King, Thomas (Vol. 171)
Thomas King 1943-
American-born Canadian novelist, short story writer, editor, screenwriter, and children's writer.
The following entry presents an overview of King's career through 2001. See also Thomas King Criticism (Volume 89).
Typically classified as a writer of Native Canadian fiction, King is known for such works as Medicine River (1990) and Green Grass, Running Water (1993) in which he uses humor to address the marginalization of Amerindians. His works delineate pan-Indian concerns and histories and attempt to abolish common stereotypes about Native North Americans. King's fiction challenges commonly acknowledged conceptions of geographical, racial, and cultural borders, fusing Native American and European myths and history.
Born in Sacramento, California, on April 24, 1943, King is of Greek, German, and Cherokee descent. His father abandoned his family when King was a child. Although King visited his Cherokee relatives in Oklahoma as a youth, he was raised primarily among whites. After graduating from high school, King traveled abroad, eventually working as a photojournalist in New Zealand and Australia. During this period he began writing short stories. When he returned to the United States, King enrolled at California State University, where he received a B.A. and M.A. in English. He later received his Ph.D. in American studies and English from the University of Utah in 1986. King resumed writing while completing his doctoral work and teaching native studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. He began to spend time at a reservation while teaching at Lethbridge, and the local Blackfoot Indians eventually became the subject of his fiction. King is a Canadian citizen but lives in Minneapolis, where he chairs the Indian Studies Program at the University of Minnesota. Medicine River received the PEN/Josephine Miles Award and was nominated for a Commonwealth Writer's prize; it was adapted into a television movie and radio play in 1993, with King scripting both adaptations. A Coyote Columbus Story (1992) and Green Grass, Running Water were both nominated for Governor General's Awards. King has taught in both the U.S. and Canada and acknowledges that Natives are his primary audience. Many of King's works are set in Canada, but he questions attempts to define him solely as a Native Canadian writer: “There's only a problem in the sense that I am not originally from Canada, and the Cherokee aren't a Canadian tribe. Now that becomes a problem only if you recognize the particular political line which runs between Canada and the U.S. and if you agree with the assumptions that that line makes.”
The exclusion of Native Americans from white society, history, and culture is a prevalent theme in much of King's writing. His first novel, Medicine River, focuses on Will, a mixed-blood of Blackfoot descent. Returning to his hometown of Medicine River, Alberta, where he works as a photographer, Will must come to terms with the alienation he feels within his circle of family and friends as well as the stereotypes projected on—and at times perpetuated by—Native Americans. A cycle of vignettes and an intimate portrait of small-town life, Medicine River subverts misperceptions about Natives while including such traditional Native characters as the Coyote trickster figure. The Coyote persona, who has the power to both create and destroy, is prominently featured in A Coyote Columbus Story, a children's book relating the creation of the world and the “discovery” of the Americas by Christopher Columbus from a Native perspective. The coyote trickster is also present in Green Grass, Running Water. Incorporating shifting viewpoints and a convoluted, circular storyline, the story follows, in part, the actions of four ancient Indian spirits. Perceived by whites as insane and aged, these spirits have been confined to a mental institution from which they periodically escape in order to “fix” the world. During the course of the novel they strive to prevent an environmental catastrophe from occurring in the small Canadian town of Blossom. The novel also concerns several members of the Blackfoot nation who reside in Blossom, their interpersonal relationships, their attempts to make a living in the white world, and their ongoing debate over a proposal to build a hydroelectric dam in the region. Elements of irony and satire are central to Green Grass, Running Water—one character runs a highly profitable restaurant by claiming to sell “houndburgers” to white tourists. In another incident, the Indian spirits rewrite Hollywood history by colorizing old black-and-white Westerns and allowing the Indian “savages” to triumph over John Wayne and the United States Calvary. The short-story collection One Good Story, That One (1993) contains ten stories tied together through the Coyote figure. The title story relates an elderly Native's attempts to trick a group of anthropologists by trying to pass off a comic version of the Judeo-Christian creation myth as authentically Native. Juxtaposing Christian and Native religious imagery with references to popular culture, the narrator recalls the actions and motivations of the practical woman Evening, the dimwitted Ah-damn, and their angry, selfish god. King's highly symbolic Truth and Bright Water (1999) is narrated by a fifteen-year-old boy named Tecumseh, who lives on a reservation in Bright Water, Canada. Bright Water is across the river from Truth, a non-Native town on the American side of the river. Tecumseh's boss is Munroe Summer, who likes to be referred to as a “Famous Indian Artist” and is working to obliterate all colonial symbols from the community. In 2001 King published Coyote Sings to the Moon, a children's work again involving a Coyote figure. After the Coyote's singing is insulted by an Old Woman, Coyote tries to drive the Moon deep into a lake. King has additionally edited two anthologies of critical and creative works—The Native in Literature: Canadian and Comparative Perspectives (1987) and All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction (1990)—that examine Canadian life, indigenous peoples, and their literatures.
King's body of work has been generally well received by critics. Many reviewers have noted his preoccupation with borders—between nations, cultures, and individuals—and his use of humor and irony in deconstructing these borders. Parker Duchemin has stated, “[King] is a surprisingly good-natured social satirist, and it is tempting to view him in the tradition of Stephen Leacock or U.S. humourist James Thurber.” Some commentators have asserted that the easygoing nature of King's criticism of non-Natives makes it too easy for the white reader to distance himself from the racist structures which discriminate against Indians. However, others have argued that it is this feature of King's work that makes it particularly accessible to white readers. Margery Fee and Jane Flick have stated that, “King's strategy for writing for an audience primarily composed of the uninformed is not to pander to its preconceptions or to produce explanations, but to entice, even trick this audience into finding out for themselves.” Reviewers have lauded King's economic and controlled language, as well as his unusual melding of both Indian and non-Indian references and traditions. Critics have noted the heavy influence of Okanagan writer Harry Robinson in King's fiction, especially in Green Grass, Running Water, one of King's most highly acclaimed works. Reviewing this work, Robert L. Berner has asserted that, “[w]e must regard the publication of Green Grass, Running Water as a major event, an important American novel which combines with remarkable ingenuity an impressive variety of narrative skills, a keen satiric sense, and a wide knowledge of traditional American Indian cultures, setting a standard for the future as the first major Indian novel which is unabashedly comic in its intentions.” King's works have been additionally praised for their inventive manipulation of plot and as attempts at historical revisionism.
The Native in Literature: Canadian and Comparative Perspectives [editor; with Cheryl Calver and Helen Hoy] (essays) 1987
All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction [editor] (short stories) 1990
*Medicine River (novel) 1990
A Coyote Columbus Story [illustrations by William Kent Monkman] (juvenilia) 1992
Green Grass, Running Water (novel) 1993
One Good Story, That One: Stories (short stories) 1993
Truth and Bright Water (novel) 1999
Coyote Sings to the Moon [illustrations by Johnny Wales] (juvenilia) 2001
*King also wrote the screenplay and script for the 1993 television and radio adaptations of Medicine River.
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SOURCE: Womack, Craig S. Review of Medicine River, by Thomas King. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 16, no. 2 (spring 1992): 226-30.
[In the following review, Womack discusses Will's disconnection from his roots and the landscape of his childhood in Medicine River.]
When Will loses his job in Toronto [in Medicine River], he returns to live in Medicine River, a prairie town off the Blackfoot Reserve in Canada, but his sense of place is uncertain; he feels he has no real connection to Medicine River as home. A local busybody and gossip by the name of Harlen Bigbear tells him of the potential for opening a photography studio in the community. Will is distant from Medicine River as a place: “Autumn was the best season [in Medicine River]. It wasn't good, just better than the other three” (p. 1). He also is incapable of making human connections. As narrator, Will rarely speaks more than two or three sentences in a row. He is most articulate inside his own head, recalling episodic childhood anecdotes, but he does not tell anyone but the reader these revealing stories about himself, his brother James, his Blackfoot mother, or the irresponsible white father he never knew. Will is numb, stricken by an emotional malaise that blocks him from linking his past to his present.
Will's opposite in the story is the meddlesome Harlen Bigbear. King juxtaposes the minimalism...
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SOURCE: Berner, Robert L. Review of Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King. World Literature Today 67, no. 4 (autumn 1993): 869.
