Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Thomas King lives with a foot in two worlds, the Native American world that is part of his heritage and the world of the white society of which he is fundamentally a part despite his Cherokee lineage. He understands both worlds well. He writes in Green Grass, Running Water, as he did in his first novel, Medicine River (1990), with a greater sympathy for the underdog society than for the dominant society.

Green Grass, Running Water directs its social commentary to current topics, including the feminist cause. Alberta is a liberated woman, bright, well-educated, and financially independent. She wants motherhood but denies any necessary connection between motherhood and marriage. She is a nurturing sort, more drawn to Lionel than to Charlie because Lionel is the less successful of the two, the one who needs nurturing. This, however, does not make Alberta want to marry him.

Throughout the novel, white society transgresses upon the native culture in ways both small and large. The small transgressions occur in insensitive acts: for example, a white tourist happens upon the Sun Dance and begins photographing it. Even worse, George, who is married to Latisha, a successful, independent Native American, wants to photograph the Sun Dance and, in an abortive reunion with Latisha, makes slighting remarks about her culture—something that Eli’s white wife, Karen, never did.

In one heartbreaking vignette, King tells...

(The entire section is 537 words.)


The theme that drives most of the action in Green Grass, Running Water is the conflict between Native American culture and White culture. King establishes this most potently in the fantastical back stories of the four old Native American men. In each story, a character from the Native American tradition interacts with a Biblical figure and then a character from White literature or film. Tellingly, each of the four old Native Americans eventually adopts a name from these White works. The four characters come from works by white writers for white audiences that feature Native American characters: Robinson Crusoe from the eponymous novel by Daniel Defoe, Ishmael from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Hawkeye from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, and The Lone Ranger, the titular hero of radio and television serials.

King furthers this theme of cultural conflict by demonstrating the power that popular culture has in shaping one society’s perception of another. In addition to the names of the four Native American elders, King utilizes the American Western as a means of exploring the White world’s misconception of Native Americans. Throughout King’s novel, characters read novels or watch films that feature stereotypical Cowboys-versus-Indians plots. In the middle of the novel, all of the major characters find themselves watching an old black-and-white western starring John Wayne. Charlie’s father, Portland, has a minor featured role as an Indian chief, and the four Native American elders also appear in it unexpectedly. King then upends this stereotype when Bill Bursum plays the video the next day and the ending is mysteriously changed to show the Native Americans victorious.

King explores the cultural conflict in religious terms by satirizing the Biblical figures. In doing so, King points out the hypocrisy in the White community’s view of Native American spirituality as primitive. When Changing Woman finds herself on Noah’s Ark, the ship is overrun with animal droppings. In addition, Noah is presented as having a substantial libido and Changing Woman must outrun him. Later, Young Man Walking on Water (who is clearly supposed to be Jesus Christ) is unable to calm the storm to protect the sailors until Old Woman sings to the waves to calm them. By poking fun at stories from the Christian tradition, King ironically points out the universality faith. Regardless of the culture, each faith tradition has deities and origin stories.

Satire also reinforces the theme of cultural divide in the scenes set in Latisha’s diner, The Dead Dog Café. Even the restaurant’s namesake underscores the humor in the conflict between White and Native American cultures. Part of the selling point of Latisha’s café is the illusion that the patrons are eating dog meat as a way of experiencing authentic Native American culture. In reality, the meat served is beef because consuming dogs as food is in no way part of Blackfoot...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)