and Marie-Adele, her future (Highway, 526-32). As pointed out by David Richards of The New York Times, “the women’s desperation to escape is evident by the repetitive phrase they each use, ‘When I win’ is how they begin their wishful sentences. No one says ‘If I win’” (Richards). Even though they all have different dreams, their motive is to get rid of their agony.
By taking over THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD the women seize control of their own destinies. They take charge by: “Attacking the bingo machine and throwing the Bingo Master out of the way…the women grab the bingo machine…(and)… they go running down the centre aisle with it …total madness and mayhem”(Highway, 542). In their moment of triumph as they take over the BINGO, Marie-Adele meets Nanabush. The sisterhood comes together once again over Marie-Adele, this time over her death. The women are now strong through the self-empowerment they discovered in past challenges. They take this strength and band together in Marie-Adele’s departure.
Marie Adele’s death brings the Rez sisters together in concern for her family and for each other. Pelajia acknowledges the positive spiritual aspect of Marie Adele’s death by saying, “you finally hit the big jackpot” (Highway, 543). Pelajia is empowered by Marie-Adele’s passing to change her own life. She says, “I figure we gotta make the most of it while we’re here. You certainly did. And I sure as hell am giving it one good try. For you, for me…for all of us. Promise…Really…” (Highway, 543). Through Marie-Adele’s death Veronique is “glowing with happiness” as she finds the stove and family she desperately wanted. She intends to take responsibility of them by caring and cooking for Marie-Adele’s 14 children (Highway, 544). After Marie Adele’s death, the Rez sister gets closer to each other more than ever.
Through his group of seven native women, Tomson Highway portrays themes of empowerment and community development which realistically portrays the Native American world. According to editor, Carl Rollyson in Critical Survey of Drama,
Contemporary Native American Drama, like the Drama of other American minority group, was born in cultural revolution of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as the success of the civil rights movement….As the viewpoint of the single dominant racial group loosened it’s hold on the culture, the validity of other viewpoint was considered. Drama was a powerful tool in this cultural revolution” (3792).
Through their journey to THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD, the women are empowered to achieve a common goal. They are taking responsibility for themselves and for each other. Their efforts in obtaining their material goals transformed those goals into the spiritual needs they represented. Although only Philomena actually won money and reached her monetary goal, all the women come away richer in spirit for having found the power in themselves to succeed. The result is a community strengthened by adversity and ready to face the future together. Highway’s play shows the flaws within the lives of these seven women without making any of them outcasts. In every aspect, the story of The Rez Sisters dictates the life is tough, but poses the question: What else they are going to do? Well, they could always go play bingo.
“Cree.”Encyclopedia of North American Indian. Ed. 1996: 546-548.
Highway, Tomson. “The Rez Sisters.” The Broadway Anthology of Drama: Plays fromthe Western Theater.Jennifer Wise & Craig S. Walker. Canada: Broadview Press, 2003. 515-546.
Highway, Tomson. “The Rez Sisters.” Postcolonial Plays. Helen Gilbert. London: Routledge, 2001. 390-394.