[In the following review, Berner offers a positive assessment of Green Grass, Running Water, calling it “a permanent addition to the corpus of American Indian literature which will serve as a benchmark in the history of that subject.”]
We must regard the publication of Green Grass, Running Water as a major event, an important American novel which combines with remarkable ingenuity an impressive variety of narrative skills, a keen satiric sense, and a wide knowledge of traditional American Indian cultures, setting a standard for the future as the first major Indian novel which is unabashedly comic in its intentions.
The novel's subject—more or less—is the collapse of an Alberta dam which has flooded ancestral Blackfoot lands. Eli, who has led a white man's existence professing English in Toronto, has returned to his inheritance and lives in his mother's house in the face of the “progress” which the dam represents. His nephew Lionel is a television salesman who has had an affair with Alberta, who teaches frontier history (for the most part to students who care for the subject not at all) in a Calgary university. She wants to conceive a child, but not with Lionel or with her other lover, Charlie, a lawyer who represents the...
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SOURCE: Scheick, William J. “Grace and Gall.” Canadian Literature 138-139 (fall-winter 1993): 155-56.
[In the following review, Scheick compares and contrasts Green Grass, Running Water with Trevor Ferguson's The True Life Adventures of Sparrow Drinkwater.]
In the beginning there was only water, begins Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water. Human life emerged from a swamp, begins Trevor Ferguson's The True Life Adventures of Sparrow Drinkwater. What is aqua pura in King's narrative is aqua regia in Ferguson's novel. The result is two works as different as day and night.
Green Grass features four timeless natives, at once male and female, who represent mythic forces. If these four escapees from a mental institution seem in their odd way driven by some cosmic purpose, the Canadian Blackfoot family with whom they interact seems adrift in time. This family and its acquaintances are characters in search of a theme, for a life-plot that truly includes them; for as natives, they find themselves playing minor, barely observed parts in another culture's version of reality. Their own story, the life-narrative in which they had major roles, has been lost, at least temporarily. In the scheme of things that version still exists, apparently submerged in the reservoir of mythic lore that comprises humanity's collective memory. And shards of this sunken...
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SOURCE: Low, Denise. Review of Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King. American Indian Quarterly 18, no. 1 (winter 1994): 104-06.
[In the following review, Low describes King's intermingling of Native American and European beliefs and his use of humor in Green Grass, Running Water.]
Humor is the thread that runs through both of Thomas King's novels, Medicine River (1989) and the new Green Grass, Running Water. The tone in each is understated farce. In Medicine River, the hero Will says of his friend, “Harlen Bigbear was my friend, and being Harlen's friend was hard. I can tell you that” (p. 11). The rest of the novel tells exactly how this lovable busybody is a friend to all in a Canadian prairie town. The novel follows conventions of realism, and the close-knit community comes to life through a series of absurdist episodes. The humor in Green Grass, Running Water, though, is raised to another level of cosmic farce. The story line is intermixed with a meta-creation account modeled after Pueblo, Iroquois, Christian, and Siouan traditions—and more.
Fortunately, the novel limits itself to one geographic region, again the Canadian prairies of Alberta. This helps continuity. The plot is a familiar one in Native American fiction: Native daughter and sons go out into the non-Indian world, gain experience, and return to their reservation homes to...
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SOURCE: Duchemin, Parker. “Coyote Slips across the Border.” Canadian Forum 72, no. 826 (January-February 1994): 43-4.
[In the following review, Duchemin praises King's linguistic skill as evidenced in the stories in One Good Story, That One.]
There are coyotes everywhere in [One Good Story, That One,] this new collection of stories by Thomas King, and not only in the text: pictures adorn the cover, the title page and the story headings. A live one seems to be talking enthusiastically to the author in his photograph on the dustjacket. Coyote is the trickster figure in the story-telling traditions of the Plains Indians, and her/his presence here warns us to watch out for our toes and other parts. At the end of the title story, where three anthropologists looking for traditional native stories are hoaxed with a satirical rendition of Adam and Eve (Ahdamn and Evening), the narrator has to “clean up all the coyote tracks on the floor”. Tricks are played on the audience in traditional Coyote stories, as well as on the characters, and often there is a very sharp point to them, or a lesson to be learned, which the story-teller expects you to figure out for yourself. Readers of Thomas King's fiction have come to savour these surprises and challenges, often concealed in tricky word-play or in satirical postmodern high jinks with a distinctly native twist.
King has emerged within...
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SOURCE: Goldman, Marlene, and Teresa Heffernan. Review of Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King. University of Toronto Quarterly 65, no. 1 (winter 1995): 3-4.
[In the following excerpt, Goldman and Heffernan discuss King's playful presentation of the relations between Natives and non-Natives in Green Grass, Running Water.]
Thomas King's novel Green Grass, Running Water (1993) also examines the conflict between Natives and non-Natives. Whereas Wiebe relies on a highly elaborate prose style to fashion the world of the Tetsot'ine, King's unembellished sentences playfully lead the reader through the looking-glass. On one side of the mirror are the familiar stories such as the biblical account of Genesis. But just when the reader feels comfortable, the Judeo-Christian story is deemed incorrect, and the four Indians—Robinson Crusoe, Ishmael, the Lone Ranger, and Hawkeye (geriatric escapees from a mental hospital, who act as a kind of chorus throughout the novel)—insist that they must begin again.
In place of the ‘wrong’ story, the Indians offer an alternative ‘beginning’—one which has the effect of transporting non-Native readers through the looking-glass:
‘Gha!’ said the Lone Ranger. ‘Higayv:lige:i.’ ‘That's better,’ said Hawkeye. ‘Tsane:hlanv:hi.’
This is a story most of us have never heard, told in a language...
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SOURCE: Rainwater, Catherine. “Negotiating Cultural Boundaries.” Canadian Literature 149 (summer 1996): 170-73.
[In the following excerpt, Rainwater discusses King's thematic concerns in One Good Story, That One.]
A unifying strain of Coyote laughter binds the ten stories contained in King's new collection [One Good Story, That One]. As in King's latest novel, Green Grass, Running Water, sometimes Coyote's victim in these vignettes is a character or a group of characters, sometimes the careless reader, and sometimes Coyote himself. The opening piece, “One Good Story, That One,” puts the wary reader on alert for Coyote's antics. The narrator and his cohorts tell a recycled, Native version of the Adam and Eve creation story to gullible “whitemen,” fully equipped with high-tech gadgetry for cultural appropriation (cameras and tape recorders), but unable to see “all the coyote tracks on the floor.” With their totalizing vision of the cultural Other and their apparent sense of some absolute, clear-cut boundaries between themselves and Indians, these “whitemen” apparently cannot recognize their own Judeo-Christian creation myth because the Native storyteller has promised a “good Indian story” about “how the world was put together.”
The last story in the collection, “Borders,” likewise comments upon cultural boundaries as primarily mental...
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SOURCE: Welburn, Ron. Review of Medicine River and Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King. MELUS 21, no. 2 (summer 1996): 195-97.
[In the following review, Welburn examines how King explores the Native American point of view in Medicine River and Green Grass, Running Water.]
Leslie Silko's novel Ceremony opens with the wisdom that stories “are all we have to fight off illness and death.” Native American fictionists have abided by their traditions in storytelling at least since N. Scott Momaday's pivotal House Made of Dawn (1968) and certainly before that. With two dissimilar novels, Medicine River and Green Grass, Running Water, Thomas King reaffirms the inextricable influence of traditional narratives and characters on contemporary Native writing. Set in Alberta, Canada's Blackfeet country, both novels are about communities that need their individuals. Will of Medicine River and Eli Stands Alone of Green Grass, Running Water are the homecoming characters, though only Will would approximate protagonist status. Both novels share other elements: independent professional women who desire a child without the encumbrance of a husband; men and women on a vague search for affection and love; and trickster figures—Harlan Bigbear, who manipulates Will's life, in the first book and Coyote, four very old Indian men, and a psychiatric assistant...
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SOURCE: Lamont-Stewart, Linda. “Androgyny as Resistance to Authoritarianism in Two Postmodern Canadian Novels.” Mosaic 30, no. 3 (September 1997): 115-30.
[In the following essay, Lamont-Stewart traces how Green Grass, Running Water and Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage “challenge the authoritarian ideology of the Judaeo-Christian tradition which is the foundation of Western culture.”]
