In new memoir, Tomson Highway reveals the secret to his 'utterly positive spirit' — his parents
Permanent Astonishment won the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction
Originally published on November 12, 2021.
Tomson Highway celebrates his astonishing life in his new memoir, Permanent Astonishment, which centres on his childhood growing up in sub-Arctic Canada and his parents' beautiful love.
Permanent Astonishment, the first of five planned books, chronicles the first 15 years of this Cree son of world-champion dogsled racer Joe Highway and Balazee Highway, an accomplished beader, lapwachin maker and mother to her dozen children.
Rosanna Deerchild, host of CBC's Unreserved, sat down for an intimate and joyful conversation with this master storyteller.
You've described [your parent's marriage] as the kind of marriage you could only dream of in Hollywood. Can you tell me about Joe and Balazee Highway?
They were married for 60 years. It was 60 years of love and beautiful, beautiful love. Theirs was the best marriage I've ever seen in my life, bar none.
[My father] was an extraordinary man. My mother was an extraordinary woman. They were funny. They were wise, they were kind and they were strong. And the thing about having 12 children or 14 children is that you make all your mistakes as a parent with the first two or three or four. But by the time you get to the 11th and the 12th, you have your parenting skills down to a fine art, right. So my younger brother and I, Rene and I, the youngest of the family, we had the best, we got the best of it. So we were raised like little princes of the North. And that's how we lived.
At the age of six, a few months shy of seven, your dad put you on a plane, his face beaming with pride. And he mused in Cree, I wonder what he is going to get down there. Marvels, marvels, marvels, you thought. What opportunity was your father hoping for you?
My father came from a family of 12 kids, so far as I know. There's a bit of a shady spot there as to how many kids there were precisely. But nine of them survived to adulthood, and he was the second oldest and his older brother, Samba Cheese — Samba Cheese Highway, that was his name — he drowned when he was 16 or 17. And my dad was 13. So what happens there with the family structure is that the oldest is usually the one who stays home and helps their parents with wood cutting, fishing and all the rest of that, hunting. Provide the family with food. That was their responsibility, the oldest one.
So as a result of the drowning, my father became the oldest very suddenly, overnight, at the age of 13 or 14. So he stayed home. He was never sent to school because he had to help take care of the family. Whereas the rest, the younger brothers and younger sisters, were sent to residential school, which at the time was in Sturgeon Landing, Sask., just south of Flin Flon.
My father regretted that — that he was never sent to school, he couldn't write, he couldn't read, he couldn't speak English. All that stuff.
[And living off the land] was backbreaking labour and he didn't want us to live like that. He wanted us to have a better life, an easier life.
And the other thing was, he had lost so many of his children to death that he was determined that he would put his two youngest, his jewels, in a place where death wouldn't get them. Because we stood a chance of dying too, and at any moment. And he would put us in a place where we would have good lives. We'd have good careers, good jobs, all that sort of stuff. So he made a very difficult choice.
If I hadn't gone to that school, today I would be a janitor or a garbage collector or even a taxi driver. That would be the level of my work skills. Instead, today I am a concert pianist with a worldwide career who writes books on the side.
And that's what my father wanted for me.
You remember your time at Guy Hill Indian Residential School with fondness. The teachers, the rituals of religion, the children: all remembered and recalled with love. And that's not part of an experience that we often hear about. Was that an intentional choice to just recall the love and joy?
First of all, I wasn't going to school for myself. I was going to school for my father. I was getting the education. I would go through anything for him. You know, there is an early chapter that talks about him, he's almost dying to save my life when his foot gets infected.
He gave me his life. You know, he suffered all his life for me.
So I was determined to go through anything for him, anything. And I've always been very well-educated in terms of taking life by the horns. I have been educated, raised, to think always positively. So in terms of any negativity that may have happened. I don't think about it.
I have a beautiful marriage, a beautiful partnership, and I have many, many beautiful friends, including yourself. It's just a beautiful life. And that's what my father wanted me to have. He envisioned that for me and that's what I have. And I have him to thank for putting me on that plane. I remember that moment precisely. And I knew in my heart and I could read in his eyes that I was going to have an extraordinary life.
Thank you, Tomson, for your time, your wisdom, this beautiful book and the joyful way in which you continue to live your life.
I think we need that. We native people need a positive outlook. The only way we're going to survive this, this trauma that we're going through right now, is to have a positive spirit. To be bitter and angry is a very unhealthy place to be. It'll make you sick. And it shows on certain people's faces, you know? Your lips start to develop these, these wrinkles or whatever.
Hate starts showing on your face, just as love starts showing on your face. And we need love in our hearts. We need a positive spirit to survive the trauma that we've been through and that we will be through again in the future. I am doing it for my father. I'm going through life with a totally and utterly positive spirit.
Tomson Highway's comments have been edited for length and clarity.