Tomson Highway releases plays in Cree

Award-winning Canadian playwright Tomson Highway is releasing two of his most famous works in his first language — Cree.

Award-winning Canadian playwright Tomson Highway is releasing two of his most famous works in his first language — Cree.

The Cree versions of the plays The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing were officially released at a launch party at the University of Ottawa Monday night. Highway, 58, said a publisher, Fitzhenry and Whiteside, approached him earlier this year and expressed its interest in releasing the plays — both of which have been performed in English since the 1980s — in Cree.

Highway, who was born near Maria Lake, Man., said when he writes, the characters speak in Cree in his head but the words often come out in English or French.

"So actually the Cree versions that are coming out tonight are actually the original versions. As it turns out, the original ones that came out 20 years ago were the translation," Highway said.

"The language that I'm most familiar with — that I'm closest to, emotionally and otherwise — is Cree, which is my native tongue … It's the first language that I spoke. My parents and my oldest brothers and sisters didn't even speak English."

Highway encourages more young aboriginal thespians to use their language, many of which he describes as "endangered species."

"Because if anybody in this country is capable of saving those languages from extinction, it's the writers," he said.

One of those appearing to heed Highway's call is Kevin Loring, who's from a First Nation community in British Columbia.

Loring won a Governor-General award in 2009 for his first play Where the Blood Mixes, which includes snippets of dialogue in Salish. He said he got the theatre bug after performing a monologue from Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing in a Canadian literature class.

"It was the first time I had really encountered aboriginal literature in that way, right, where I saw characters that I recognized in environments that I recognized and I could see myself in it. And so I really credit Tomson with that inspiring moment," Loring said.

Highway said he also hopes his plays will now be taught not just in Canadian literature classes in universities, but Cree language courses as well.

Cree is the most common indigenous language spoken in Canada. There are about 100,000 Cree speakers in the country, according to the 2006 census.