Among the many secrets that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has disclosed in her Epistemology of the Closet, the one which is most crucial to gender studies in the broadest sense is the agenda that lies hidden in the concept of androgyny. According to Sedgwick, far from offering a way out of the heterosexual bind—as earlier critics like Carolyn Heilbrun had speculated—discourse about androgyny has tended merely to replicate “the trope of inversion” (87), reinforcing the binary oppositions inherent in traditional notions of sex, gender, and sexuality. Registering a similar kind of discontent and looking for a solution, in Gender Trouble Judith Butler has argued that “the best way to trouble the gender categories that support gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality” is “not through the strategies that figure a utopian beyond [as does Heilbrun], but through the mobilization, subversive confusion, and proliferation of precisely those constitutive categories that seek to...
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SOURCE: Smith, Carlton. “Coyote, Contingency, and Community: Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water and Postmodern Trickster.” American Indian Quarterly 21, no. 3 (summer 1998): 515-34.
[In the following essay, Smith explores the role of Coyote as a postmodern trickster in Green Grass, Running Water.]
[T]rickster stories point to the way ordinary, conventional reality is an illusory construction produced out of a particular univocal interpretation of phenomena appearing as signs. This deeper wisdom about the linguisticality of our constructed world and the illusoriness of that construction is where trickster stories open onto the sacred.
—Anne Doueihi, “Inhabiting the Space Between Discourse and Story in Trickster Narratives,” in Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts and Criticisms
Among the numerous chimerical developments to occur in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water (1993), perhaps the most telling occurs as the four old Indians at the center of the novel alter the outcome of the allegedly famous John Wayne western The Mysterious Warrior.1 Having traipsed from a Florida hospital to the Blackfoot reserve in Canada, the four-hundred-year-old Indians have set out in an effort to “change the world.” Reckoning that the “classic” movie is as good a place as any...
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SOURCE: Bailey, Sharon M. “The Arbitrary Nature of the Story: Poking Fun at Oral and Written Authority in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water.” World Literature Today 73, no. 1 (winter 1999): 43-52.
[In the following essay, Bailey analyzes how King approaches the subject of oral and written authority in Green Grass, Running Water.]
To speak of post-structuralist theory in conjunction with Native American literatures may seem as odd as serving dog stew with sauce béarnaise.
—Arnold Krupat, “Post-Structuralism and Oral Literature”
In Green Grass, Running Water a narrator and the trickster Coyote preside over two loosely interwoven plots: one based on the myth of the creation of the world, and one based on the quasi-realistic events on and near a Canadian Blackfoot reservation. In the myth plot the creation story is retold four times, once each by four different Indian women: First Woman, Changing Woman, Thought Woman, and Old Woman. In each of the four versions the story begins with a woman falling from the sky to the world, which is yet covered with water. In each version the woman encounters a figure from the Bible and then a figure from English/Anglo-American literary culture. The latter gives the woman an appropriate Indian name, which the woman accepts rather indifferently. Finally, each woman...
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SOURCE: Linton, Patricia. “‘And Here's How It Happened’: Trickster Discourse in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water.” Modern Fiction Studies 45, no. 1 (spring 1999): 212-34.
[In the following essay, Linton asserts that Green Grass, Running Water acts as an intersection between historical and contemporary references and Native American and Euro-American cultures.]
Louis Owens has observed that contemporary Native American writers are often members of a literate elite, “possessing as they do a consistently high level of education […] and mastery of English, a fact that certainly adds complexity to the overarching question of cultural identity” (7). Their familiarity with different kinds of privileged discourse is reflected, and sometimes placed in question, in their fiction. Indeed, a distinctive feature of some contemporary Native novels is the persona of the scholar-narrator, a narrator who addresses a range of historical and aesthetic issues and whose scope of cultural knowledge—encompassing both the arcane and the popular—augments his or her authority to represent the community. This kind of narrator functions as a repository of collective history, less defined by particularities of geography and time than by knowledge of assimilated communal experience, across time. The scholar-narrator speaks in the voice of a broadly educated member of a collective, with cultural...
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SOURCE: Chester, Blanca. “Green Grass, Running Water: Theorizing the World of the Novel.” Canadian Literature 161-162 (summer-autumn 1999): 44-61.
[In the following essay, Chester argues that by integrating Native American stories into novel form in Green Grass, Running Water, King has recreated them and, in turn, the stories continue to recreate the world.]
When I tell the story, a lot of times I like to tell something, then I find that I switch to another one. And I couldn't help it. I got to tell that. In that way, it takes longer. But they important stories anyway.
Thomas King's short story collection One Good Story, That One and his novel Green Grass, Running Water both pay homage to the distinctive voice of the Okanagan storyteller, Harry Robinson. Green Grass, Running Water also provides a thoroughgoing critique of the literary theories of Northrop Frye, literary theories that dominated Canadian and Anglo-American literary criticism between the publication of Anatomy of Criticism in 1957 to Frye's death in 1991. The influence of Robinson's voice is clear in King's own (written) storytelling. But the oral tradition out of which Robinson speaks is both a mode of artistic expression, incorporating principles and aesthetics...
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SOURCE: Cariou, Warren. “Native Novels Range from Passionate to Polished.” Canadian Forum 78, no. 884 (December 1999): 38-40.
[In the following review, Cariou contrasts Truth and Bright Water with Beatrice Culleton Mosionier's In Search of April Raintree, asserting that the novels represent the two extremes of contemporary First Nations literature.]
Over the last 20 years, First Nations literature in Canada has gone from a footnote in the country's literary scene to a burgeoning and multifaceted scene of its own, and there are many indications that this flowering will continue for a long time to come. The recent republication of Beatrice Culleton Misionier's 1983 novel In Search of April Raintree and the much-awaited new release of Thomas King's Truth and Bright Water provide an opportunity to ponder how we got here, and where these developments might lead.
Beatrice Culleton Mosionier (formerly Beatrice Culleton) was one of the first Native novelists to achieve national recognition, and In Search of April Raintree has often been cited as a strong influence on the younger generation of First Nations writers. Thomas King is Canada's most famous Native writer—an appellation that he shares with Truth and Bright Water's heroic artist Munroe Swimmer, who ironically insists that everyone call him “Famous Indian artist.” One could hardly...
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SOURCE: Ridington, Robin. “Happy Trails to You: Contexted Discourse and Indian Removals in Thomas King's Truth and Bright Water.” Canadian Literature 167 (winter 2000): 89-107.
[In the following essay, Ridington offers an evaluation of the hidden discourse in Truth and Bright Water.]
In a paper called “Coyote Pedagogy: Knowing Where the Borders Are in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water,” Margery Fee and Jane Flick point out that, “There is no reader of this novel, except perhaps Thomas King, who is not outside some of its networks of cultural knowledge” (131). Fortunately, they point out, “every reader is also inside at least one network and can therefore work by analogy to cross borders into others” (131). King's third novel, Truth & Bright Water, challenges the reader's abilities at border crossing. Within a narrative set in the present and written in the present tense, King has embedded, and then exhumed, a wealth of stories and characters from Indian history. Events and names in the narrator's story reveal events in the tragic history of Indian removals. Pairs, partners, correspondences and reversals abound. The book reads history as story, and story as history. It shows the reader both sides of its mirrored images. It is set in the border communities of Bright Water, a Canadian Indian reserve, and Truth, an adjacent American railroad town. The border that separates them is cultural as well as political. One side is Indian, the other white, but the characters cross often, if not easily, from one side to the other.
The narrator is a fifteen-year-old boy whose parents have shops on either side of Division Street in Truth. The actual towns that correspond to Truth and Bright Water are Sweet Grass, Montana and Coutts, Alberta. The Indian-sounding name is American. The harsh one is Canadian. King intentionally reverses these values to expose “the false dichotomies people set up” (King, “Notes”; Hoy). The names Truth and Bright Water suggest the game (and television game show) “Truth or Consequences,” which is also the name of a town in New Mexico. While the connection might appear to be far-fetched, it is not. In 1950, the town of Hot Springs or “Canada Alamosa” (another oblique reference to Canada) changed its name to Truth or Consequences (Ortiz 405; Truth or Consequences). The springs themselves are known locally as Geronimo Springs, “named for Apache leader Geronimo, who used them as a gathering place for his warriors” (Truth or Consequences). Geronimo was captured by General Nelson Miles (referenced in the novel by the real estate developer, Miles Deardorf), and removed from his homeland to Fort Marion, Florida (a link to the Fort Marion captives in Green Grass, Running Water).
