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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.

Biographical Information

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.”

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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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.

Craig S. Womack (review date spring 1992)

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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 of the narrator's comments with Harlen's verbosity. Harlen is the storytelling character in the novel, and in spite of the fact that he sticks his nose in everyone else's business, he is the word shaman, the man who connects word with deed, past with present. In fact, Harlen finds some old letters that Will's drifter, rodeoing father had written to his mother Rose, and Harlen gives the letters to Will. It is Will's reading of the letters that serves as a catalyst for his confrontation with the past. Harlen is reminiscent of V. K. Ratliff, that irrepressible disseminator of gossip in Faulkner's fiction, who, in spite of the failure of his many quirky plans, still works as a cohesive force in the community. Harlen relates to Will what he knows about Will's father, who has been a blank in Will's mind.

Harlen gets Will to play on an Indian basketball team, the Medicine River Friendship Centre Warriors, a team that is a comic microcosm of all the things that can go wrong in small town athletics: The opposite words friendship and warrior underscore the problem with the team. Harlen also nags Will into a relationship with an unwed mother, Louise; both characters, because of their suffering, benefit from the match.

The tone of this novel is big-hearted. The narrator says, “Harlen Bigbear was my friend, and being Harlen's friend was hard. I can tell you that” (p. 11). In spite of Will's struggle with Harlen's intrusiveness, depicted realistically in the novel as a thorn in their friendship, Will has a generosity of spirit that comes through in the deadpan humor with which he accepts their trying relationship. Harlen is always in the midst of selling an idea to Will, whether it is to join the basketball team, to take the game seriously, or to date Louise. All his ploys are purposeful attempts to move Will from the sidelines to active participation in the life of the community. What makes Harlen eminently bearable is that he does more than just talk. His willingness to jump into the fray is underscored when he starts practicing with the team himself, even though he is old and out of shape. Will reports comically that his “hook shot, which he liked to shoot from twenty-five feet out, reminded me of John Wayne throwing hand grenades. He had a set shot from half-court that occasionally went in. But he ran and he jumped and he sweated with the rest of us …” (p. 18). Though not a basketball star, Harlen advocates involvement with life, and his machinations in the novel center around finding ways to get Will to join him.

The narrative shifts from the episodic events of Will's past to his present situation. Will's problem is that he is unable to provide the transitions that connect the events of his childhood—related to the reader in the form of interior monologues—to current realities. The blank spaces in the text represent the time lapses between recalled episodes, interspersed throughout the story of Will's present-day affairs. The spaces also symbolize Will's need to recognize that his past has carried forward into his adult life. For example, in one episode, Will recalls his anger at a basketball coach who made him sit out an entire season during his last year of high school. On the Medicine River team, Harlen decides to start in a game in Will's place. He says, “You'll get to play. Just want to try a few new things” (p. 20). The team ends up winning. For Will, Harlen's substitution brings back all the pain of his adolescent bench sitting. Although the narrator feels anger at Harlen for not letting him play, he never verbalizes his anger, and he does not consciously recognize the relationship between his adolescent insecurity and his ongoing adult need for self-confidence. In a related childhood episode, he defaced some of his brother James's drawings; James's lack of anger and failure to respond parallel Will's own problem with his repressed anger towards Harlen.

One of Will's teammates, Floyd, unwittingly voices the dominant culture's view of the past. Floyd accuses Harlen of always looking back in order to compensate for a past failure. He believes that Harlen was formerly a champion hoop dancer who had to stop dancing because of an injury. Floyd says, “[He] hurt his foot, but mostly it was his pride. That's why he's always trying to compensate. … All you old guys are trying to recapture the past” (p. 19). Floyd does not realize that Harlen's concern for past events is not nostalgic; Harlen uses the past as a springboard for full participation in the present, negating the stasis that pervades the lives of the other team members.

Although the reader is constantly aware that this is a Native American novel, the book deals with native culture obliquely. King speaks quietly, yet effectively, of the culture of the community. An example of this is Will's visit with a medicine person, Martha Oldcrow. A lesser writer might have given Will an easy cure or a quick-fix through a ceremonial, but what Will gets from Martha is a rattle to give to Louise's new baby. The rattle does not provide instantaneous healing but is rather a nagging reminder of Will's responsibilities. His substantive relationship with Louise and her daughter contrasts sharply with the superficial relationship he develops with a woman from Toronto who does not, like Louise, bring him closer to connection with self and community.

The same gentle undercurrent of native sensibilities comes through when Harlen pulls the van over to the side of the road to give the boys a fatherly pep talk as the team is returning from a tournament in Browning. Interestingly, Harlen connects the team's poor performance to their lack of sense of place and their inability to recognize the sacred landscape around them. Harlen says, “‘Come on, boys, hop out. I want you to see something’” (p. 15). Significantly, Will devalues the landscape: “There wasn't much to see, just the river and the prairies stretched out gold and rolling” (p. 15). Harlen begins with, “You boys don't try hard enough,” but then he shifts the focus of his admonition to, “You boys look around you. … What do you see? Go on, look around. Where are you? What are you standing on” (p. 15)? The team members fail to see the same thing Harlen does: “‘Looks like a road to me,’ said Floyd. ‘What about you, Elwood’” (p. 15)? Harlen's crucial response identifies the nature of the men's problem: They have not internalized the landscape; thus they lack personal identity, and their vague sense themselves affects their performance on the basketball court. Harlen says, “That's why you miss them jump shots. That's why you get drunk on Friday night and can hardly get your shoes tied on Saturday. That's why we lose those games when we should be winning … cause you don't know where you are [my emphasis]” (p. 15). Harlen says the men's problems stem from not knowing where they are. This notion is contrary to much of contemporary culture, which does not link human identity to a sense of place, to knowing the landscape that surrounds us.

A recurring motif in the novel is the prairie wind, which symbolizes impermanence. The climax of the story occurs during a temporary visit by Harlen's brother, Joe Bigbear, who, like Will's father and his brother James, lives the life of a wanderer, blown about like prairie dust. The connection of these characters to their loved ones is through postcards or, in Joe Bigbear's case, occasional visits, when his friends are subjected to his stories of masculine bravado. The cigar-smoking, leather-vested brother of Harlen is scornful of Indian culture. He shakes hands with the intent of injury and says to Will, “You shake hands like a damn Indian” (p. 147). Joe's philosophy is, “You got to let go, try everything at least once” (p. 147).

Paradoxically, the wind also suggests continuity; it never stops blowing in Medicine River. This paradox comes to a powerful conclusion when Joe dares Harlen and Will to jump off a trestle bridge with him. They both decline because the wind is blowing too hard. While Joe, true to his nature, lets go of everything and jumps from the dizzying height, Harlen and Will sit “on that narrow piece of steel like a pair of barn owls, hanging on for dear life” (p. 164). Will and Harlen's decision to hang on, stay put, cling to community and traditions provides the dénouement for the book.

If the novel ends ambiguously, it is, at least, not without hopeful possibilities. Will moves closer to a sense of home and connection. In a conversation with his brother James, Will for the first time speaks to another person about one of his childhood memories; he apologizes to James for having thrown his ball into the river. It is a conversation of emotional import, the only one in the novel where the narrator externalizes his feelings. The last line circles back to the beginning of the novel and shows us how far the narrator has come. Will told us on the first page, “Autumn was the best season. It wasn't good, just better than the other three” (p. 1). At the end of the novel, after his conversation with James, he says, “The day had started out overcast, but standing in the kitchen window, I could see that the winter sun was out now and lying low on Medicine River. Later that afternoon, I went for a long walk in the snow” (p. 261).

Robert L. Berner (review date autumn 1993)

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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 interests of the power company which built the dam. Meanwhile, Latisha runs the Dead Dog Cafe, selling her various dishes as dog meat to tourists who demand them as “authentic” ethnic cuisine. These characters, all Canadian Blackfeet, go to a Sun Dance, and then the dam collapses.

