In the mid 90’s I attended The University College of the Cariboo in Kamloops BC, now called Thompson Rivers University. During my time there I encountered Tomson Highway’s work for the first time in a Canadian literature class, indeed this was the first time I had ever encountered Indigenous Theatre, and my life has never been the same since.
I was tasked with memorizing a monologue from Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing and to present it to my class. I had never done anything like that before so I was more than a little nervous standing up in front of my classmates and delivering a monologue. But, I did. In hindsight I went through all of the emotions and anxiety of doing a real play only in miniature. There were rehearsals and then opening night nerves, and then places. I stood in front of those terrifying English majors and MBA’s just getting their credits in and for two whole minutes I connected to Big Joey and that beautiful monologue rolled out of my mouth. Even though I was a rough tool, untrained and inexperienced, something instinctual and magical happened. All the fear solidified into action, all the memorization melted into knowing and clarity then a miracle… applause! And that was it. I was hooked. I was officially bitten by the theatre bug, and its name was Tomson.
In that first encounter with Tomson’s work I recognized my own story in his words. The experiences he was writing about I knew. I knew these characters. It was familiar even though it was so very Cree and I so Salish. It was like he was writing about my home too. With his lyrically flowing text, head butting humour and biting truth. Tomson seduced me down this path I now walk, into the dark, dangerous, delicious world of the Theatre. And for that gift I am forever grateful.
Tomson you are a marvel. You have mastered so many languages and genres, mediums and forms. You are shapeshifter, a trickster, a transformer, an artist. Your work is an illuminated path that you have cut into the wilderness for so many of us lost and looking for home, to find and to follow, and to ultimately cut our own path from, to find our own way through. You are an inspiration for us all to celebrate, and tonight we get that chance.
I get that chance, to say Kwookstumx. Thank you, Tomson Highway. Kisaageetin. We love you.
In August 1910, the chiefs of the Secwepemc, Nlaka’pamux and the Syilx – in the language of the settlers – the Shuswap, Thompson and Okanagan Nations delivered a document to Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier upon the occasion of his visit to Kamloops, BC. Referenced as the Laurier Memorial, the document lays out 100 years of interaction between the Interior Salish Nations and those arriving in the territory, the cultural protocols of hosting, the fundamental connection between the land and the wellbeing of the People, and the trail of broken promises alongside a request, a demand to do right by the people of the Interior Salish.
When I arrived in Kamloops in July 1999 to take up my post at Western Canada Theatre, Artistic Director David Ross, Kukpi (Chief) Manny Jules and Kukpi Ron Ignace had already been discussing the creation of a play based on the Laurier Memorial; the broken promises and the calls to action in the 90-year-old document being all too relevant in the current world. WCT and the Secwepemc Cultural Education Society, in collaboration with the City of Kamloops, jointly commissioned Tomson Highway to write the play: Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout premiered on the newly renovated Sagebrush Theatre stage in January 2004. Grand National Chief Phil Fontaine, chiefs and leaders from all 17 Secwepemc Nations, leaders and chiefs from the Nlaka’pamux and Syilx Nations all attended the official opening.
Tomson, in his inimitable way, brought the words of the historical document alive through the characters of four women preparing the feast for the visiting prime minister. It was the first world premiere in which I had a hand. It was personal: I am Syilx – or Okanagan – and was the first to read the role of Annabelle Okanagan. And an afternoon of tea on the deck of my parents’ home where my dad shared his knowledge of the land and the grasses and the food sources from the earth was so beautifully, humorously and accurately captured forever in the play. It was profound. Tomson’s Trickster nature, blending the light and the dark because they are one and the same; positioning the realities of daily existence within the existential experience of daily life disappearing before our eyes; the rhythm and beauty of language, the music and harmony of voices, the joy and tragedy in the circle of life: this is the realm, the art and the wisdom of Tomson Highway. The audience on that night in January of 2004 roared with the laughter of recognition. We hope that is your experience tonight: roaring with laughter in recognition and appreciation of the art and the man. Tomson Highway: Kisaageetin
All songs and plays composed and written by Tomson Highway
1. Taansi (from Rose) with Ensemble
2. “Kisaageetin” Means “I Love You” (from Rose) with Ensemble
3. Waltz (from Chief Salamoo Cook Is Coming to Town)
4. When Children Sleep (from Rose) with Ensemble
5. Theme from The Sage, The Dancer and the Fool
6. Quand Je Danse (from The (Post) Mistress)
7. The Lunch (from a work-in-progress)
8. Monologue from Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing
9. Rio in High January (from Rose) with Ensemble
10. Van Scene from The Rez Sisters
11. The Thank You Song (from Rose) with Ensemble
What an honor to be invited to take part in such a joyous occasion. I’m just tickled by you, Tomson Highway! 70 and full of life, with an imagination as big as your heart. It is a great pleasure to be invited into your home and into your creative world once again. I cherish our time by the shores of Sharbot Lake, in the taverns of Peterborough, to Scotland, and to the depths of Bear Lake. Chi miigwetch for your generosity and openness to play, taking us all on a glorious ride. You’re a practiced magician who can bring such a beautiful ensemble together in the blink of an eye. And what a beautiful group of people you have brought together.
Tonight, friends and family and friendly strangers will experience potent emotions that will ignite a social closeness. A medicine that is needed more than ever, reminding me of a quote by the infamous Gabrielle Roy, “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?”.
Kisaageetin, Tomson. Kwayas kita-gaagi-tee-aan ig’wa kiskaata mitooni ateek ooskaata eesi-naag’waa-g’wow.
Indigenous Theatre Team
Artistic Director: Kevin Loring
Managing Director: Lori Marchand
Producer: Samantha MacDonald
Associate Producer: Sage Nokomis Wright
Indigenous Cultural Resident: Mairi Brascoupé
Education Coordinator: Kerry Corbiere
Artistic Associate: Lindsay Lachance (on leave)
Technical Director: Spike Lyne
Assistant Technical Director: RJ Mitchell
Marketing & Communications Coordinator: Jenna Spagnoli
Senior Marketing Manager: Bridget Mooney
Babs Aper Theatre Team
Head Carpenter: Charles Martin
Head Properties: Michel Sanscartier
Head Electrician: Eric Tessier
Assistant Electrician: Martin Racette
Head Flyman: Al Griffore
Head Sound: Doug Millar
Projectionists, Wardrobe Mistresses, Masters and Attendants are members of International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 471.
NAC Indigenous Theatre is a member of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres and engages professional Artists who are members of Canadian Actors’ Equity Association under the terms of the jointly negotiated Canadian Theatre Agreement.