The novel pairs the narrator with his cousin, Lum, to suggest “right and left handed twins from oral stories, creative figures, halves of a pair” (Hoy). The narrator is a thinker, a storyteller, and as the book ends, a minstrel. Lum is a runner, a wounded warrior, “the boy with the bad eye” (102) and in the end, a jumper (resonant with the American paratrooper's cry, “Geronimo”). Geronimo was trained to be a great runner and fearless warrior. He was a “war shaman” (Opler 200; Barrett 32). He had a bad eye as the result of a bullet wound (Barrett 101). Apache tradition attributes eye defects to “coyote sickness” (Opler 226). In the novel, Lum is training to race in Bright Water's Indian Days celebration, but he is troubled by the ghosts of lost Indian children. He shoots bullets into the ground by his cousin's feet, like Apache boys who train by slinging rocks at each other (Barrett 23). In a remarkable display of daring, he even runs across a railroad bridge in front of a moving train (73). According to Opler, Geronimo had coyote power, ghost power and power over guns (Opler 311).1 Behind Lum's story is Geronimo's tragic history.
The political divide between Truth and Bright Water is also a natural one, a river called “the Shield.” The book's first sentence is, “The river begins in ice” (1). Crossing from mountains to the green grass of the prairie, it transforms into running water. The river's name is significant. It resonates with another land of ice, the Canadian Shield, and with Plains Indian shields, which are immensely important and multivocal symbols. A warrior paints his shield with designs representing his visionary encounters with supernatural helpers. Shields are icons that actualize the power of stories. Shields bring stories to life. The symbols on shields are intertribal and, like Plains sign language, facilitate communication across the divides of particular languages and traditions. When you view a shield, you recall the stories it represents. When you dream the design of a shield, you enter its stories directly. Geronimo's shield protected him in war and represented his power over guns. “When you see a man with a shield, you know it was made for him by a ceremonial man in connection with a war ceremony. … The shield is called, ‘that which I hold up’” (Opler 311). Like a shield, Truth & Bright Water is richly decorated with colour symbolism and with images of painting as an act of re-creation.
There is a bridge over the river that “looks whole and complete.” It appears as “a thin line, delicate and precise, bending over the Shield and slipping back into the land like a knife” (1). On closer inspection, however, the bridge is a barrier, a “tangle of rebar and wire that hangs from the girders like a web” (2). The traditional way of crossing the Shield is on Charlie Ron's ferry, “an old iron bucket suspended on a cable” (42). Guarding the approach to the bridge are “the Horns.” The author's prologue describes the physical setting:
Above the two towns, the Shield is fat and lazy, doubling back on itself in long silver loops as it wanders through the coulees. But as the river comes around the Horns, it drops into the deep chutes beneath the bridge. It gathers speed here, swings in below the old church, and runs dark and swift for half a mile until the land tilts and the water slowly drains away towards Prairie View and the morning sun.
MULTIPLY CONTEXTED DISCOURSE
Following King's prologue, the rest of the book is told in the highly contexted discourse of its fifteen-year-old narrator who, quite naturally, does not refer to himself by name. Only well into the story and only once, in the context of a narrated dialogue with the narrator's auntie Cassie, do we hear that his name is Tecumseh:
“Tecumseh!,” auntie Cassie slips out of the chair. “Last time I saw you you were a baby”
“No I wasn't.”
Like Lum, the narrator is both himself and a character from Indian history. Tecumseh was a Shawnee chief and warrior who attempted unsuccessfully to unite the tribes of the Mississippi valley into an Indian nation.2 He was killed in 1813 at the battle of the Thames by the army of General (later President) William Henry Harrison. The defeat of Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet, paved the way for an American doctrine of removing Indians to “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi. The application of this doctrine led to the Cherokee “trail of tears.” Giving the narrator the name of Tecumseh alerts the reader to the reality that Indian history underlies the stories of individual Indians. The name also suggests appropriation of Indian history through its association with Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, whose “march to the sea” devastated former Cherokee homelands in Georgia.
The dialogue between Cassie and the narrator quoted above speaks to parallel stories that run through the book and are referred to in the title of this paper. One story is the narrator's account of his attempt to make sense of a cryptic family history from the contexted discourse of conversations he hears or takes part in. When he tells Cassie, “No I wasn't,” he is aware that there is something missing from her story, something he doesn't yet understand about the bits and pieces of information his relations give him about their past. The other story is the author's engagement with the tragic history of Cherokee removals, “the trail of tears.” For King, Cherokee history is an extension of family history. Story and history come together in the person of Monroe Swimmer, a central character in the book.
Monroe Swimmer is a “big time Indian artist” who returns to Truth and Bright Water after making his name in Toronto and working at restoring works of art for museums. He evokes contemporary Canadian “trickster” artists Gerald McMaster, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Jane Ash Poitras, Shelly Niro and many others (see Ryan). In the book, Lucille Rain remembers him as “a bit of a joker” (25). She tells the story of how he showed up for Indian Days wearing elkhide shorts and playing a tuba, “pretending to be the Bright Water German Club”: “He said it was the least he could do, seeing as how Germans were so keen on dressing up like Indians” (25).
Swimmer is a coyote/trickster, a master of reversals, and an actor in the archetypal earth diver creation story. He is also a link between the narrator's family story and Indian history. He turns out to be central to the secret that Tecumseh's mother and her sister Cassie share, as well as central to the author's re-writing and reversal of Indian removals. Like coyote in Green Grass, Running Water, he is rumored to have left town because he “had gotten someone pregnant” (26). Besides being a family and tribal legend in the narrator's world, the name of Swimmer also invokes King's Cherokee heritage. Swimmer was a Cherokee healer who in 1887 showed anthropologist James Mooney a book of sacred formulas written in the syllabary devised by Sequoyah in 1821.3 As Mooney discovered and King reiterates, Indians can own both orality and literacy, story and history. Mooney wrote that:
These formulas had been handed down orally from a remote antiquity until the early part of the present century, when the invention of the Cherokee syllabary enabled the priests of the tribe to put them into writing. The same invention made it possible for their rivals, the missionaries, to give to the Indians the Bible in their own language, so that the opposing forces of Christianity and shamanism alike profited by the genius of Sikwaya.
In the novel, Monroe Swimmer takes back power from the missionaries by purchasing the “Sacred Word Gospel Church” and painting it back into the prairie landscape.
Like Gerald McMaster in his painting entitled “Shaman explaining the theory of transformation to cowboys” (Ryan 30-31), this big-time Indian artist has the power to restore the whiteman's sacred word to its proper place by making it disappear into oral tradition. Swimmer's first name is Monroe. President James Monroe is a key figure in the shared American/Indian history of Cherokee removals. The two names are in tension like the names of cowboys and Indians in McMaster's “The Cowboy/Indian Show” (Ryan). In 1817 Monroe wrote future President Andrew Jackson that
The hunter or savage state requires a greater extent of territory to sustain it, than is compatible with the progress and just claims of civilized life, and must yield to it.
In 1824 Monroe said in his annual message to Congress “that there was only one solution to the Indian problem: the Indians must be induced to move west” (Washburn 44).
Monroe Swimmer is a “big artist,” who activates the stories of both his names to reverse the painful history of Cherokee removal from their homeland. By a clever shift of syntax, he transforms Indians from the subject of removals into agents of their own re-creation. Swimmer's actions evoke the Ghost Dance teachings of the Paiute prophet, Wovoka, which were also documented by Mooney. Wovoka foretold that the whitemen would disappear, the ancestors return, and the buffalo repopulate the prairies. Swimmer's painting literally removes the colonial past from the perceptual environment. Swimmer also realizes Wovoka's prophesy by placing iron cutout images of buffalo back on the land, where they come alive and begin to move out onto the prairie.4 Swimmer knows the efficacy of sacred formulas. He knows that truth and bright water are a single country, Indian country.
