Co-commissioned by Western Canada Theatre and the Secwepemc Cultural Education Society, Tomson Highway's play Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout (2005) is set in British Columbia during the visit of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier to the Thompson River Valley in August of 1910. The central characters are four women, representing the four seasons, preparing the feast for Laurier's visit. This cabaret style play premiered in Kamloops with an Aboriginal cast in 2004. It was also the subject of an hour-long Bravo! television documentary in 2004: Tomson Highway Gets His Trout, from Getaway Films, directed by Tom Shandel, who has described Highway's work as being "at once light-hearted burlesque and angry agitprop."

Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout was produced to mark the importance of a treatise written in 1910 by James Teit, on behalf of 14 chiefs of the Thompson River basin, to assert their collective rights to land and resources. Chief Louis of Kamloops recited the speech to Prime Minister Laurier: "We welcome you here, and we are glad we have met you in our country. We want you to be interested in us, and to understand more fully the conditions under which we live. When the seme7uw'i, the Whites, first came among us there were only Indians here. They found the people of each tribe supreme in their own territory, and having tribal boundaries known and recognized by all. The country of each tribe was just the same as a very large farm or ranch (belonging to all the people of the tribe).... They [government officials sent by James Douglas] said that a very large reservation would be staked off for us (southern Interior tribes) and the tribal lands outside this reservation the government would buy from us for white settlement. They let us think this would be done soon, and meanwhile, until this reserve was set apart, and our lands settled for, they assured us that we would have perfect freedom of travelling and camping and the same liberties as from time immemorial to hunt, fish and gather our food supplies wherever we desired; also that all trails, land, water, timber, etc., would be as free of access to us as formerly. Our Chiefs were agreeable to these propositions, so we waited for treaties to be made, and everything settled."

Written in the spirit of Shuswap, a "Trickster language," Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout was mounted in the style of Highway's preceding play Rose (2004), the third instalment of his "rez" cycle set on the Wasaychigan Hill Reserve, the same venue for The Rez Sisters (1986) and its sequel Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (1989). There are three characters named Rose; one didn't get born; a second died on a Harley and a third has become chief of the reserve. Ontario Premier Bob Rae and Chief Big Rose are signing an historic treaty while the Sudbury Mafia plan to transform the women's community hall into a huge bingo palace. It's 1992 all over again. Characters re-appear from the previous two plays, plus Emily Dictionary and her female biker pals.

Highway's production notes for Rose advised, "Think of the exercise as just a bunch of kids, the kind you were when you were five years old, playing in and with a chest filled with old clothes and objects... And last, the old-and very tiresome-question: 'should only native actors have the right to play native roles?' (Which to me has always sounded a lot like: 'should only Italian actors have the right to play Italian roles?' Or: 'Thought Police productions presents an all-German-cast in Mother Courage by Bertolt Brecht. Only Germans need apply.')." To make clear his feelings on the issue of "Aborginals Only" theatre, Highway has pleaded "in my Cree heart of hearts" for an end to political correctness, if, for no other reason, than it will enable him to have his plays produced more often.

The eleventh of twelve children, Tomson Highway was born in a tent near Maria Lake, near Brochet, Manitoba in 1951. After six years in his nomadic Cree family, he attended a residential school in The Pas where his introduction to music escalated into ambitions to become a concert pianist. He composed music for Aboriginal theatres and festivals, joined the Native Earth Performing Arts Company in Toronto in 1984, and worked with his brother René, a dancer and choreographer. Both brothers were openly gay. Tomson Highway's only novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998), is based on events that led to his brother René's death of AIDS. Twice a recipient of the Dora Mavor Moore Award, Highway is Canada's best-known Aboriginal playwright and the first Aboriginal writer to receive the Order of Canada.

2017: From Oral to Written: A Celebration of Indigenous Literature in Canada, 1980-2010:

"When I was growing up," writes acclaimed Cree playwright Tomson Highway in his remarkable prologue to From Oral to Written: A Celebration of Indigenous Literature in Canada, 1980-2010 (Talon $29.95), "the nearest centre of white civilization, so to speak, was Lynn Lake, a mining town seventy-six miles to the south as the crow flies. There being no road, one had to fly there, by bush plane with its pontoons in summer, its skis in winter. To us children, Lynn Lake with its population of some three thousand white people was the Emerald City: New York or Paris! All by way of saying that Indigenous languages on reserves like Brochet [where he grew up on the Barren Lands First Nation in northern Manitoba] remain intact. To this day, there are people up there-my godmother, aunts, uncles, cousins-who speak no English. My mother didn't speak it."

Tomson Highway continues to write his plays in Cree. His overview of Indigenous Lit highlights most of the best-known works over four decades of growth until 2010; with notables from B.C. including Lee Maracle, Jeannette Armstrong, Taiaike Alfred, Joanne Arnott, Marie Clements, George Clutesi, Garry Gottfriedson, Vera Manuel, Eden Robinson, Harry Robinson, Gregory Scofield and Richard Wagamese.

In the past decade indigenous literature has exploded. For a comprehensive reckoning, you can find information pertaining to 252 indigenous authors in British Columbia alone by visiting the ABCBookWorld reference site. 978-1-77201-116-6


The Rez Sisters (Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1988, 1999).
Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (Saskatoon, Fifth House, 1989, 1993, 1999).
Kiss of the Fur Queen (Doubleday, 1998).
Caribou Song (Atihko Nikamon) (HarperCollins, 2001).
Dragonfly Kites: Kiweeginapiseek (Canadian National Institute for the Blind/Institut National, 2003).
Rose (Talonbooks, 2004). 0-88922-490-0
Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout (Talonbooks, 2005).
From Oral to Written: A Celebration of Indigenous Literature in Canada, 1980-2010 (Talon $29.95)

[BCBW 2017]