CBC Massey Lectures 2022: Tomson Highway
Indigenous mythologies provide unique, timeless solutions to our modern problems, says Tomson Highway.
As this year’s CBC Massey lecturer, the acclaimed Cree playwright and author explores some of the fundamental questions of human existence through the lens of Indigenous mythologies, and contrasts them with the ideas from ancient Greece and Christianity.
“Over the years have I come to believe that, through the course of much human movement across this planet, [these] three mythologies in particular have come to a meeting point, a kind of forum, here on our North American continent,” Highway writes in Laughing with the Trickster: On Sex, Death, and Accordions, a book based on his lectures.
With his signature irreverence, Highway examines the themes of language, creation, sex and gender, humour, and death through these traditions.
He also introduces readers and listeners to one of the central figures in Indigenous mythology: the Trickster — zany, ridiculous, yet wise.
“A laughing deity virtually governs the way our tongues move, the way our blood flows, the way our lungs pump, the way our brains pop, dance and sizzle,” Highway writes.
In the first lecture, Highway argues that language shapes the way we see the world.
“Like bird song, languages make our planet a beautiful place, a fascinating place — indeed, a miraculous place — to live on,” he writes.
Without language, he says, we are lost creatures in a meaningless existence, which is why we tell stories. Language helps us create different mythologies — ways of understanding who we are and why we’re here.
In the second of his lectures, Highway asks: “How did the place we know as the universe come into being? What kind of god or angel or combination thereof was responsible for its creation?”
For the ancient Greeks, the world was created through sex, and humans were not here to suffer but to enjoy. Christianity offered something more linear: a beginning, middle and end of things.
Highway suggests that the Indigenous world view offers something else. “Those who lived in ages before us — our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-great grandmothers, our children who have died, our loved ones — they live here with us, still, today, in the very air we breathe,” he says.
In his third lecture, Highway invites us into the Cree world of scatological, wild laughter. He invokes the Trickster — a central figure to mythologies of many Indigenous communities across Turtle Island.
The audience is invited to experience the world through joy and laughter. “Welcome to pleasure; welcome to fun. Welcome to the Trickster and his sense of humour. Welcome to our world of rampant insanity,” he says.
In the fourth of his lectures, Highway explores some of the limits monotheism imposes on our understanding of gender and the human body. In the world of Indigenous peoples, Highway writes, “the circle of pantheism has space for any number of genders” — an idea with fresh relevance for understanding our own times.
In Highway’s fifth and final Massey lecture, he argues that Christianity offers a dismal vision of the afterlife. The Greeks offered something a bit more positive.
But in the Indigenous view of our life after death, he says, when we die, we stay right here on earth, “smack in the middle of that circle that is our garden, the one we were given the responsibility to care for when we came into this world as newborns.”
The myth of Billy Boy Cut Throat
WATCH: Highway tells the tale of his friend Billy Boy Cut Throat, and explains how truths get transformed into myths.
CBC Massey Lectures
Since 1961, CBC Radio has broadcast the Massey Lectures, bringing Canadians some of the greatest minds of our time, exploring the ideas that make us who we are and asking the questions that make us better human beings. The lectures are a partnership between CBC, House of Anansi Press and Massey College in the University of Toronto. For more, visit the archives.
Artwork by: Ben Shannon | Text and layout by: Althea Manasan | Edited by: Jason Vermes