WAIT FOR THE SIGNS
The narrator of the book does not have to explain his own name or that of Monroe Swimmer, nor does he have to articulate exactly what the names of the Horns or the Shield mean. Like any storyteller in a small-scale society, he does not have to name all his relations other than by the occasional kin term embedded in quoted dialogue. The narrator tells his story as he sees and hears it. His own internal voice creates a setting for the extensive quotations of the book. It is this dialogue that provides clues to the various mysteries of the book for reader and narrator alike. Some of what the narrator sees and hears makes no sense whatsoever to him, and even less to the reader at the time he recounts them. The narrator and his cousin, Lum, see a mysterious woman throw a child's skull into the Shield from the Horns. Only at the end of his story has he assembled enough evidence to say to himself, “I see what I should have seen before” (249). Only at the end of the story may the reader come to the same realization. Both narrator and reader will do best to “stay calm, be brave and wait for the signs.”5
Throughout his narrative, Tecumseh reports snatches of conversation between his mother and his auntie Cassie that he cannot figure out. Truth & Bright Water is largely constructed of such conversations. In one scene Tecumseh's mother gives Cassie a suitcase full of what he thinks are his old baby clothes:
“‘So,’ says my mother, ‘you going to say anything to him?’” The reference to “him” is not entirely clear from the immediate context. Cassie had mentioned the narrator's father, Elvin, previously, but apparently as part of a question about his helping her sister with the shop. The reference may be to someone else, someone that both parties to the conversation may or may not acknowledge without having to name.
“Like what?” says auntie Cassie.
“Maybe he'll want to help.”
She then goes on to say:
“If it were me,” says my mother, “I'd say something.”
“That's because you're a romantic,” says auntie Cassie.
“Nothing wrong with a little romance,” says my mother.
“Lasts about as long as cut flowers,” says auntie Cassie.
The narrator's mother asks:
“What are you going to do now?”
And Cassie replies:
“What I always do.”
The above passages and much of the book's quoted dialogue illustrate what linguist Edward Hall calls “high context” messages. According to Hall, “the more information is shared … the higher the context” (56-57). Highly contexted discourse assumes that the communicants share knowledge and mutual understandings. As I have noted elsewhere, “discourse within an oral culture is highly contextualized and based on complex mutually understood (and unstated) knowledge” (Ridington “Dogs” 179). Cassie and the narrator's mother are obviously talking about shared but unstated information. They refer to “he” and “him” without having to name the object of their discourse. Their conversation makes perfect sense to them, and little or no sense to the narrator at the time he overhears it. In due course, the signs will fall into place. With luck, further conversations will have a reflexive relationship to this one, until a pattern appears and he figures out what his mother and his auntie Cassie knew all along. When he understands, he experiences an epiphany (249).
King's characters traverse both physical and temporal borders. While the narrator tells his story in the present tense, he refers back reflexively to events that he and his relations remember from the past. Experiences that did not make sense to him as they happened come into focus as the story develops. He quotes the voices of his mother, grandmother and auntie Cassie, and then returns to place their stories in a larger context. Each new story and experience has a reflexive relationship to all those that went before. As the novel progresses, both narrator and reader piece together clues embedded in the stories and story fragments that his mother, father, uncle, aunt and grandmother reveal in their own context-dependent conversations.
The narrator and all his relations are storytellers in the oral tradition. While the reader-listener may be a bit behind in interpreting the signs distributed through the narrated dialogue, he or she will eventually share in the narrator's epiphany and “see what I should have seen before.” Tecumseh's narrative present makes sense in terms of the narrated past, in the same way that traditional First Nations stories have always informed present experience. In any small-scale society where every life is known to others as a story, transformation of personal experience into culturally recognized knowledge is a powerful medium for bonding people to one another with meaning. The art of telling secrets is an important medium of communication in communities where people know one another from living together interdependently (Ridington, “Telling Secrets”).
Each story the narrator hears makes sense in relation to the larger story of which it is a part. One good story articulates with every other story. Every story is at once a fragment and an entirety. Each one hints at every other. Stories function as metonyms, parts that stand for wholes. Stories in the First Nations traditions I am familiar with are parts of a highly contextualized discourse that assumes familiarity with biography and shared experience. They are episodic interrelated vignettes performed by a knowledgeable narrator.
Besides the mystery of the skull, which he shares with his cousin Lum, the narrator struggles to piece together what happened to his mother and his auntie Cassie in “another time, another life,” a phrase he hears from his father (188), his mother (207), and from Cassie as “another life, another time” (245). The mystery has something to do with baby clothes and birthdays. He puzzles at Cassie sending him girl's toys in July, since he is a boy and his birthday is in April (118). Tecumseh reports several versions of a story about his mother and Cassie, when they were young, switching clothes and hairdos on a double date with two guys. When he first overhears them telling the first version of the story, he thinks the guys must have been his father, Elvin, and Lum's father, Franklin Heavy Runner (94). Even in the first telling, the story twists and veers:
“That night in The Lodge,” auntie Cassie would begin. “You wore that white dress.”
“Long time ago,” said my mother. “Not much point in digging up the past.”
“I wore that red dress,” said auntie Cassie, and she would begin to laugh.
“You had your hair up, and I had mine down.”
In the next breath, Cassie seems to reverse herself by saying that in the switch, “Yours went up. … and mine went down” (95). Red and white are important colours in Cherokee symbolism. Red indicates success and triumph; white indicates peace and happiness.
Each telling of a story makes it new and different. In “How I Spent my Summer Vacation: History, Literature, and the Cant of Authenticity,” King writes about his encounter with a storyteller named Bella at the Blood Sun Dance:
Bella, if she exists, believes that history and story are the same. She sees no boundaries, no borders, between what she knows and what she can imagine. Everything is story, and all the stories are true.
When Tecumseh first hears auntie Cassie's story about how she and his mother switched identities, “I figured that the other guy was Franklin and that after the switch, auntie Cassie wound up with my father and my mother wound up with Franklin.” He especially liked “the best part” when “Franklin took my mother's hand and announced that this was the woman he was going to marry” (95).
Later on, he hears another version of the story from his mother. This time, it takes on an entirely different meaning:
“I'll bet dad and uncle Franklin were surprised.”
“Franklin:” says my mother. “Franklin wasn't there.”
Elvin, she says, was with Cassie. “Then who were you with?” he asks.
Even before I ask the question, I know the answer.
“Another time,” says my mother. “Another life.”
In addition to the mystery about auntie Cassie sending girl's birthday presents in July, there is the matter of a suitcase full of baby clothes that Tecumseh first thinks are his but turn out not to be. As they go through the baby clothes, Cassie and his mother are also looking at old photographs. Tecumseh finds them strewn “all over the floor and on the kitchen table” (119).
“There are a couple of older black and white photographs of auntie Cassie and my mother with two men. One of the guys is my father” (119). He doesn't say or know at the time who the other guy is. There is also a picture of a newborn baby:
I figure it's me, only the hair doesn't look quite right. In all my other baby pictures, I have a head of black hair that sticks up in all directions, but in this picture, I don't have much hair at all, and it all lies down neatly against my head. On the back of the photograph, someone has tried to write something but the paper is slick and most of what was there has disappeared. All I can make out is a “J” and an “L” and the number one.
The narrator does not report on his attempts to decipher the text fragment or whether, in fact, he ever resolved this particular mystery. The author leaves the exegesis up to the reader.
This reader went around for days, weeks, trying to come up with the missing information until, quite literally in the middle of the night, I woke up and knew it had to be July 1, Canada Day. That would be the birthday of Cassie's daughter, the one she was thinking of when she sent her nephew girl's toys in July. When the narrator's grandmother comes right out and says to Cassie, “I suppose this is about Mia. … things go quiet then as if somebody has done something rude and no one wants to admit that they did it” (54). Then when she adds that, “Monroe Swimmer is back in town,” Cassie clenches her tattooed hand. The tattooed letters are another text for Tecumseh to decipher. “The letters on the knuckles are pulled tight and stand out against the skin. AIM” (55-56).
From the perspective of a fifteen-year-old boy, the tattoos on Cassie's fingers must stand for “American Indian Movement” and they feed his story about Cassie having been a young radical. In fact, his reading of the text is reversed. When Tecumseh later writes AIM on his own knuckles and asks Cassie, “Is this how you did it?” she replies, “No. … When I did this, I was drunk and I did it in a mirror” (229). The letters spell out the name of Cassie's lost daughter. They can also be read as “missing in action.”
July 1 is not only the birthday of Cassie's lost child. It is also Canada's birthday and it is the date of “Indian Days” in Bright Water. Canada's days revert to being Indian days when Indians become active agents of their own history and begin to remove the institutions of colonial oppression. When Monroe Swimmer returns to Truth and Bright Water and takes over the Sacred Word Gospel Church, Indian removals take on a new meaning.
