Studies in American Indian Literatures 17.4 (2005) 79-113
[Access article in PDF]
From Trickster Poetics to Transgressive Politics
Substantiating Survivance in Tomson Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen
Our poets . . . are the only ones today who can provide this bridge, this reflective statement of what it means and has meant to live in a present which is continually overwhelmed by the fantasies of others of the meaning of past events.
And today, we are talking about the imagination of tribal stories, and the power of tribal stories to heal. Stories that enlighten and relieve and relive. Stories that create as they're being told. And stories that overturn the burdens of our human existence.
From 1879 to 1986 the Canadian government removed Indigenous children from their homes and communities and placed them in residential schools run by the Christian churches in an effort to, in the words of inaugural Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, "do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit for the change" (qtd. in Ennamorato 72). Like American boarding schools, Canadian residential schools acted as a weapon in a calculated attack on Indigenous cultures, seeking through such now infamous procedures as familial separation, forced speaking of non-Native languages, and propagandist derogation of pre-contact modes of [End Page 80] existence and Native spiritual systems to compel its inmates into assimilation. The results of this onslaught are now widely documented: Native children divorced from their traditional cultures while at the same time refused entry into prosperous white Canada through inferior educational practices and racism, institutionalized to occupy a liminal space characterized by disillusion, identity crisis, and despair. The legacy of the residential school system ripples throughout Native Canada, its fingerprints on the domestic violence, poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide rates that continue to cripple many Native communities.1
In dealing with this history, narratives by residential school survivors have generally been perceived as performing two political functions: The first involves the creation of healthier communities through the cathartic re-visitation of past trauma by individual victims. According to this line of thinking, the extended critical rumination required to render residential school experience in narrative form allows the writer to purge emotional baggage associated with childhood trauma and achieve some form of closure and healing, which ultimately spills back upon the political unit of the community in the form of a healthier and more potentially productive individual. The second involves the production of testimonial evidence that forms the precondition for litigation against individual abusers and administrative overseers. Survivor testimony underlies the thousands of residential school lawsuits currently before the courts. It also forms the backbone of nearly all recent critical challenges to the Canadian government regarding its role in residential schooling.2 This article examines the capacity for a text that departs significantly from both standard avenues for political effect, Cree writer Tomson Highway's 1998 Kiss of the Fur Queen, to nonetheless perform a significant and identifiable political function in relation to the residential school legacy.
Initially written as an autobiography, Kiss of the Fur Queen went through incarnations as a stage play, a made-for-TV movie, and an estimated eight-hundred-page epic before being published as a novel less than half that size.3 Although the writing may have performed various psychologically and spiritually redemptive tasks for its author, [End Page 81] the ultimate textual product—subject to editorial intervention, alterations in genre, and processes of material manufacture—can evidence those tasks solely through implication. Furthermore, although built from the raw materials of its author's life, Kiss of the Fur Queen explicitly distances itself from survivor testimony, stating in its acknowledgements, "This book, of course, is a novel—all the characters and what happens to them are fictitious" (v). The central questions for this article are, therefore, How...