Their stories provide the novel's satiric vision of the complexities of Indian life in North America; but equally significant is another story, strange and mythic, of the adventures of four very old Indians who escape from a mental hospital south of the border, go to Alberta to destroy the dam with unspecified magic, and return to the hospital when they have succeeded. Their psychiatrist believes they may be centuries old and responsible for every natural disaster in their lifetimes. Their names—Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye—suggest the interrelationship of Indian and non-Indian elements in Euro-American culture and reveal King's cosmopolitan understanding not only of literature but of many Indian mythologies, with Christian, Indian, and literary elements informing one another in new myths which are themselves comic masterpieces. For example, in one of them First Woman, who is both a Navaho founding mother and a cognate of the biblical Eve, creates land out of a watery world and then a garden in which she lives with her husband Ahdamn, who names, or rather misnames, everything. Food falls from a tree when she bumps into it, God shows up, and they leave the garden to escape his belly-aching and run into “rangers,” who shoot at them until First Woman puts on a mask and passes off Ahdamn and herself as Tonto and the Lone Ranger.

This wacky story is typical of Thomas King's mythological fireworks. He has produced a permanent addition to the corpus of American Indian literature which will serve as a benchmark in the history of that subject.

William J. Scheick (review date fall-winter 1993)

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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 heritage surface in the variation of reality presently “dreamed” into existence by Anglo-American culture.

The hope King's book offers his culture resides in the perception of existence life as “running water,” as an incessant flow of uncontainable possibilities. Even if Anglo-American culture seeks to obstruct this originative fluidity, to make adamantine its present version of reality through “power and control,” in fact (as the escapees, the re-edited video western, the resistance to filming the Sun Dance, and the rupture of a damn in the novel mutually suggest) reality is as unconfinable and as mutable as gushing water. Everything has been and will always be “potential” or imagination.” Since, accordingly, “there are no truths … only stories,” then narratives like King's novel may contribute to a revision of the present that better includes native experience and better fulfils their search for a theme, a purpose.

In the meantime/mean-time, King prescribes benign humour in response to “more than [one's] fair share of bad luck.” Humour is gentle resistance; it is also tolerant hope. Just wait and remember, he implies, and the present rendering of reality will eventually burst its imaginary bounds. Possibly the next life-narrative will integrate Native-American and Anglo-American cultures into a richer life-story for both.

I have spent the space allotted to me here not to divulge the plot of King's book, but to intimate its profundity. Nor is this book only a novel of ideas; it is an intricately textured work of art. In Green Grass, Running Water Thomas King has given us a wonderful/wonder-full books, as timeless as the mythic vision at its heart.

In contrast, Ferguson's Sparrow Drinkwater is heartless in its corrosive parody of the rise and fall of infamous Canadian businessman Norman le Blanc. Most of the story centres on the unsound protagonist's search for his demented mother and paedophile father (who sired the boy while disguised as great black bird). The chronicle is a long one full of cul-de-sacs, including blind-alley allusion to myths. Such a manner may represent the narrator's deranged mind, but (if my experience is typical) it also undercuts the reader's alertness, which eventually collapses into tedium.

The publisher's promotional commentary promises a “tale peopled with endearing” characters. Hardly. The swamp world, as reflected in this book, is indeed “unfit for human habitation”; it is a place where “without greed, we humans could never ascend from chaos, we'd be stuck in the mud of our bestiality forever.” A witch, who may or may not be reliable, makes this point in the novel; but everything in the book, especially given the absence of even a hint of an alternative vision, in effect makes this Ferguson's statement as well.

In Sparrow Drinkwater, in short, human sentiment is displaced by the author's acidic and nearly Calvinistic temperament. Attitude predominates, plenty of attitude, profligately disseminated in a superfluity of style. What purpose, one wonders time and again, is served by such an excursion? Finally, I did not care even about this last question.

Ferguson's undertaking may be someone's cup of tea, but it is not mine. I prefer grace rather than gall, and the company of human warmth. I found both in the aesthetic splendour of King's Green Grass, Running Water.

Denise Low (review date winter 1994)

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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 find identity and some measure of peace. House Made of Dawn, Winter in the Blood, Ceremony, Yellow Raft in Blue Water, and Love Medicine all play off this motif.

The genius of the novel is the behind-the-scenes look at three characters—Alberta, Lionel, and Charlie—as they journey back to the Blackfoot reserve. Through them, King proposes that creation is ongoing, and even these ordinary individuals are entwined in a web of magical forces. Alberta, a professor, conceives a baby with either Lionel or Charlie and returns to the reserve to help rebuild a family cabin. The baby is the central impetus for new creation in the novel, and the prospective fathers confirm traditional ties to family.

Gods who carry out divine creation in this whimsical landscape are an unlikely assortment of mythic and twentieth-century characters. And King has a point. Whoever is responsible for the world of this era has a lot of new variables. If there is a God, or godly committee, s/he/they must be cognizant of many beliefs. So superimposed on the love story of Alberta, Lionel, and Charlie (and their families and friends) is a conversation of a crowd of gods. There are Dream, Coyote, First Woman, grandmother Turtle, Ahdamn, Thought Woman, and Young Man Walking on Water. Ahdamn, who lives in a place like the Garden of Eden, has the project of naming objects, but mixes up “microwave oven” with “elk” (p. 33). And there is a troupe of angelic elders who, with Coyote, make themselves visible to humans: the Lone Ranger, Robinson Crusoe, Ishmael, and Hawkeye.

This creation is not a simple one, but King manages to cobble together a plausible synthesis of Native American and European beliefs. The vantage point, though, is clearly Native American, as these gods tease each other throughout the story. Humor permeates their dialogues, from First Woman to Coyote. And the first-person narrator appears only at this meta-level, interacting playfully with gods, who may be playing the role of the writer's muses as well.

The secondary plot lines branch out like those of a Russian novel, as chaotically as in real life. Each subplot moves logically to resolution, and eventually they all intersect in the grand finale.

Chaos itself is a theme, as the writer and the gods work to harness so many ideas. Another important theme is that of identity. One of the most effective scenes of the book is when Alberta teaches a classroom of university students about Native American history. King gives the students names like Henry Dawes, John Collier, Richard Pratt, and Mary Rowlandson. And when the Blackfoot character Lionel is a child, he wants to be John Wayne, although his father suggests, “We got a lot of famous men and women, too” (p. 203). Coyote and company step in during a showing of a John Wayne movie on television—watched simultaneously by most of the characters in different places—and they change the outcome to favor the Indians, not the cowboys.

King delivers an optimistic message: that opposites can reconcile, that bad movies can be amended, and that creation is not stuck in the atrocities of the past. The means for all this is humor at every level of human and divine experience—and intermixings of those two.

Parker Duchemin (review date January-February 1994)

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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 the last three years as one of the most successful contemporary native writers in Canada and the United States. His first novel about a small Alberta town in Blackfoot territory, Medicine River, won a Commonwealth Writer's prize and was made into a television movie that recently aired on the CBC. King wrote the script for this film and he makes a brief but funny appearance in it himself as a basketball star, staring down morosely at the unfortunate Graham Greene from his vast height. (King the trickster is, by his own admission, a terrible basketball player.) A children's story, written for the 500th anniversary of the European “discovery” of America, A Coyote Columbus Story, was nominated for a Governor General's Award in 1992. His most complex and ambitious work, the novel Green Grass, Running Water, was nominated for a Governor General's Award in 1993.

One Good Story, That One is a finely designed paperback that brings together 10 short stories and “voice pieces”, all of which have appeared in periodicals between 1985 and 1992. There is great variety in these stories, but surprisingly little unevenness considering the period over which they were written. The single exception is “The One about Coyote Going West”, which seems to me to lack focus and clarity. All, however, are poised, elegant, deceptively simple and written with that apparently effortless control of language and imagery which is the hallmark of King's best work.

A number of these stories strike the reader with the startling, crazy vividness of a dream. For example, in “How Corporal Colin Sterling Saved Blossom, Alberta, and Most of the Rest of the World as Well”, all the Indians of the Americas become petrified and are carried off by blue alien coyotes in a spaceship. Some pieces fit easily into our conventional notions of the short story: “Traplines”, “Joe the Painter”, “Borders”. Others are not so easily categorized. The coyote tales and dialect pieces, reminiscent of Harry Robinson's Write It on Your Heart, give the impression of a traditional native story-teller speaking directly to us. In these stories, which include “One Good Story, That One”, “Magpies”, “The One about Coyote Going West”, and “A Columbus Coyote Story”, King tries to bridge the gap between oral story telling, which cannot be accurately represented in print, and the written word. The trick here is to give a plausible illusion of the speaker, and King excels at this verbal sleight of hand. The stories twist and turn unexpectedly in directions that are a challenge to readers accustomed to Western literary conventions. King has acknowledged Gabriel Garcia Marquez as an important influence on his work, as well as native American writers Scott Momaday and Louise Erdrich. The tone and quality of his writing, however, is unique.

