68 pages 2 hours read

Tomson Highway

Kiss of the Fur Queen

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Recognized as a Canadian classic, Kiss of the Fur Queen is the first novel by Canadian Cree playwright, composer, and pianist Tomson Highway. Kiss of the Fur Queen, first published in 1998, broke new ground as an Indigenous Canadian writer’s depiction of the abuse Indigenous children experienced in Canada’s controversial Christian residential schools. Notable for its inclusion of Cree words and its use of narrative techniques from Cree storytelling and cosmology, the book follows the fate of brothers Jeremiah and Gabriel from their idyllic northern Manitoba childhood, through their traumatic experiences at boarding school, and finally to their adult journey to reclaim themselves in music and dance. The novel is a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age tale, that incorporates elements of magical realism.

Nominated for the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award and the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1998, Kiss of the Fur Queen is a fictionalized account of the life of Tomson Highway and his brother René, a famous dancer who passed away in 1990. Tomson Highway is also the author of award-winning plays such as The Rez Sisters (winner of the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Play 1986-87) and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (winner of the Floyd S. Chalmers Award 1989), as well as the memoir Permanent Astonishment (2021).

This guide follows the Doubleday 1998 edition and does not use italics for either Cree or Italian words. Except for direct quotes in which the novel uses the term “Indian,” this guide refers to Indigenous Canadian peoples as Indigenous. Sensitivity issues include child abuse, violence, and sexual violence.   

Plot Summary

Told from a third-person omniscient point of view, the novel begins in February 1951 with caribou hunter Abraham Okimasis racing his husky-driven sled towards the finish line of the World Championship Dog Derby at the Trappers’ Festival in Northern Manitoba. Abraham is Cree, an Indigenous people who lived in Canada for thousands of years before white settlers began colonizing their lands in the 17th century. Abraham becomes the first Indigenous Canadian to win the championship and receives a trophy and a kiss from the “Fur Queen”: the beauty pageant winner at the 1951 Trapper’s Festival. After the Fur Queen ascends into the sky, a silver drop in the shape of a human fetus falls from her tiara. The unborn silvery baby follows Abraham home to the reservation of Eemanapiteepitat and is born nine months later as Champion Okimasis, Abraham and his wife Mariesis’s fifth living child.

Ooneemeetoo, the couple’s lastborn child, is born three years later. Of Mariesis’s 12 pregnancies, only seven children make it out of childhood: Marie Adele, William William, Chichilia, Josephine, Chugweesees, Champion, and Ooneemeetoo. Local priest Father Bouchard soon demands that Abraham and Mariesis change the name Ooneemeetoo—meaning “dancer”—to Gabriel. Champion and Ooneemeetoo grow up close in a happy family. However, when Champion is six, Father Bouchard decrees that he should be sent to the Birch Lake Indian Residential School for Indigenous children.

At the school, Champion is shorn of his long hair, punished for speaking Cree, and forced to speak in English. Worse, his beloved named Champion is changed to Jeremiah. Gabriel follows in Champion’s footsteps a couple of years later. The most horrifying part of Jeremiah and Gabriel’s experience at Birch Lake is their sexual abuse by the school principal, Father Lafleur. The only saving grace of Birch Lake is that it introduces Jeremiah to the piano and Gabriel to dance.

The abuse impacts Jeremiah and Gabriel differently. While Jeremiah suppresses his trauma and briefly rejects his Cree heritage, Gabriel flashes back to Father Lafleur’s abuse whenever he experiences physical desire. After graduating from Birch Lake, first Jeremiah and then Gabriel move to the city of Winnipeg, where they attend Anderson High School. A born dancer, Gabriel secretly begins taking ballet lessons. Jeremiah, a prodigy with the piano, is well on his way to becoming a concert pianist. However, the sight of homeless, dispossessed Indigenous Canadians on street corners makes him feel ashamed of his own people. Both Jeremiah and Gabriel also witness white men picking up or even assaulting young Indigenous women on the streets. The women are later found murdered and brutally raped.