THIS ACCORDING TO TOM KING'S CONTEXTED DISCOURSE
While the context of the narrator's discourse includes his friends and relations and visitors to Truth and Bright Water, the author's context brings in the wider range of characters, situations and literatures that make up his world. The narrator's story and that of the author converge in the same way that story and history converge. The author knows that Bella was right. History and story are the same. There are no boundaries, no borders, between what you know and what you can imagine. Everything is story, and all the stories are true. The author trangresses conventional boundaries between the personal and the historical. His stories include his own family, friends, and colleagues, as well as figures from myth and, most importantly, characters from Indian history and literature.
Some characters in the author's story bring together family and myth. For example, a third of the way into the book, Cassie addresses the narrator's mother by name. “Jesus, Helen,” she says. “Where are the windows?” (112). At the most immediate level, the name is a nod to King's partner and colleague, Helen Hoy. At another level, though, the author's use of the name ties the story to Helen of Troy, a semi-mythic character from King's Greek heritage. Cassie, of course, turns out to be Cassandra. The first and only time we hear her full name is when the narrator's father tells him, “And don't believe everything Cassandra tells you either” (210).
Helen and Cassandra are sisters in the book. In Greek history, Helen and Cassandra are sisters-in-law. Helen, the wife of Meneleus, has an affair with Paris of Troy while Cassandra, his sister, refuses the advances of Apollo and is condemned to be eternally disbelieved. Troy falls because the Trojans refuse to believe her warning about the wooden horse. Helen survives the war and returns to her husband, while Cassandra and her captor, Agamemnon, are both killed by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, thus initiating the Oresteia cycle of tragic stories.
By naming his characters as he does, the author plays stories and histories in relation to one another. He reminds us that the Trojan War, after all, came about because of a traumatic event in family history.
Even Tecumseh's dog Soldier, carries a cultural and historical message. A reader familiar with Plains Indian culture knows that the Dog Soldiers are people willing to sacrifice their lives in defense of the camp. Tecumseh reports what his grandmother said about dogs and ghosts, which is essential information for understanding both the metaphor of dog soldier and the dog soldier's relation to a group of Cherokees who come into the story “on their way to Oklahoma”:
“In the old days,” she told me, “dogs helped to guard the camp.”
“Other things too.”
“Ghosts,” said my grandmother. “They watched out for ghosts.”
The ghosts his grandmother spoke of show up in several guises. First, there is the child's skull that Lum and Tecumseh retrieve after a “mysterious woman” throws it into the Shield. Near the end of his story, Tecumseh is able to tell his cousin that the mysterious woman was actually Monroe Swimmer in disguise. “It was you,” Tecumseh tells Swimmer. “I see what I should have seen before” (249). The child's skull they retrieved from the Shield was one of many that Swimmer liberated from museums during the course of his work restoring paintings.
“Monroe rescues them from museums,” I tell Lum.
“Cool.” Lum cradles the skull in his arms and smoothes the bone with the sleeve of his shirt.
“Anthropologists stick them in drawers,” I say. “Monroe steals them back.”
The spirits of this child and other lost children resonate throughout the book. One of these lost children is Lum, who identifies with the skull. Initially, he thought it was a lost child abandoned by its mother:
“Did you think she was going to come back … Did you really think she was going to come back?” …
“She throws you away, and you think she's going to come back.” Lum rubs the skull against his face. “Silly baby,” he says. “Silly baby.”
The image of the lost mother connects to Silko's novel, Ceremony, which turns around a quest for the lost corn mother whose absence has held back the life-giving rains. Another lost mother and child are Cassie and her daughter, Mia.
The Cherokees who show up for Indian Days and stay in the band's “Happy Trails” trailer park are another set of ghostly presences. They are real characters from Cherokee history, and it is appropriate that the trailer park's name is an inversion of their “trail of tears.” It is also a reference to part-Choctaw cowboy Roy Rogers, whose signature sign-off was the song, “Happy Trails To You,” and whose informal title, “The King of the Cowboys,” happens to resonate with the author's name. Soldier bristles whenever he is near the Cherokees. He experiences them as ghosts who still journey along the trail of tears. Finally, there is the ghostly trio of half wild dogs, “The Cousins,” who live up by the abandoned Sacred Word Gospel Church. Their name may be a reference to the “Cherokee Cousins,” an organization devoted to helping people prove Cherokee ancestry by reference to “Miller Roll” applications filed between 1906 and 1908 (Cherokee Cousins accessed 04/16/00).
The Cherokees who show up at Happy Trails include John Ross (“He's got the big red trailer”), George Guess (“He reads books”) and a young girl named Rebecca Neugin, who looks “strange, pale and transparent” (102). John Ross (Gu wi s gu wi) was the principal chief of the Cherokee nation from 1826-1866. He could not prevent his people being removed from their homeland. George Guess (or Gist) is the English name of Sequoyah, the Cherokee who devised a syllabary for writing the Cherokee language (Washburn 46; Prucha 66). Rebecca Neugin was a girl of three during the time of removals. In 1932, at the age of 100, she described her experience to Oklahoma historian Grant Foreman:
When the soldiers came to our house my father wanted to fight, but my mother told him that the soldiers would kill him if he did and we surrendered without a fight. They drove us out of our house to join other prisoners in a stockade. After they took us away my mother begged them to let her go back and get some bedding. So they let her go back and she brought what bedding and a few cooking utensils she could carry and had to leave behind all of our other household possessions.
(Perdue and Green 169)
Rebecca especially regretted having to leave her pet duck behind. More than a hundred and fifty years after her removal from Georgia, the ghosts of Rebecca and the other Cherokees are still on their way to Indian Territory. It makes sense that they should show up for Indian Days and make contact with an Indian named Tecumseh. It is no wonder that Soldier bristles at their presence. Tecumseh, whose namesake tried to create an Indian nation along the Mississippi valley and failed, feels a special connection to Rebecca Neugin, although he does not know exactly why. Rebecca finally leaves with her people, but not before giving Tecumseh a red ribbon from her hair.
“Here,” says Rebecca, “I'll give you this if you and your dog will help me find my duck.”
Before she leaves, Rebecca begins to speak in Cherokee. “For the first time, she doesn't look unhappy” (220). As Rebecca begins to speak, grandmother says, “Ah, … A Creation story. Those ones are my favorite” (220). Tom King likes creation stories too, especially ones in Cherokee.
Green Grass, Running Water was a comedy in the sense that it ends, if not with a marriage, then at least with an annunciation, a conception and the Sun Dance. Truth & Bright Water is tragedy that ends with the death of Lum and the faithful dog, Soldier. It is a tragedy in the same way that removing the Cherokees from their homelands and placing the bones of Indian children “in drawers and boxes and stuck away on dusty shelves” (250) are tragic assaults on Indian people. Both novels, however, end with an Indian ceremony. As Swimmer told Mooney, between 1887 and 1890 a man called “the Firekeeper” built “the honored or sacred fire” once a year, from which all the people lit fires to begin a new year. The Cherokees also had a wooden box “in which they kept the most sacred things of their old religion” (Truth or Consequences). Truth & Bright Water ends with Monroe Swimmer acting as firekeeper and conducting a huge giveaway for the entire community. Swimmer told Mooney that the constant fire was built on a sacred mound. Tecumseh says,
It's still the middle of the night, but as I look east, I imagine I can see the first movements of dawn and feel the early coolness of morning air. The fire has settled into a low mound.
Auntie Cassie remains standing by the fire.
Auntie Cassie opens the suitcase, takes out a small shirt, and holds it up to the light. Against the heat of the fire, the shirt looks soft and golden, and even though I'm watching, I almost miss it, the motion is so quick and casual. In the end, all I really do see is the shirt spread out and floating, bright against the night. It settles onto the embers, lies there in the fire for the longest time, and then slowly curls up at the edges, glows briefly, and is gone.
Monroe asks Tecumseh,
“What do you think your auntie would like?” “I don't know,” I say. “What do you think?” … Here,” he says, and he picks up an Inuit sculpture of a woman with a child on her back. “We'll give her this.”
Cassie replies, “Just be careful of what you give away … There are some things you want to keep” (244). Tecumseh takes the photograph from his pocket:
“Is this her?” … “You know … Mia?” “Is she someone I know?” “No,” Auntie Cassie puts the photograph in her coat. “You never knew her.” I wait to see if auntie Cassie is going to finish the story, but I can see that she's gone as far as she wants to go. “Another life,” she says. “Another time.”