In his fiction, King undermines and sabotages the dominant stereotypes of Indian-ness that have prevailed in Euro-American and Canadian culture. This system of representation has been fundamental to the ideology of the settler state since the time of Columbus, and it continues to be cleverly exploited by the mass media, and by such writers as W. P. Kinsella, who appropriate the native voice as a marketing device. King goes after Kinsella directly in “A Seat in the Garden”, one of the deftest stories in the collection, a devastating send-up of Shoeless Joe in which an imaginary Hollywood Indian suddenly appears in a cornfield to a racist white farmer, repeating the familiar message: “If you build it, they will come.” A couple of real Indians do indeed come, recycling garbage, but the white men in the story are too obsessed with the imaginary Indian in the cornfield to take much notice of them. Significantly, the real Indians can't even see this stereotype, which exists only in the white men's minds.

One of King's main targets is the tendency in Western culture to fix native people's reality in the past, or in some imaginary space outside of history, a process that Johannes Fabian has called the “denial of coevalness”. King's Indian characters inhabit history as intensely as everybody else, like the symbolically constipated middle-class narrator of “Traplines”, who is trying desperately to cope with his teenaged couch-potato son while he simultaneously reflects on the changes in his own lifetime and in his father's world.

King excels as a writer of the border zones between races, cultures and individuals. From a native perspective, the 49th parallel is an imaginary line drawn across Turtle Island by European invaders. King is fascinated with this line and its impact on the aboriginal inhabitants of the continent. One of his most memorable stories, “Borders”, confronts the issue directly. A Blackfoot woman and her young son find themselves trapped for several days in a parking lot between U.S. and Canadian Customs posts, because the mother insists that her citizenship is Blackfoot. “Canadian side or American side?” ask the exasperated officials. “Blackfoot side”, she replies defiantly. King does not diminish the cultural differences between the dominant cultures of the U.S. and Canada; in fact, the story recognizes their reality in a number of ways. The mother is distinctly unhappy with her daughter's decision to live in the U.S. and the family seems more at home with Canadian institutions. But both of these countries are alien to Blackfoot culture and King dissolves their differences symbolically at the end of the story in the landscape of Turtle Island, as the flagpoles of the two border stations disappear behind the hills.

King has lived very much among the paradoxes and contradictions of cultural borders. He was born to a white mother and a Cherokee father in California in 1943, where he was raised, and educated off-reservation. In Lethbridge, where he lived for 10 years, he taught Native Studies at the University and became deeply immersed in the local native culture. He is married to Helen Hoy, an outstanding Canadian, and holds Canadian citizenship, but resides at present in Minneapolis where he chairs the Indian Studies program at the University of Minnesota. He is spending the current year, however, in Toronto, as the story editor for a CBC television series about native people and he plans eventually to return permanently to Canada. Crossing and re-crossing borders seems to be the normal condition of his life so far.

King's fiction is not surprisingly, therefore, preoccupied with problems of communication. People seem to talk at cross-purposes in his stories, and their dialogue is full of Pinteresque discontinuities and comic misunderstandings at the level of language. Yet King does hold out the possibility of genuine human communication at a deeper level, and his characters frequently do connect in the eloquent gaps and silences between their words.

Reviewers have frequently remarked on the lack of bitterness in all of King's writing. He 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. This would be misleading, however. Humour has always been an important aspect of native culture both as a source of resistance to oppression and as a means of healing. King's prime targets are abusers of power: intransigent bureaucrats, pompous authorities, insensitive police officers, bigots, rednecks and racists. A strong sense of native community is balanced against these forces. His attitude is playfully subversive and lighthearted, rather than fiercely indignant. It is a deeply healing vision, which has been enthusiastically welcomed by native readers, and King makes it easy for all of us to share his point of view. He seldom focuses on the darker side of colonialism or its impact on native life today, however. Unfortunately, this position may make it rather too easy for the non-native reader to escape any sense of complicity in the structures of colonialism. Apart from the sheer brilliance of his writing, this may be one of the reasons that he has so readily been embraced by readers and critics from the dominant society. I hope that King's resounding success will not obscure the more uncomfortable vision offered by a number of other important native writers who are speaking out across Turtle Island.

Marlene Goldman and Teresa Heffernan (review date winter 1995)

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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 many of us cannot even understand.

In the old stories, God, like the cowboys in Westerns, was the good guy. But, on the other side of the mirror, this ‘truth’ no longer holds: God is merely the wayward dream of the trickster figure, Coyote. The dream, which takes on a life of its own, is dubbed a ‘dog’ by Coyote. But because it ‘gets everything backward,’ it proclaims itself GOD. In contrast to Wiebe's novel, which, for the most part, portrays the encounter between Native and European discourses as tragic, Green Grass, Running Water invokes Coyote as muse and paints a far more rollicking picture of the misunderstandings that arise from the collision between the two cultures.

Typically, the stories recited by the four Indians begin by foregrounding the primacy of Native mythology. In these tales, First Woman, Sky Woman, or Changing Woman falls from the sky only to collide with grouchy Old Testament figures or narrow-minded characters from classic European texts; both insist on ‘reading’ her from their limited perspectives and offer her a marginal role in their narratives. When Changing Woman falls to earth and lands in Noah's ark, he is ecstatic. ‘A gift from heaven,’ he exclaims. ‘My name's Noah, and you must be my new wife.’ Even after she demurs, Noah continues to treat her as a sexual object created by God for his pleasure. ‘Lemme see your breasts,’ he demands. ‘I like women with big breasts.’ Unable to subdue her, he scolds her for refusing to play by the rules: ‘This is a Christian journey. And if you can't follow our Christian rules, then you're not wanted on the voyage.’ In each rendition of her adventures, Thought Woman is either chastised for her refusal to play a subordinate role and/or thrown into prison for assuming a role she supposedly has no right to play.

Although the novel displays a talent for poking fun at canonical narratives, it does not restrict its witty criticisms to the mythological level. An equal amount of attention is paid to the earthly experience of a group of Natives who, in one way or another, suffer from the marginal roles assigned to them in Western culture's over-determined story of cowboys and Indians. These stories remain connected by their mutual association with a single character, Lionel Country. In the wide-ranging accounts of the experiences of Lionel's family and friends, humour mingles with equal amounts of pathos as these people negotiate the restricted roles they are permitted to assume. One family, stopped at the border, has its sacred costumes for the Sun Dance destroyed by customs officials. Another man, a Native actor trying to make it in Hollywood, doesn't look Indian enough and is forced to wear a rubber nose, which gives off a foul odour—a metaphor which needs no explanation.

Catherine Rainwater (review date summer 1996)

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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 constructions. A Blackfoot woman and her child spend two nights in the parking lot of a Duty Free shop at the Canadian-U.S. border because the woman refuses to identify herself as anything but “Blackfoot” (not Canadian or American). Her predicament quickly becomes a media event, sponsored by people presumably rushing to the aid of a poor “Indian without a country.” The narrator remarks that, on the contrary, she has a nice house and owns horses. Although she is finally allowed to cross the border, neither the border patrol nor anyone else ever understands the subtle implications of her refusal to name her country as Canada or the U.S. As a member of the Blackfoot tribe whose territories span the border, she simply does not acknowledge the border's reality.

Several of the remaining eight stories concern other types of boundaries and things out of bounds. “A Seat in the Garden” features a media Indian of dubious ontological status who takes up residence on Joe Hovaugh's “private property.” To Joe, this “big Indian” resembles “Jeff Chandler,” “Ed Ames,” or “Sal Mineo,” and he repeatedly speaks only one decontextualized line of dialogue from the film, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” Not knowing what to make of the stranger, Joe asks a friend, Red, for help. Like Joe's, Red's information about Indians is limited to the movies as a source. Red wonders if Joe's cornfield used to be an Indian burial mound. Finally, Joe asks some local Indians if they can figure out what the “big Indian” wants. These Indians, who cannot even see the intruder, advise Joe to “stop drinking”; to humor Joe, they eventually agree that the Indian must be some type of spirit, but they are certain he is not “one of [theirs].” Apparently, the visitor is merely a semiotic phenomenon, a slightly confused trope of an Indian escaped from inside the boundaries of western films starring such notables as Jeff Chandler and Ed Ames. Like King's “big Indian,” such characters portray the Indian Other primarily in terms of outward, physical signs of difference, and they often speak only one or two cryptic, stereotypical lines in films that emphasize the cultural other's “enigmatical” nature. Joe, unlike the Indians, never sees that the “big Indian” in the garden is merely a figment of his own culturally constructed imagination.

