In Green Grass, Running Water, Thomas King hits hard at corruption through satire. Satire, King says in an interview included in the book, comes from distrust. It should make you laugh uncomfortably.
The definition of corruption exemplified here is dishonesty and manipulation, especially by those in power. King is examining the dilemma of North American Indians living under white oppression. The title comes from a line in treaties: “As long as the grass is green and the waters run.” In the book, an Indian chief character from a movie quotes this line. In treaties, it was meant to be a promise from whites to Native Americans, but it is a broken promise.
King says there’s a certain meanness and arrogance in the Christian religion and in a society that is motivated by personal profit, power, and prestige. He says there are still problems with treaty rights, tax status, and how native communities are run, but the Canadian government is lethargic about native rights. The white character Sifton tells a native character, Eli: “Those treaties aren’t worth a damn. Government only made them for convenience.” King cleverly presents conversation in the book as disjointed, with people talking at each other instead of with or to each other. This suggests that no one is listening.
Coyote (a native trickster god) and a mysterious first-person narrator travel through the story with an absurd group of characters: the Lone Ranger (a fictitious cowboy from 1950s television), Robinson Crusoe (a novel character who was marooned on an island with a native companion), Ishmael (a biblical prophet), and Hawkeye (who the narrator says sounds like a white person who wants to be native). These four (called the Old Indians) appear to be mental ward escapees who are on a journey to fix a broken world.
The mysterious narrator starts the novel by saying, “In the beginning there was nothing. Just the water.” Green grass and running water were positive natural resources in the lives of native peoples, but King’s recurring water imagery in clouds, rain, puddles, lakes, rivers, and oceans seems negative, as though Native Americans are now drowning in it. The character Eli is resisting a dam being built on his mother’s property. The plan is to create a lake where white people will have cottages.
Besides abuse of treaty rights, King depicts longstanding issues of injustice under the law and extreme punitive measures taken by police. At a telling moment early in the book, soldiers arrest the characters First Woman and Ahdamn: “What’s the charge, says first woman. Being Indian, says those soldiers.”
King mocks the way American Indians have been portrayed in fiction and movies to satisfy white expectations. Indians were always the bad guys, never allowed to portray heroes. At one point, Coyote shocks the white character Bill Bursum by magically altering a movie so that the Indians are triumphant. When the Indian character Portland is made to wear a rubber nose to make him look more Indian, CB Cologne acknowledges that Portland played an Indian well, saying, “Just because you are an Indian doesn’t mean you can act like an Indian for the movies.”
King shows how white culture has despoiled nature, “killing Indians, buffalo and poor people” (according to Ahdamn), and has appropriated naming and storytelling traditions. The Indian character Alberta is a history teacher who has difficulty teaching the white version of events, and the Old Indians have many absurd conversations that blur native creation stories with Christian tradition. Coyote says about the Bible, “Forget the book. We’ve got a story to tell,” and the narrator says, “There’s another version of the story.”
King touches on many historical wounds: massacres such as Wounded Knee in 1890, residential schools, the loss of language, the failure to differentiate between tribes by labelling them all “Indians.” He shows the disruptive impact on Indian marriage and family life wrought by whites: marriage breakups (Latisha and George), fear of marriage (Alberta), difficulties in mixed marriage (Eli and Karen), and the departure of younger generations, such as Eli and Lionel. Lionel has good intentions but finds it impossible to be a good Indian and also succeed in the white world. Eli is an Indian who “can’t go home again”; he is trapped between two worlds. But despite his advanced education and success, he knows he is still “just an Indian.”
Indians are made to feel inferior by an arrogant white race. White doctors are made out to be superior to Indian shamans, and a police sergeant refers to the Indian character Babo as “Aunt Jemima,” a racist term usually applied to black women. The white character George says, “nobody cares about your little powwow ... a bunch of old people and drunks sitting around in tents in the middle of nowhere ... you guys are born stupid and you die stupid.” Cultural shame makes some young people “sell out” and abandon the old ways. Lionel wanted to be white, and his aunt Norma tells him, “your uncle [Eli] wanted to be white. Just like you.”
Water imagery both begins and concludes the book. Coyote says, “All this water imagery must mean something” and causes an earthquake that explodes the dam on Eli’s land, causing a flood reminiscent of story of Noah in the Bible: “The water rolled on as it had for eternity.” This suggests that the wandering Old Indians have fixed the world by creating a new beginning. Once again blurring native and Christian traditions, the Lone Ranger says, “We could start in the garden.”