Following the giveaway, Monroe Swimmer removes the remaining skulls from a sacred bentwood box and initiates “the ceremony … for putting the bones in the river” (251). The ceremony requires ribbons to be tied to the skulls, but Swimmer has run out and Tecumseh supplies the one he received from Rebecca. “The ribbon flutters out like wings” (252). Just then, a voice comes out of the darkness saying, “‘Mum?’” ‘Is that you, mum?’” (252). It is Lum, who has come to believe that the mysterious woman is his mother: “It's my mother … She's come home” (226). Now, his own name echoes his loss: Lum, Mum.
Lum has painted his face red and black, the colours of triumph and death in Cherokee symbolism. He is prepared to enact his own personal ceremony. When Tecumseh tells him that the mysterious woman was not his mother, who died in a mysterious accident, but Swimmer, Lum begins to talk baby talk to the skull, as if to console himself by acting the role of the mother he has lost. He seems as much to be letting go of his own spirit as he is releasing the spirit of this long lost child:
“Baby wants to say goodbye.” Lum holds the skull out at arm's length. He slowly opens his hand and lets the skull roll off his fingers. “Bye-bye baby,” says Lum. “Bye-bye.”
Lum is another of the lost children. While Cassie is looking for her daughter, Lum, like Tayo in Silko's Ceremony, is searching for his mother. At the beginning of the story, he told Tecumseh, “I'm not going to stop until I feel like stopping” (4). Now, at the end of the broken bridge over the Shield, he repeats the statement, “I'm going to keep on going until I feel like stopping!” (258). As Lum takes charge of his destiny and picks up speed, “his body uncoils and stretches out.” Soldier strains to follow him, tears his collar out of Tecumseh's hands, and “explodes out on the decking and sends me sprawling.” Both disappear as “fog swirls up through the holes on the bridge” (258).
Lum's leap into the waters of the Shield plunges him and the novel into mythic time. It recreates an image from the earth diver creation stories familiar to readers of Green Grass, Running Water. He joins Swimmer in returning the skulls of lost children to the life-giving water of creation. In the context of Lum as Geronimo, his return to the water suggests an identification with the Apache culture hero and monster slayer, Child of the Water (Ortiz 433) or He Was Born For Water (Farrar 19). In Apache tradition
A divine maiden [White Painted Woman] came among the people, allowed water from overhanging rocks to drip upon her head, and miraculously conceived. She bore a son, Child of the Water, and protected him from the suspicious giants by various stratagems. When the child was only four years old, he began to challenge the monsters and, in a series of daring feats, destroyed them all.
White Painted Woman is the central figure in Isanaklesde Gotal, the Apache girl's puberty ceremony. “During the four days and nights of the rite and for four days thereafter, the girl must be addressed and referred to only as White Painted Woman” (Opler 90). Following the Apache defeat by General Miles, they were forbidden to hold their traditional ceremonies. In 1912, the federal government rescinded its order and told the people that “they could gather together as a tribe once a year to have a celebration on the fourth of July” (Farrar 134). They chose to celebrate Isanaklesde Gotal, which in earlier times had been held on summer solstice and continued to be their major world renewal ceremony. Apache girls who have begun their first menstruation the previous year run along a sacred pollen path toward the east. Upon their return, the goddess, who had grown old during the year, is made young again (Talamantez). Like King's Canadian Indians, for whom Canada Day becomes “Indian Days,” the Apache reclaimed an American national holiday and made it their own.
MORE TO A STUDY THAN JUST THE WORDS
Truth & Bright Water is complex and tightly written. It tells a tragic story, but it also features empowerment through transformation and re-creation. Monroe Swimmer is a classic trickster, capable of realizing both his Cherokee name and the promise of Wovoka's Ghost Dance, but he also knows that the creation story begins with water. He transforms Indian Removals from an intransitive to a transitive process. When he paints over the sacred word of the missionaries, their church disappears and is replaced by open prairie. The images of buffalo he places out on the prairie begin to take on lives of their own. Like his Cherokee namesake, Swimmer applies sacred formulas to contemporary situations. Like an earth diver creation figure, he moves between sky, earth and water. His kite is named, “teaching the sky about blue” (49). He makes a platform on the prairie called “teaching the grass about green” (43). Another kite is “teaching the night about dark” (49). He wears a tee shirt with the logo of “Monroe Shocks” (45). He plays with the borders that divide Canadian, American, Indian and Cherokee identities. He transforms Canada Day into Indian Days, and makes the event a time of ceremonial renewal.
Swimmer knows that the stories he makes are like the buffalo he places on the prairie. They have lives of their own, but they need a little help getting started. In order to keep the stories alive, he asks Tecumseh to be his minstrel:
“Minstrels sing about heroes and great deeds,” says Monroe.
“You want to be my minstrel?” …
“Here's how it works. I'm the hero. and you have to make up songs and stories about me so that no one forgets who I am.”
After the giveaway he reminds Tecumseh of his role as storyteller:
“When you write the song about my exploits,” says Monroe, “Don't forget the giveaway.”
His words bring to mind the opening lines of Thomas Moore's song, “The Minstrel Boy”:
The minstrel boy to the war is gone, In the ranks of death you'll find him; His father's sword he hath girded on, And his wild harp slung behind him.
Once Tecumseh has pieced together the story, he takes on the authorial role of minstrel. He “girds on” Swimmer's sword. Swimmer knows that what Tecumseh's grandmother said is true. There is more to a story than just the words. This richness resonates with what Dunne-za elder Tommy Attachie told me about songs and stories in his own tradition. “When you sing it now,” Tommy told me, “Just like new.” In Truth & Bright Water, Thomas King has gone beyond the words of his stories to make the events of a shared Indian history just like new. Besides being an obvious coyote, King also has the ear of a minstrel. He makes waiting for the signs worth our while.
For the last month I have been obsessed with decoding the secrets of Truth & Bright Water. When I sent a draft of the paper to Helen Hoy she reminded me that the book is “less allusive than GGRW.” “Could have fooled me,” I thought. But she is right that the story makes sense as a story even if you don't know all the history behind it. At a recent meeting of the Canadian Anthropology Society I found myself raving to colleagues at a Chinese restaurant about Geronimo and Canada Day and Swimmer and the rest of my discoveries. When I paused for breath, the very sensible Liz Furniss asked an obvious question I hadn't thought of in so many words. Why doesn't King just tell a straight-up story? Why does he write about secrets that are hidden from most of his readers?
My first reaction was to say, “Don't ask me, ask him,” but that begged the question, which could be framed more generally as, “How is this book, and Native literature generally, relevant to Canadian Literature?” Is King an Indian storyteller whose writing is a transformation of Aboriginal modes of discourse, or is he just another postmodern writer who happens to write about Indians because that is who some of his ancestors were? There are probably readers who hold one or another of these views on either side of the border between Indian and non-Indian identity. As you may have gathered from my argument in this paper, I think he adds an Aboriginal dimension to the western canon rather than simply using western writing strategies to describe Aboriginal experience. His work is neopremodern, not postmodern.
Besides being a work of erudition and creativity, Truth & Bright Water locates collective history within personal story and reveals the storied life of Indian history. Like any good story, the book challenges its reader to take an active authorial role. He or she joins the narrator in his quest to “see what I should have seen before.” The book draws its reader into the history of what Indian people experienced before anyone living today was born. Rebecca Neugin was an old woman when she told the story of what happened to her at the age of three. No one alive today remembers the trail of tears from firsthand experience. Geronimo was the war shaman of a people who now conduct their most sacred world renewal ceremony on the fourth of July. In King's country, Canada Day becomes Indian Days. King is a minstrel who makes up songs and stories so that no one forgets the actuality of Indian history. Swimmer, Geronimo, Tecumseh, The Shawnee Prophet, Sequoyah, Heavy Runner, and little Rebecca Neugin come to life in the telling of King's creation story. When Thomas King sings the stories now, they become “just like new.”
An Apache informant told Opler the following story about Geronimo:
He started to sing. There were many songs, and the songs were about Coyote. They told how Coyote was a tricky fellow, hard to see and find, and how he gave these characteristics to Geronimo so that he could make himself invisible and even turn into a doorway. They told how the coyote helped Geronimo in his curing. Geronimo accompanied his singing with a drum which he beat with a curved stick. At the end of each song he gave a call like a coyote.