Indeed, a unifying thematic concern in King's stories involves this failure to see, as well as the outright refusal to see. In “Totem,” museum curators repeatedly cut down totem poles that not only grow through the floor of the building, but also grunt, moan, chuckle, chant, laugh, and sing. Unable to halt the bizarre phenomenon and even less able to understand it, they mutually decide not to pay attention anymore. Eventually, they stop seeing and hearing the totem poles, King's humorous and complex symbol of appropriated Native cultures. Another type of blindness occurs in “How Corporal Colin Sterling Saved Blossom, Alberta, and Most of the Rest of the World as Well”; Corporal Sterling and others convince themselves they are heroes in the midst of outlandish events they cannot begin to control or understand. When extraterrestrials appear to collect Indian people the world over, the white men brag about how they “stood up to those aliens,” even though the aliens never threaten the whites or even seem to take not of their existence.

As though to underscore his point about missing the point, King has written “A Coyote Columbus Story,” in which Coyote, an egocentric interpreter, remains narcissistically blind to the implications of a story he hears about the decimation of Indians after Columbus' arrival in the allegedly New World. This piece like the rest of the works in King's collection serves as a humorous warning to the reader about failure or refusal to see or hear. Metatextually, King apprises us of his authorial trickster role through the voice of the narrator in “A Coyote Columbus Story”: “You got to watch out for [Coyote]. Some of Coyote's stories have got Coyote tails and some of Coyote's stories are covered with scraggy Coyote fur but all of Coyote's stories are bent.” All of the stories in this volume are, likewise, “bent,” much to the delight of the alert reader who enjoys “clean[ing] up … coyote tracks” in the wake of a trickster-storyteller such as King.

Ron Welburn (review date summer 1996)

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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 in the second.

The character affinities between the books pretty much end there, and only in the broadest sense do the novels bear any structural common ground. Medicine River's Will, a son of the late Rose Horse Capture, is non-status and thus not entitled to live on the Blood reserve (the Bloods are one of three tribes of the Blackfeet Nation). He is a modest man in his early forties, somewhat ineffectual, and he finds himself induced, enticed and lured from Toronto to set up his photography business in Medicine River by Harlan, whose machinations are neither sinister nor absurdly foolish. Matchmaker, raconteur, booster, and organizer of the town's basketball team, the gregarious and scheming Harlan endears us with his low-keyed persistence and comments we laugh with, not at.

Discretion was not one of Harlan's many admirable characteristics. He kept secrets poorly, and was more concerned with the free flow of information than something as greedy as personal privacy. “People who keep secrets,” Harlan liked to say, “generally got something to hide.”


One of Harlan's projects to resocialize Will into the community involves lining him up with an accountant, Louise Heavyman. Will's friendship with her strengthens through her pregnancy with her daughter South Wing, who hospital personnel assume is his child; but that their relationship never accelerates is just one of the novel's interwoven stories of life's realities and disappointments, modest triumphs, gossip and rumor.

For all its many little stories, Medicine River is a compact novel. Green Grass, Running Water seems to sprawl by comparison, the difference being its structural diffusion against the earlier book's relative density. This remarkable novel lacks a clearly defined protagonist except the community of Blossom itself, a small predominantly Indian town on the Canadian Plains that needs nurturing and protection. The narrative cores overlap, and King invests them with the living reality of traditional story figures. The central plot involves what must be accomplished by Clifford Sifton, a white engineer, to open the dam he just constructed. Eli Stands Alone, a professor of literature, decides to return after many years in Toronto to his deceased mother's home, which sits on the bank of the river affected by the dam. Eli, who resists abandoning the ancient dwelling, is ill-fated when the dam bursts and floods the area. However, the novel's comic elements, from a Western structuralist aesthetic, could be described as Melvillean, although King nods to various literary, oral and even technological influences.

In accordance with traditional storytelling values, the kind of destruction resulting from the dam and looming flood compels a remaking of the world. From beginning to end of the novel, this reconstruction is pursued by the very old Indians, who happen to be escapees from a mental facility. One of their early dialogues prepares us (maybe) for their re-creation plans:

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep—”

“Wait a minute,” said Robinson Crusoe.


“That's the wrong story,” said Ishmael. “That story comes later.”

“But it's my turn,” said the Lone Ranger.

“But you have to get it right,” said Hawkeye.

“And,” said Robinson Crusoe, “you can't tell it all by yourself.”

“Yes,” said Ishmael. “Remember what happened last time?”

“Everybody makes mistakes,” said the Lone Ranger.

“Best not to make them with stories.”

“Oh, okay,” said the Lone Ranger.

“Gha!” said the Lone Ranger. “higayv:ligé:i.”

“That's better,” said Hawkeye. “Tsane:hlanv:hi.”


Telling the creation story properly is essential, and Coyote too must adhere to this. As if in a pan-Indianist gesture for his setting, King intersperses some of these sections and headings of the novel's parts with Cherokee syllabaric and Latinate orthographic phrases (consistent with his paternal heritage; his mother is of Greek and German background). The ancient escapees ultimately become responsible for the flattened tires of three automobiles, aptly the Pinto, the Nissan and the Karmann Ghia. Observing these changes is Babo Jones, a black woman who is whimsically sharp-eyed and wiser than Dr. Hovagh, her employer at the facility, can ever imagine. We have Alberta Frank, a university professor of history whose students include John Collier, Mary Rowlandson, Henry Dawes and Elaine Goodale, notable whites who figured in Native American history. Alberta's biological clock ticks and she only has Charlie Looking Bear, a lawyer, and Lionel Lone Dog, a TV salesman for Bill Bursum, as alternatives. Lionel's sister Latisha runs the Dead Dog Cafe, famous among tourists for its “traditional” stew. These are but a few of the humorous elements in a novel that is deceptively serious in the way King treats the subject of how our values have run amok. Bursum's preoccupation with a wall of televisions showing the same program image becomes central to King's intentions, especially once the five tricksters become involved.

With Green Grass, Running Water, titularly derived from the omnipresent cliché in broken treaties, Thomas King has affirmed his place in exploring ways to write storytelling novels from the Native American point of view. His craft is surely “post-modernist,” perhaps in more accessible ways than Gerald Vizenor's Bearheart and Dead Voices.

Patience with King's narrative subtleties offers numerous rewards.

Linda Lamont-Stewart (essay date September 1997)

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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 keep gender in its place by posturing as the foundational illusions of identity” (viii, 34).

Two contemporary Canadian novels, Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984) and Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water (1993), are of particular relevance in the context of such current gender theorizing and problematizing. Both novels take the form of revisionist retellings of traditional narratives which are clearly designed to inculcate the patriarchal gender scheme. Findley's novel retells the Noah story from Genesis and aspects of John Milton's Paradise Lost; King's novel similarly retells parts of Genesis, offering alternatives to the biblical account of creation and the Noah story, as well as rewriting various historical, literary, and popular texts. King's narrative also contains an explicit reference to Findley's earlier text: in his retelling of the story of the Flood, King has his Noah tell another character, “you're not wanted on the voyage” (148). Although this intertextual echo might be seen as signaling that King's revisioning includes Findley's novel as well, I would argue that the reference is better read as linking the two novels in a common ideological project. Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage is designed to challenge the authoritarian ideology of the Judaeo-Christian tradition which is the foundation of Western culture; King's Green Grass, Running Water challenges that same tradition from a native North American perspective.

Both novels are postmodernist parodic texts, but here it should be emphasized immediately that such a classification is no automatic guarantee of subversive ideological intent or “gender troubling.” Indeed, in featuring metafictional play, linguistic indeterminacy and refusal of closure, many such texts may be radically apolitical and thus complicit in the maintenance of oppressive ideological formations. What distinguishes Findley's and King's postmodern texts and makes them truly subversive is the extent to which the metafictional aspect is ethically and politically motivated. As Donna Palmateer Pennee argues in her study of Findley's novels as “moral metafiction,” such works are not merely “fiction ‘about’ fiction, about the construction of discourses and the texture of the past and present” but are also “driven by a moral imperative to articulate counterdiscourses” (19).

