When William Patrick Kinsella began writing stories about the Ermineskin Reserve in Alberta, Canada, he knew little about Cree culture, but he did research, collected news about Native American activities, and incorporated that knowledge into later stories. He also made narrator Silas Ermineskin a little older and wiser, and leavened his poignancy with increasing humor. As a result, the fourth book of Ermineskin stories, The Moccasin Telegraph, and Other Stories, seems richer than previous volumes.
Kinsella’s characters convey various aspects of Native American identity. Playfulness is conveyed by Frank Fencepost, who loves playing tricks on gullible white men. Respect for Native American heritage is embodied in Mad Etta, the wise old medicine woman, and Delores, who learns traditional Cree dances. Close connections to the land emerge in “The Ballad of the Public Trustee,” in which Silas sadly cannot prevent government seizure of an old friend’s property, and family ties are central to “Pius Blindman Is Coming Home,” in which an old woman stays alive hoping for her wayward son’s return.
Kinsella does not romanticize or idealize Native Americans. Characters display no environmental wisdom, spiritual insights, or mystical powers. Several succumb to alcoholism, gambling, or crime, and Chief Tom is vilified as an “apple” (red on the outside, white on the inside) because he adopts western dress and acquiesces to every white man’s wishes. Significantly, Kinsella does not cast these characters as victims of evil white influence but holds them accountable for their own weaknesses. This is one theme of “The Moccasin Telegraph,” the title story, in which a drunken Native American wantonly kills a clerk during a robbery and is shot by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police while resisting arrest. When members of the American Indian Movement arrive to denounce the killing as racist police brutality, residents are irritated by the protests. To them, the dead man got what he deserved, and AIM means “A**holes in Moccasins.” There are also admirable whites, like the fraudulent doctor who earns the affection of residents because of his sincere concern, and the head of a religious college, who treats Native American visitors with courtesy and understanding. Thus, while cultural backgrounds are important, individuals are still responsible for developing their own identities and must be judged individually.
Kinsella’s portrayals of Native Americans sometimes seem harsh, but his respect and fondness for Native American culture and people nevertheless emerge. His balanced pictures of Native American life merit attention.
Goldie, Terry. Fear and Temptation: The Image of the Indigene in Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Literature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989.
Johnston, Gordon. “An Intolerable Burden of Meaning: Native Peoples in White Fiction.” In The Native in Literature, edited by Thomas King, Cheryl Calver, and Helen Hoy. Oakville, Ontario, Canada: ECW Press, 1987.
Murray, Don. The Fiction of W. P. Kinsella: Tall Tales in Various Voices. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada: York Press, 1987.
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