An undocumented websource says that Tecumseh's name means “Shooting Star” and his motto was, “I am the maker of my own fortune.” Eckert's biography gives his name as “The Panther Passing Across” (41). In the 1930s, the Tecumseh story was appropriated by nationalistic German novelists including Karl May to promote the message that even heroic resistance will fail in the absence of racial and national unity. May's “good Indians” are ones who have been improved by Germans and Christianity (Washburn 585). A piece of King's mosaic is his story of a German tourist named Helmut May and his wife Eva, who are found dead of “exposure” in their Grand Cherokee parked out on the prairie. Blanca Chester (personal communication) suggests that Helmut may be a reference to Emma Lee Warrior's short story, “Compatriots,” whose central character is Helmut Walking Eagle. Walking Eagle, in turn, suggests Adolph Hungry Wolf, a German who writes about Blackfoot culture. Chester also suggests that Eva may refer to Hitler's mistress, Eva Braun, who died with him in a Berlin bunker. The photographs in May's camera have the foreground in focus and the landscape out (King, Truth 155). The reference to photography recalls both King's Medicine River and his project of “exposing” prominent Indians by photographing them wearing Lone Ranger masks.
Sequoyah may have been physically disabled since his name (Sikwo-ye) means “Pig's Foot.” He was born in 1776 near Tuskeegee, Tennessee, and died in 1843 near Tyler, Texas. Following Sequoyah's invention of an Indian writing system, Cherokee Phoenix (Washburn 44).
The campus of the University of Lethbridge, where King headed the Native Studies department, features metal cut-outs of animals silhouetted against the prairie horizon.
I am not going to give this one away entirely, but CBC listeners will know what I am talking about.
All My Relations. Thanks to Jillian Ridington, Helen Hoy and Tom King for reading versions of this paper.
Barrett, S. M. Geronimo: His Own Story. Newly ed. with an intro. by Frederick W. Turner III. New York: Ballantine, 1971.
Cherokee Cousins. 16 Apr. 2000.
Cherokee Messenger. 11 Mar. 2000. <http://www.powersource.com/cherokee/=.
Eckert, Allan W. A Sorrow in Our Heart: The Life of Tecumseh. New York: Bantam, 1992.
Farrar, Claire R. Living Life's Circle: Mescalero Apache Cosmovision. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1991.
Fee, Margery and Jane Flick. “Knowing Where the Borders Are in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water.” Canadian Literature 161/162 (1999): 131-39.
Flick, Jane. “Reading Notes for Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water.” Canadian Literature 161/162 (1999): 140-72.
Foreman, Grant. Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1932.
Hall, Edward T. The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time. Garden City: Anchor/Doubleday, 1983.
Hoy, Helen. E-mail to Robin Ridington. April 24, 2000.
King, Thomas. Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1993.
———. “How I Spent My Summer Vacation: History, Literature, and the Cant of Authenticity” Landmarks: A Process Reader. Ed. Roberta Birks et al. Scarborough: Prentice Hall Allyn and Bacon, 1998.
———. Notes from talks by Thomas King, University of British Columbia. September 1998.
———. Truth & Bright Water. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1999.
———. “Peter Gzowski Interviews Thomas King on Green Grass, Running Water.” Canadian Literature 161/162 (1999): 65-76.
———. “Shooting the Lone Ranger: Essay by Thomas King.” Hungry Mind Review: An Independent Book Review. 4 Sept 2000.
Mooney, James. The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Washington: Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1891.
———. The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890. Washington: Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1896.
———. Myths of the Cherokee. Washington: Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1900.
Ortiz, Alfonso, ed. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 10: Southwest. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1983.
Perdue, Theda and Michael D. Green. The Cherokee Removals: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: St. Martin's, Bedford, 1995.
Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984.
Ridington, Robin. “Telling Secrets: Stories of the Vision Quest.” Canadian Journal of Native Studies 18.3 (1982): 55-66.
———. “Theorizing Coyote's Cannon: Sharing Stories with Thomas King.” Theorizing the Americanist Tradition. Ed. Lisa Philips Valentine and Regna Darnell. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990. 19-37.
———. “Dogs, Snares, and Cartridge Belts: The Poetics of a Northern Athapaskan Narrative Technology.” The Social Dynamics of Technology: Practice, Politics, and World Views. Ed. Marcia-Anne Dobres and Christopher R. Hoffman. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1999. 167-185.
Ryan, Allan J. The Cowboy Indian Show: Recent Work by Gerald McMaster. Exhibition Catalogue. Kleinberg, Ont: McMichael Canadian Collection, 1991.
———. The Trickster Shift: Humour and Irony in Contemporary Native Art. Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 1999.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Richard Seamer, 1977.
Talamantez, Ines. Tape Recording of Talk on Isanaklesde Gotal, 1981.
Truth or Consequences, Sierra County, NM. 20 Apr. 2000.
Washburn, Wilcom, ed. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 4. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1988.
SOURCE: Cox, James H. “‘All This Water Imagery Must Mean Something’: Thomas King's Revisions of Narratives of Domination and Conquest in Green Grass, Running Water.” American Indian Quarterly 24, no. 2 (spring 2000): 219-46.
[In the following essay, Cox examines how King usurps European narratives of domination to create life-affirming storylines in Green Grass, Running Water.]
Doom. Doom! Doom! Doom!
D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
How the Indian story is told, how it is nourished, who tells it, who nourishes it, and the consequences of its telling are among the most fascinating—and, at the same time, chilling—stories of our time.
Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, “American Indian Intellectualism and the New Indian Story”
One of the major components of European and European North American storytelling traditions about colonialism is the plot that culminates in a conquest of the Americas. Authors of these stories frequently create Native characters in order to annihilate them in their imaginations and in the texts. This literary expression of colonial domination and conquest takes the form of aging chiefs pronouncing doom on themselves and on their people, Native men first dispensing their wisdom about the landscape to...
(The entire section is 12558 words.)
SOURCE: Andrews, Jennifer. “Making Associations.” Canadian Literature 168 (spring 2001): 151-52.
[In the following excerpt, Andrews evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Truth and Bright Water.]
In an essay titled “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial,” published in 1990, Thomas King proposed some alternative categories for discussing Native literature, ones that do not rely on the arrival of European settlers in the New World to mark the beginning of a distinctive literary tradition. Among the terms he offers to describe Native texts, King includes “associational” literature, which he uses to label the work of contemporary Native writers who depict Native communities. Rather than focusing on a non-Native society or the conflicts between Natives and non-Natives, these texts present the “daily intricacies and activities of Native life.” According to King, those who write associational literature usually reject the “climaxes and resolutions” that are valued by non-Natives. Instead, they emphasize the interactions of the community without necessarily creating conventional models of the hero or villain; the plot line tends to be flat and to resist formulaic kinds of closure.
In Truth & Bright Water, King clearly reasserts himself as an author of associational literature, creating a picture of a community that is forceful in its critique of nationalist politics and,...
(The entire section is 729 words.)
Fee, Margery, and Jane Flick. “Coyote Pedagogy: Knowing Where the Borders Are in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water.” Canadian Literature 161-162 (summer-autumn 1999): 131-39.
Fee and Flick analyze the different borders present in King's Green Grass, Running Water and how crossing those borders is necessary to understand the novel's humor.
Goldman, Marlene. “Mapping and Dreaming: Native Resistance in Green Grass, Running Water.” Canadian Literature 161-162 (summer-autumn 1999): 18-41.
Goldman traces King's use of maps and dreaming as a means of resistance in Green Grass, Running Water.
Kenton, Linda M. Review of Coyote Sings to the Moon, by Thomas King. School Library Journal 48, no. 10 (October 2002): 115.
Kenton offers a mixed assessment of Coyote Sings to the Moon, noting that “[t]he illustrations … cannot overcome the weaknesses of the plot.”
King, Thomas, and Peter Gzowski. “Peter Gzowski Interviews Thomas King on Green Grass, Running Water.” Canadian Literature 161-162 (summer-autumn 1999): 65-76.
King discusses his symbolic use of characters and myth in Green Grass, Running Water.
Lutz, Hartmut, editor. Contemporary Challenges: Conversations with...
(The entire section is 317 words.)