As I see it, both Not Wanted on the Voyage and Green Grass, Running Water derive much of their counter-narrative force from the use of ambiguously gendered figures which I will call “androgynous”—using the term not in Heilbrun's idealistic sense, but rather to designate figures that cause “gender trouble” by failing to conform properly to traditional “sexual” alignments. Both texts, I wish to argue, exploit the instability and incoherence of sex/gender/sexuality categories in order to destabilize the system of binary logic upon which a variety of patriarchal and imperialist structures of power and authority are founded. Thus my discussion will begin first by briefly outlining the general deconstructionist strategies that both employ, and then I will proceed to a detailed discussion of the subversive function of androgyny in each. Finally, I will attempt to suggest how a revised version of androgyny is essential for dealing with representations of gender in such postmodern texts and conversely how such texts can contribute to this revisioning.

Among the kinds of hierarchical binary oppositions upon which authoritarian ideologies depend, one is the conventional distinction between natural/supernatural, which in the form of the real/fantastic is in many ways the basis of narrative technique in itself. In Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage the dismantling of this division is effectively achieved through a parodic attempt to imagine what might have happened were an ancient myth to be seen as literally true. Thus the narrative begins by quoting the Genesis account of Noah and his family boarding the ark, but the narrator immediately contradicts the biblical version: “Everyone knows it wasn't like that” (3). Findley then goes on to flesh out the biblical flood story, and to develop a full cast of characters: the tyrannical Old Testament God he names Yaweh; his faithful servant Noah “Noyes” and his wife “Mrs. Noyes”; their sons Shem, Ham, and Japeth; their wives, Hannah, Lucy, and Emma, respectively; and Mrs. Noyes's blind old female cat Mottyl. In this group, Lucy is the anomalously gendered figure: she is the fallen archangel Lucifer, a presumably male figure who nevertheless dresses and acts as a woman. In offering his narrative of what “really” happened, the narrator proceeds to transpose a thoroughly fantastic story—in which God and his angels mingle with human beings in a world that contains, at least at first, faeries, demons, dragons and unicorns, as well as singing sheep and talking animals—into the discourse of realistic fiction.

King's strategy is slightly different, but to the same effect. Instead of incorporating the fantastic within a realistic narrative, he constructs two parallel narratives, one mythological and fantastic, and one contemporary and realistic, linking the two through the presence in each of the native trickster god Coyote and four highly ambiguous old Indians who participate in both the mythological and realistic levels of the text. The contemporary narrative focuses on the lives of native characters from the southern Alberta town of Blossom and a nearby Blackfoot Indian reserve. The central figures are Lionel Red Dog, an electronics salesman in Blossom; his cousin Charlie Looking Bear, an Edmonton lawyer; their mutual love interest, Alberta Frank, who teaches native history at a university in Calgary; and Eli Stands Alone, who has returned to the reserve after a career in the alien white world of Toronto academia. The mythological narrative draws on native mythology and oral tradition; it consists of a framing narrative which is a native creation myth narrated by an unnamed, and ungendered, “I” in dialogue with an also ungendered Coyote; within this frame, the four old Indians, who may be men, or women, or neither, take turns telling versions of the native creation story which collide comically with segments of Genesis.

Both novels also undermine conventional notions of linear time through extensive use of anachronism. In Not Wanted on the Voyage, for instance, Mrs. Noyes's antediluvian sheep sing Christian hymns, and Hannah, the only one of the female characters to align herself with the male power structure, is found near the end of the story closeted in her room reading and re-reading Chaucer's “Wife of Bath's Tale.” In Green Grass, Running Water, King presents his Adam, called “Ahdamn,” as misnaming various flora and fauna of the Garden in contemporary terms—the elk is a microwave oven, the cedar tree a telephone book—and his Noah proclaims his Christianity in a pre-Christian era. Thus temporal distinctions such as before and after, past and present, are collapsed.

The effect in both texts of the conflation of the supernatural and the natural, the fantastic and the realistic, and their proliferating anachronisms, is humorous, but these disruptions of the expected order of things also contribute to the texts' counterdiscursive projects. The most crucial binary opposition that both texts undermine, through their employment of androgynous figures, is the biological sexual distinction between male and female, and more significantly, the socially constructed division of human beings and their appropriate status and behavior according to gender, both within language and within systems of social, religious and political power and authority. Since the androgynous figures in question are also supernatural beings—i.e., embodiments without “real” bodies who nevertheless are represented as acting within the “real” world—they are particularly effective subversive devices: while functioning outside the constraints of conventional systems of meaning they at the same time draw attention to the arbitrary nature of such systems.

In Not Wanted on the Voyage, Findley's depiction of Lucifer in the guise of Lucy, a seven-foot woman dressed as a geisha, would seem to derive its “authority” from Milton's assertion in Paradise Lost that angels are by definition androgynous:

                                        For Spirits when they please
Can either Sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompounded is thir Essence pure. …


Lucy's sexuality, however, is highly ambiguous, and it should be noted that Milton's angels—modelled on the traditional warrior hero as befits the epic mode in which he chose to cast his Christian narrative—are distinctly masculine figures. Thus Findley borrows the Miltonic warrior angel, but whereas the 17th-century Puritan poet's epic aim was to “justifie the wayes of God to men” (1.26), Findley's counter-narrative works instead to expose the injustice inherent in traditional patriarchal religion.

Putting Lucy aside for the moment, one should notice how Findley presents the warrior hero at the height of its magnificence in the figure of Lucifer's brother, Michael Archangelis, whose spectacular appearance enthralls Noah Noyes's youngest son Japeth: “Japeth had his mind on Michael Archangelis—a figure of glory unlike any he had ever dreamed could exist. The great angel's height—his strength—his golden hair—and his armour presented the most dazzling images of manhood that Japeth had ever encountered” (75). Not only is this archangel a definitive “he,” but as Mrs. Noyes notices, Yaweh's angelic entourage is exclusively male:

Mrs. Noyes … took special note of the fact that in all of Yaweh's retinue … there was not a single female angel … Yaweh, of course—as anyone knew—had never taken wives in the formal sense—and, indeed, it had never been rumoured there was even a single mistress. He seemed content and supremely comfortable with his male acolytes and angels about him.


The society of heaven, then, is a homosocial order which has no need of women, a point ironically reinforced by Milton's Satan's qualified analogy when he describes Eve's beauty: “her Heav'nly form / Angelic, but more soft, and Feminine” (9.457-58).

If as an angel—fallen or not—Lucy must necessarily be masculine, if not male, then it follows that the relationship between Lucy and Ham is homosexual. This is certainly Michael Archangelis's concern when he questions the propriety of Lucy's plans to marry Ham. When Lucy confirms their matrimonial intentions, Michael protests:

“But—he's—he's a …”

“A man. Yes. So what?” …

“But you're a … you're a …”

“Don't say man.

“I wasn't going to. But you are male.”

Lucy shrugged. “I like dressing up,” she said. “I always have. You know that. …”


The idea that Lucy is a male in drag is reinforced by the pun in the response she makes to Mrs. Noyes's query as to her height: “Seven-foot-five: and every inch a queen” (249). As Barbara Gabriel points out, Findley's “rebel angel … overturns the topologized power relations laid out in the gender systems of the ark [by functioning as] a theatricalist drag queen who confounds all normative categories of gender” (“Performing” 244).

Yet off-stage, as it were, the ability to move beyond gender implications/oppositions is not as easy as it sounds, and perhaps one of the most instructive things about Findley's androgyne is the way that critical discussions of Lucy evidence this difficulty. Not only is there the problem of which pronoun to use—and here many critics have followed Findley's own use of “she” (e.g., W. J. Keith, Donald G. Wallace, and George Woodcock)—but there is also a tendency to argue that Lucy is strongly identified with feminine values which oppose the values of the patriarchy as represented by Yawaeh and Noah. Indeed, it is the latter slippage into binaries and the “trope of inversion,” to use Sedgwick's phrase, that Catherine Hunter finds problematic in her otherwise positive review of the studies of Findley's fiction by Lorraine M. York and Donna Palmateer Pennee. According to Hunter, despite their best intentions, both critics “employ stereotypical definitions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ attributes that seem to uphold the very kind of essentialist thinking that Findley's fiction … seeks to undermine” (144). In Findley's work, Hunter argues, “Both men and women … suffer under the power of the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ texts that script our lives” (146). As Hunter's analysis suggests, the reading strategy of inverting the violent hierarchy of the traditional masculine/feminine binary, associating all positive qualities with the feminine and all negative qualities with the masculine, does not address the fundamental problem: rigidly exclusive categorization invariably oppresses one term of the binary in order to privilege the other and to exclude, as Butler puts it, “those ‘incoherent’ or ‘discontinuous’ gendered beings who appear to be persons but who fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined” (Gender 17).

