“And What Are You Dreaming About?”: An Analysis of Tomson Highway’s Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing

Lindsay Diehl, University of British Columbia, Okanagan Campus


This paper argues that it is necessary to approach Tomson Highway’s play, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, from a culturally appropriate perspective that draws on Cree understandings of the Spirit World, for such a perspective can create enriched possibilities for understanding the play, as well as greater awareness of Indigenous struggles and experiences in Canada. More specifically, this paper draws on the traditional meaning of dreams in Cree epistemology,in order to demonstrate that the play’s framing as a dream can be seen as having a dual purpose: first, to envision and prepare for possible trials and difficulties, and second, to find creative and peaceful solutions to pervasive problems (Ferrara, 2004; Nabigon 2006). This paper considers, furthermore that since the dreamer in Dry Lips is a male character, theplay’s dream-framing addresses what Sam McKegney (2012) has identified as a common crisis of identity for Indigenous men, mainly their colonially-imposed alienation “from tribal-specific roles and responsibilities” (p. 241).Importantly, it is within this colonial context that the male characters in Dry Lips interact with, and express a lack of understanding and appreciation for, women. By paying attention to the colonial context and by using the Cree notion of ‘dream’ to analyze Indigenous masculinities, then, this paper provides an illustration of how the play gestures to Indigenous ‘ways of knowing’ as a means toward healing and decolonizing ends.

[Key words: Canada, Indigenous Criticism, Cree epistemology, colonialism, gender, masculinity]

 1. Introduction

Near the end of Tomson Highway’s controversial play Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (1989), the lead character, Zachary Jeremiah Keechigeesik, awakens from a protracted nightmare. He has been sleeping, naked and snoring on the couch in his living room. He is startled when his wife, Hera Keechigeesik, enters the room with their newborn baby girl—he jumps up and falls off the couch, inciting Hera to ask him, “And what are you dreaming about?” (Highway, 1989, p. 128). Yet Zachary is too distraught to answer. Only when Hera sits down beside him and passes him the baby does he seem to calm down. He bounces the baby on his knee, and then holds her lovingly up in the air. As the stage instructions indicate, this is how the play concludes—with this image of “a beautiful naked Indian man lifting this naked baby Indian girl in the air, his wife sitting beside them, watching and laughing” (p. 130). This scene, which is remarkable for its sense of domestic happiness, peace, and balance, contrasts sharply with the alcohol abuse, violence, and dysfunction that characterize the majority of the play. Significantly, however, these darker aspects occur solely within Zachary’s dream—a framing that, this paper argues is crucial to carefully consider in ongoing critical discussions of the play. Indeed, this papers aims to show that this dream-framing intends to exaggerate, and thus meaningfully illuminate, the underlying and colonially-derived struggles, which shape the background of the fictional Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve.

2. Responding to Dry Lips’ Contentious Reception History

Although Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasinghas generated an archive of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholarly engagements, the majority of these engagements characterize the play as forwarding problematic and colonially informed misconceptions of Indigenous peoples. The play premiered at Theatre PasseMuraille in Toronto on April 21, 1989 and soon garnered critical attention and awards. In particular, it won the Ontario Art Council’s Chalmers Award and was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award the year that it premiered. In 1991, however, subsequent performances of the play at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa drew a great deal of negative criticism, most notably from Indigenous women. Two of the most disapproving responses were those of Anishnaabe writer Marie Annharte Baker and Metis poet Anita Tuharsky, both of whom expressed concern that the play does not adequately assign responsibility to non-Indigenous people and institutions for the damages that they have caused to Indigenous communities. As Baker (1991) explains, “I worry about the unintended…A yuppie would go home [from the play] feeling relieved that Indians live on the rez [the Indian reservation] and in other parts of the city” (p. 89). Likewise, Tuharsky (1991) contends that Dry Lips perpetuates damaging perceptions of Indigenous peoples. She posits that the play even accedes “to create pleasures for the [wider Canadian] public which enjoys [negative] stereotypes and images,” especially of women (p. 5). Following these responses, non-Indigenous critics also added to the condemnation of the play. Alan Filewod (1992), for example, asserts that Dry Lips “lets the Anglo audience off the hook,” by not obliging non-Indigenous peoples to confront their own culpability in a history of colonial oppression (p. 21). The commonality between these criticisms is that they see the play as supporting, instead of questioning, colonial misunderstandings about Indigenous peoples. This paper refers to this reception history, because in turning to its own analysis—which utilizes the Cree notion of ‘dream’ to interpret Dry Lips—it aims to follow the lead of Anishinaabe scholar Armand Garnett Ruffo (2009), who contends that Indigenous concepts and ‘ways of knowing’ can provide an alternative method of interpreting this play,a method which may begin to productively address some of the complex and difficult issues raised by such criticisms…Access Full Text of the Article

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