Gabriel and Amanda Clear Sky, an Ojibway classmate of Jeremiah’s, question Jeremiah’s apathy towards Indigenous religion and culture. Additionally, Jeremiah’s refusal to accept that Gabriel is gay drives a wedge between the Okimasis brothers. They fall out, and Gabriel moves to Toronto with Gregory Newman, an older playwright. Gabriel does not attend the Crookshank Memorial Competition, in which Jeremiah is participating. Jeremiah puts on a virtuoso performance fueled by memories of his Cree childhood and becomes the first Indigenous man to win the trophy. However, the victory brings him no joy. Jeremiah cannot reconcile his Indigenous heritage with his vocation in Western classical music. He leaves the piano and becomes a social worker helping vulnerable Indigenous people in Winnipeg. He also begins to drink heavily.

As the city erodes Jeremiah, the forces of so-called “development” diminish Eemanapiteepitat too. The elders are mostly glued to the television, while alcohol flows in freely by way of the new airport. Residents of the reservation engage in shoot-outs to relieve their boredom. Abraham and Mariesis’s oldest son William William dies in a shoot-out. Bereaved, Abraham falls sick. After years apart, Jeremiah and Gabriel meet at their father’s deathbed. To the surprise of both brothers, their devout Catholic father’s last words recount a Cree story about the legendary hero Ayash. After Abraham’s funeral, Jeremiah has a vision of a Fox-Woman, who identifies herself as the Trickster spirit Weesageechak and tells Jeremiah to put on a show and stop taking life so seriously.

Now an established dancer in Toronto, Gabriel senses that Jeremiah needs help. Gabriel takes Jeremiah on a camping trip to Manitoulin Island, Ontario, where a grand powwow is being staged. At the powwow, they meet Amanda Clear Sky’s grandmother, Ann-Adele Ghostrider, who tells them the true story of Chachagathoo, a woman Jeremiah and Gabriel’s Christian parents always described as evil. In Ann-Adele Ghostrider’s telling, Chachagathoo was the last Indigenous woman shaman—a spiritual healer who opposed the imposition of Christianity on her people. For this crime, she was declared a witch and sentenced to jail, where she hanged herself.

Taking his first steps towards healing, Jeremiah begins a relationship with Amanda Clear Sky and starts playing music again, working with Gabriel on a piece of dance-drama. Though Gabriel is helping out Jeremiah, he himself seems headed down a self-destructive path. Gabriel and Gregory Newman break up over Gabriel’s promiscuity.

Jeremiah writes a play, “Barcarolle Ulysses Thunderchild,” that incorporates the magical elements of Cree reality in a modern timeframe. Although the play opens to good reviews, some bits, such as a Weetigo transforming into a priest, leave the audience confused. Jeremiah cannot understand the critique until Gabriel gently explains, “You didn’t say it loud enough” (285). The statement forces Jeremiah to confront the harrowing details of his own rape by Father Lafleur. Having acknowledged his trauma, Jeremiah feels liberated, creating a play called “Chachagathoo, the Shaman,” which covers the controversial theme of Christianity eroding Indigenous culture.

Though the play is a success, Jeremiah and Gabriel now have to face the crisis of Gabriel’s illness. Diagnosed with AIDS, Gabriel rapidly deteriorates but finds solace in a loving relationship with the singer Robin Beatty. As Gabriel lies dying in a hospital, he asks Jeremiah not to let a Christian priest near his deathbed. Honoring Gabriel’s wish, Jeremiah asks Ann-Adele Ghostrider to conduct an Indigenous ceremony for him. The smoke from burning sweetgrass sets off the hospital’s fire alarms. However, when the hospital staff ask Jeremiah to stop the ceremony, he tells them, “We’re Indians! We have a right to conduct our own religious ceremonies, just like everyone else” (305). The Fur Queen kisses Gabriel and takes him away. As Gabriel floats off with the Fur Queen, a fox on her cape seems to wink at Jeremiah.

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