I would argue that it is precisely Lucy's failure to conform consistently to either term of the masculine/feminine binary that makes her an androgynous figure, and that the tendency to slip into “tropes of inversion” is related to not looking carefully enough at the other categories into which she refuses to be assimilated and which she accordingly subverts. As much as gender, for example, Lucy evades categorization according to the traditional binary good/evil, and in doing so subverts the biblical, and especially the Miltonic, concept of Satan as a figure of pure evil. In Book One of Not Wanted on the Voyage, the narrator tells us why Lucy has decided to join the human race: “Survival. In order to survive the holocaust in heaven. In order to prevent the holocaust on earth” (110). Lucy's chosen role as a savior is, of course, an inversion of Lucifer's traditional role as Satan, adversary of God, but in the final segment of Book Three, she offers a somewhat different explanation for her decision to enter the world. She speaks of boredom with the unchanging perfection of Heaven. Having “heard a rumour of another world” (282), she has sought out this other world in hopes of finding in it the variety and difference that are excluded from Heaven. Milton's Satan, of course, had heard a similar rumor:

Space may produce new Worlds; whereof so rife
There went a fame in Heav'n that he ere long
Intended to create, and therein plant
A generation, whom his choice regard
Should favour equal to the Sons of Heav'n. …


Yet Milton's Satan's intentions in seeking out God's rumored new world differ markedly from those that Lucy offers. The intent of Milton's Satan, as his lieutenant Beelzebub articulates his plans in the debate in Hell, is to destroy or subvert God's new creation:

                                                  either with Hell fire
To waste his whole Creation, or possess
All as our own, and drive as we were driv'n,
The punie habitants, or if not drive,
Seduce them to our Party, that thir God
May prove thir foe, and with repenting hand
Abolish his own works.


The final line of this quotation foreshadows God's decision to abolish his own works by means of the Flood, which is the central event of Findley's text.

Having failed to prevent this holocaust, Lucy decides to start a rumor of yet another world, a world of tolerance:

… where I was born, the trees were always in the sun. And I left that place because it was intolerant of rain. Now, we are here in a place where there are no trees and there is only rain. And I intend to leave this place—because it is intolerant of light. Somewhere—there must be somewhere where darkness and light are reconciled. So I am starting a rumour, here and now, of yet another world. I don't know when it will present itself—I don't know where it will be. But—as with all those other worlds now past—when it is ready, I intend to go there.


Lucy envisions a possible world in which difference is tolerated, even celebrated, in the way that Ham celebrates his union with Lucy, telling her how lucky he feels to have found the “perfect lover and the perfect companion” (180). Lucy's male sexuality (if a supernatural being can be thought of as having a biological sex) is essential, of course, to the text's implicit argument for acceptance of a kind of sexual relationship that patriarchal religion has traditionally condemned as perverse and sinful.

Lucy, then, is an androgynous figure. She retains a (gay) male sexuality as well as qualities that are traditionally culturally coded as masculine, such as aggression; simultaneously, through cross-dressing and associating herself with those characters, predominantly female, who are excluded from positions of power in Yaweh/Noah's patriarchal hierarchy, she functions socially as a female, and acts as a voice within the text's discourse for qualities that are traditionally culturally coded as feminine. By evading the trap of the masculine/feminine binary, Lucy deconstructs the exclusionary logic of the ruling patriarchal power structure, without substituting for it an equally exclusionary, and potentially equally oppressive, matriarchal power structure.

Similarly, in representing homoerotic and/or homosexual relationships within this text, Findley avoids a simplistic inversion of the heterosexual/homosexual binary. While he presents the same-sex relationship between Lucy and Ham as ideal, he does not fall into the trap of idealizing all such relationships and thereby implicitly demonizing heterosexual relationships. For example, the potential for a lesbian relationship between Hannah and Emma is present in the scene in which Hannah bathes Emma and oils her body (259-62), but the relationship is also highly problematic since Hannah's seduction of Emma occurs within the context of preparing the young girl for her brutal ritualized deflowering. Even more problematic are the implications of Japeth's obviously homoerotic attraction to Michael Archangelis; Japeth's infatuation leads him to emulate the most violent and life-denying traits of the warrior hero.

In terms of the text's exploration of sex, gender and sexuality, then, Findley avoids substituting one hierarchical binary for another. This text persists in troubling and destabilizing the neat categories that enable the effective functioning of Yaweh/Noah's authoritarian regime. In doing so, Not Wanted on the Voyage offers at least the possibility of a social configuration that would tolerate difference and distribute power equitably—a possibility which, however, is left unfulfilled at the novel's end, when Mrs. Noyes, by refusing to leave Noah's ark, leaves us all stranded and history in suspension. Outside of Findley's text, of course, both biblical narrative and history continue—Lucy's rumored new world of tolerance and equity still awaits realization.

In King's Green Grass, Running Water, what “really happened” outside of canonical history is also a central concern. In constructing his counter-narrative to the texts of Western culture—religious, literary, and popular, as well as historical—King focuses specifically on the traditions and experiences of native North Americans. His text challenges the discourse of European imperialism, particularly the treaty language used by the colonizers to defraud native peoples with promises that they never intended keeping, a point made clear when a white character explains to a native character, “those treaties aren't worth a damn. Government only made them for convenience. Who'd of guessed that there would still be Indians kicking around in the twentieth century” (141). Later, as another white character reflects on the metaphorical status of treaty language, the source of the novel's title is also provided:

As long as the grass is green and the waters run. It was a nice phrase, all right. But it didn't mean anything. It was a metaphor. … Treaties were hardly sacred documents. They were contracts, and no one signed a contract for eternity. No one.


Green Grass, Running Water sets native oral tradition against the written tradition of European culture, opposing the discourse of the colonized to the discourse of the colonizer.

Central to the native oral tradition is the trickster god Coyote, a figure who is ambiguous when it comes to gender. As Paul Radin notes, although generally represented as male, the trickster is capable of transformation into female form and of bearing children. Indeed, Radin points out that no trickster tale cycle fails to include an incident in which the trickster becomes a woman and marries a chief's son, an incident which occurs at a point in the cycle at which the trickster “has as yet developed no sense of true sex differentiation” (137). The androgynous nature of the trickster figure is also emphasized by native Canadian playwright Tomson Highway in his “rez” plays. In The Rez Sisters, the role of the trickster figure Nanabush “is to be played by a male dancer” (xi), while in Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, Nanabush is represented as female. Highway explains this apparent inconsistency in a note on Nanabush: since North American Indian languages are not gendered as are European languages, “the male-female-neuter hierarchy is entirely absent. So that by this system of thought, the central hero figure from our mythology … is theoretically neither exclusively male nor exclusively female, or is both simultaneously” (Dry Lips 12).

In King's various works, the trickster figure's gender is similarly variable. For instance, in a sequence of three Coyote poems King wrote, Coyote is “he” in “Coyote Learns to Whistle” and “Coyote Sees the Prime Minister,” but “she” in “Coyote Goes to Toronto.” In the stories in which Coyote appears in King's collection One Good Story, That One, the figure's gender is either unspecified, or it is feminine. In Green Grass, Running Water, the Coyote figure that participates in the framing narrative is ungendered, although where Coyote appears within the realistic level of the story, masculine pronouns are used to refer to him and to the four old Indians with whom Coyote is associated.

The four old Indians themselves, however, are also androgynous trickster figures, who, along with Coyote, link the two levels of the narrative, functioning both as mythological figures and as inhabitants of the contemporary world. In the mythological narrative these four trickster characters are female: First Woman, Changing Woman, Thought Woman, and Old Woman. In the contemporary narrative, they are four extremely old Indians who have resided in a psychiatric hospital since 1891. From time to time they mysteriously disappear, only to reappear just as mysteriously. According to the hospital's records, the old Indians are men: Mr. Red, Mr. White, Mr. Black, and Mr. Blue. But according to Babo Jones, the hospital's cleaning woman, who has befriended them, they are women. When asked whether they are men or women, Dr. Joseph Hovaugh, the hospital administrator, replies ambiguously: “We hardly ever make that mistake” (75).

To make matters more confusing, the four old Indians' names for themselves are male names drawn from a variety of sources, literary and popular:

Okay,” said the Lone Ranger, “is everybody ready?”

“Hawkeye doesn't have a nice shirt,” said Ishmael.

“He can have one of mine,” said Robinson Crusoe.


Suggestive of their timelessness, such assumed identities would also seem to imply that because of their great age the old Indians' sex is indeterminable. Thus when they greet Charlie Looking Bear in a restaurant, he does not recognize them, and speculates that they must be family friends, or perhaps relatives: “Uncle Wally from Browning. Auntie Ruth from Brocket. Something like that” (252).

The four old Indians are also story-tellers; narrative responsibility for the mythological level of the text is not confined to the “I” who discusses the story with Coyote. The four elders take turns telling their own stories, each of which challenges a particular aspect of biblical narrative, and each of which ends with its central character becoming part of “real” history. The correct beginning for each of the old Indians' tales is “In the beginning, there was nothing. Just the water” (1). The Lone Ranger, however, who takes the first turn at, story-telling, has difficulty getting his narrative properly under way, making several false starts: “Once upon a time …”; “A long time ago in a faraway land …”; “Many moons comechucka … hahahahahahahahahahaha”; and finally, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep—” (11-14).

As the first two false starts suggest, traditional European story-telling conventions clearly are not appropriate; nor, as the third indicates, is a European stereotype of native speech. And as the last attempt illustrates, the opening lines of Genesis are not acceptable either—when the Lone Ranger attempts this opening, Ishmael objects, “That story comes later” (14). Thus the text asserts the precedence of native creation mythology over the biblical account. The effect of these various opening gambits, especially the biblical quotation, is similar to that of Findley's strategy of offering a biblical quotation and then immediately rebutting it. Clearly we are being presented with a counter-narrative, a corrective to the Judaeo-Christian and Eurocentric narratives that have shaped Western history, including the encounter between Europeans and the aboriginal peoples of North America.

The mythological story told by the Lone Ranger is that of First Woman, who walks off the edge of the sky world and falls into the water world. She finds herself in a comically scrambled version of the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden, and eventually adopts the identity of the Lone Ranger, winding up incarcerated in a prison in Fort Marion, Florida. Each of the stories told by the other old Indians follows the same pattern, with Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye telling the tales, respectively, of Changing Woman, Thought Woman, and Old Woman. In each case the mythological woman falls into water, and into some segment of biblical narrative, before adopting the identity of the fictional male character who tells her story and in this guise being jailed in Fort Marion. To confound further the gender crossings involved in these tales, Changing Woman, before adopting her Ishmael identity, enjoys an interlude with Moby Jane, the great black lesbian whale, and each of the mythological women finds herself involved in what would be a male homosocial and cross-racial pairing. Each is offered and rejects the inferior, colonized role of native sidekick (Tonto, Queequeg, Friday, Chingachgook) and appropriates the name of the white hero.

Like Findley's Lucy, King's four old Indians confound binary oppositions. They are, as a reviewer has pointed out, “at once male and female” (Scheick 155); they are also simultaneously mythological women and fictional men who appear in the “real” world as ambiguously gendered, or perhaps genderless. They are as old as time, their stories pre-dating Genesis, yet they function in the contemporary world, interacting with the characters who belong to the realistic level of the novel. They have supernatural powers that enable them to affect the course of events in the “real” world, yet their powers are limited. Unlike the biblical God, and unlike Findley's Yaweh and Noah, they do not lay claim to absolute power and authority.

This revisionist aspect can also be seen in the way that King's Coyote differs from the violently anarchic and amoral figure that Radin describes:

Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself. He wills nothing consciously. At all times he is constrained to behave as he does from impulses over which he has no control. He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being.


In Green Grass, Running Water, and in his poems and short stories in which Coyote appears, King modifies this traditional figure considerably, in the interests, it would appear, of comic effect and of moral purpose. King's Coyote seems more mischievous and irresponsible than anything else, and is a major source of the humor that Margaret Atwood identifies as “a subversive weapon” in King's fiction (244). King's Coyote is not malicious, and in fact generally seems well intentioned; his impulsive actions, nevertheless, are capable of producing catastrophic results in the form of various natural disasters.

As trickster figures, the four old Indians depart even more radically than King's Coyote from the anarchic and amoral paradigm outlined by Radin. They are not without moral and social values; in fact, their intentions are to do good in the world. Their mission, in their various mysterious disappearances from the hospital, is to “fix” the world, a little at a time. The motivation behind their latest disappearance from the hospital is to fix up the life of Lionel Red Dog, one of the central Blackfoot characters in the novel. Lionel is a man who is facing his fortieth birthday feeling as if his life has stalled—he is stuck in a dead-end job, and cannot persuade Alberta Frank, the Calgary historian, to marry him. His future seems to lack direction and purpose and to hold little hope of meaningful change. To “fix” this problem, the four old Indians manage to engineer a situation which allows Lionel to assert the value and dignity of Blackfoot cultural tradition in opposition to an opportunistic white New Age journalist who attempts to exploit the Sun Dance ceremony at the Blackfoot reserve, and to do so in front of the woman he hopes to marry—even if it is not clear at the end of the novel just how or how much Lionel's life has been altered. The old Indians also manage to “fix” a classic John Wayne western, which various characters are simultaneously watching on television, by magically inserting themselves into the picture and transforming its ending (and incidentally colorizing its final scene) so that the Indians win their battle against the white heroes.

While the old Indians are capable of performing such small miracles, they are far from omnipotent. In particular, they cannot control the forces of nature, as represented by the comical but dangerous Coyote. However well intentioned they appear to be, because of Coyote's irresponsible antics the old Indians' forays from the hospital into the world have tended over the years to end in natural disasters—floods, forest fires, volcanic eruptions. In Green Grass, Running Water, Coyote's mischievous singing and dancing provoke an earthquake that destroys a disputed dam and takes the life of Eli Stands Alone, who has prevented the dam's use by occupying a cabin beneath it and waging a war of injunctions against its builders. Yet whether the earthquake is in fact the result of Coyote's actions is open to question, for the disaster is foreshadowed in a conversation between Eli and Clifford Sifton, the dam's chief engineer: stress fractures have begun to appear in the concrete structure and Eli remarks, “Hear they think the earth is moving under the dam” (136). The text thus offers both a natural and a supernatural explanation for the earthquake, and what remains clear, whether or not Coyote's actions have anything to do with the earth's convulsion, is that the forces of nature are beyond either human or superhuman control, and that the interventions of tricksters, benignly intended or not, can be powerfully destructive.

Hampered as they are in their efforts to mend a broken world by the havoc created by Coyote, the four old Indians represent a model of power and authority that is very different from the Bible's omniscient and omnipotent God. In their guise as four female creator-figures, not only do they work in conjunction with the natural world, but that world is presented as existing prior to their appearance. Nor do they have the power and authority over the natural world which the God of Genesis gives to Noah after the Flood, and to which Findley's Noah lays claim at the conclusion of Not Wanted on the Voyage when he proclaims the covenant that he has invented in the absence of the deceased Yaweh, announcing that “everything that lived and breathed and moved had been delivered into [man's] hands—forever” (351). Like Findley's, King's counter-narrative opposes the authoritarian model of divinity which functions by dividing and conquering, and in which authority is absolute and exclusionary.

In addition to countering one of the founding myths of Western culture, King's novel rewrites the founding myth of the European “discovery” of America. Before escaping from Fort Marion with her three companions, First Woman/the Lone Ranger remarks, “This world is getting bent. … We got to fix it” (100). The “bending” of the world is the result of the imposition of European authority on North America and its native inhabitants. Thus the problems of the mythological women begin when they encounter, first, biblical figures, and subsequently, figures from white literature and popular fiction, and culminate with their encounters with the white authorities who imprison them.

The implication seems to be that their world would not have become “bent” had Europeans not “discovered” it, and indeed, one strand of the narrative symbolically erases that discovery. As soon as the four old Indians disappear from the hospital, automobiles begin to disappear mysteriously in inexplicable puddles of water; as the earthquake is about to occur, the three missing cars—a Nissan, a Pinto, and a Karmann-Ghia—reappear, sailing on the artificial lake above the dam. They are, of course, swept away when the dam breaks. Thus, King's novel comically sends Columbus's ships sailing off the edge of the world. The humor here is, however, “double-bladed”—as Atwood puts it in the title of her essay on King. However satisfyingly subversive this symbolic undoing of the Columbus narrative may seem, the earthquake also kills Eli Stands Alone, the chief figure of resistance to white power and authority in the text.

Like Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage, King's Green Grass, Running Water offers no closure. Throughout the text, the mythological narrative that begins, “In the beginning, there was nothing. Just the water,” is continually being retold. Just as the Lone Ranger makes several false starts in attempting to begin the story of First Woman, so the “I” narrator of the mythological narrative and Coyote keep making false starts in their story, and keep going back to begin it again in an effort to get it right. On the novel's final page they begin at the beginning yet again. At the conclusion of Not Wanted on the Voyage, Mrs. Noyes's refusal of Noah's post-flood world holds open the possibility—but only the possibility, not the promise—of Lucy's rumored new world; in the same way, the continuation of the effort to get the story right at the conclusion of Green Grass, Running Water holds open the possibility that the story, and the world which is its subject, might one day be “fixed.” The important thing is that, like the four old Indians, we continue our efforts to “unbend” it, albeit at the risk of doing far more harm than good.

Like Judith Butler, whose gender-troubling project resists “strategies that figure a utopian beyond” (34), Findley and King offer texts which gesture toward but do not naively promise an improved order of things. Both Butler and Sedgwick emphasize that gender is “performative,” a term Butler borrows from speech act theory to define “that discursive practice that enacts or produces that which it names” (Bodies 13). In Not Wanted on the Voyage, Lucy performs two genders simultaneously, that of gay male in drag, and that of woman, acting as wife and daughter-in-law. In Green Grass, Running Water, Coyote's gender is apparently masculine, but the four old Indians perform in their mythological manifestations as women and in their “real world” activities as (fictional) men. By troubling the binary oppositions of traditional categories of sex/gender/sexuality and enacting their ambiguous gender identities simultaneously within a supernatural realm and in the “real” world, Lucy, Coyote and the Old Indians offer resistance to a history of oppression. The “gender trouble” they produce may not bring about the collapse of the power structures within which they perform their gender crossings, but it does succeed in exposing the binary logic upon which authoritarian power structures are founded, thus proposing at least the possibility of constructing a more inclusive and equitable cultural configuration.

A revised definition of “androgyny,” one which neither implies an unnatural deviation from rigidly defined norms nor posits a gender-transcendent ideal, offers a useful tool for literary analysis. To define “androgyny” as a gender identity which troubles—by conflating, confusing and even erasing—traditional gender categories enables a reading of such ambiguously gendered figures as Findley's Lucy and King's Coyote/Four Old Indians as subversive not only of sexism/heterosexism, but of authoritarian regimes, within which sexism and heterosexism operate, more generally. Redefinition of “androgyny” as a trope which figures refusal to conform to hierarchical binary oppositions of all sorts extends the insights of contemporary work in gender studies to construct a figure that performs resistance to authoritarianism in its multiple social, religious, political and economic manifestations.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “A Double-Bladed Knife: Subversive Laughter in Two Stories by Thomas King.” Canadian Literature 124/125 (Spring/Summer 1990): 243-50.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

———. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.

Findley, Timothy. Not Wanted on the Voyage. Markham: Penguin, 1984.

Gabriel, Barbara. “Performing the Bent Text: Fascism and the Regulation of Sexualities in Timothy Findley's The Butterfly Plague.English Studies in Canada 21 (1995): 227-50.

———. “Staging Monstrosity: Genre, Life-Writing and Timothy Findley's The Last of the Crazy People.Essays on Canadian Writing 54 (Winter 1994): 168-97.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Toward a Recognition of Androgyny. New York: Norton, 1973.

Highway, Tomson. Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1989.

———. The Rez Sisters. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1988.

Hunter, Catherine. “Text and Conflict: Two New Studies of Timothy Findley's Fiction.” Essays on Canadian Writing 55 (Spring 1995): 140-46.

Keith, W. J. “Apocalyptic Imaginations: Notes on Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage.Essays on Canadian Writing 35 (Winter 1987): 123-34.

King, Thomas. “Coyote Learns to Whistle.” “Coyote Sees the Prime Minister.” “Coyote Goes to Toronto.” Canadian Literature 124/125 (Spring/Summer 1990): 250-53.

———. Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto: Harper, 1993.

———. One Good Story, That One. Toronto: Harper, 1993.

Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” The Complete Poetry of John Milton. Ed. John T. Shawcross. Rev. ed. Garden City: Doubleday, 1971. 249-517.

Pennee, Donna Palmateer. Moral Metafiction: Counterdiscourse in the Novels of Timothy Findley. Toronto: ECW P, 1991.

———. Praying for Rain: Timothy Findley's “Not Wanted on the Voyage.” Toronto: ECW P, 1993.

Radin, Paul. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. London: Routledge, 1956.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

Scheick, William J. “Grace and Gall.” Rev. of Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King, and The True Life Adventures of Sparrow Drinkwater, by Trevor Ferguson. Canadian Literature 138/139 (Fall/Winter 1993): 155-56.

Wallace, Donald G. “Mankind as Outsider in Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage.Laurentian University Review 18.2 (1986): 81-87.

Woodcock, George. “Timothy Findley's Gnostic Parable.” Canadian Literature 111 (Winter 1986): 232-37.

York, Lorraine M. Front Lines: The Fiction of Timothy Findley. Toronto: ECW P, 1991.

Carlton Smith (essay date summer 1998)

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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 to start, the old ones stealthily alter the “well-known” final scene of the movie as it unfolds amid the immense video wall of Wild Bill Bursum's Home Entertainment Center. While the assembled watch, John Wayne and his costar, Richard Widmark, suffer a cinematic death usually reserved for Indians. Seemingly cornered and vanquished amid the stark expanse of Monument Valley, the Indians who had been pursued by the Cavalry for the entire movie “began to shoot back, and soldiers began falling over:

Sometimes two or three soldiers would drop at once, clutching their chests or their stomachs. … John Wayne looked down and stared stupidly at the arrow in his thigh, shaking his head in amazement and disbelief as two bullets ripped through his chest and out the back of his jacket. Richard Widmark collapsed face down in the sand, his hands clutching at an arrow buried in his throat.2

Present among the witnesses to this magical event, besides the four old Indians—Eli, his nephew Lionel, Charley Looking Bear, and the hapless Bursum—is trickster Coyote, whose gleeful response is a resounding “Yahoo!”3

Indeed, the moment is telling for it delightfully alludes to the ways in which King's Coyote intervenes at the level of perception, and challenges us to conceive of new, even audacious possibilities. Coyote's “Yahoo!” signals the subversive reversal of the culturally resonant image of John Wayne felling Indians. New stories emerge in the process; old stories change. In a similar way, Coyote and the four old ones mischievously subvert and entangle a variety of other stories in Green Grass—stories ultimately bound up in the cultural processes of signification and representation itself.

From this perspective, King's Coyote can be viewed as intervening in the semiotic realm—a realm where cultural signifiers and politicized discursive structures produce meaning and coherent stories. Coyote thus exemplifies a “semiotic trickster,” a version of what Gerald Vizenor has termed a “comic holotrope.” As a comically disruptive sign, Coyote forces us to consider how interpretations and “readings” of the world are ceaselessly influenced by issues related to colonial representation and power, and how meaning and significance can mutate when conventional categories of perception shift. Such a liberative lesson ultimately serves to help heal King's protagonist Lionel, as well as other members of his contemporary Blackfoot community, allowing them to see new life possibilities. A “semiotic trickster,” Vizenor emphasizes, “is a healer and comic liberator; … not an artifact or real victim in oral summaries, … [but] a communal sign in imagination … that endures in modern [Native American] literature.”4

It is precisely this “semiotic trickster”—a disjunctive, disruptive and potentially radically subversive trickster—that runs through King's Green Grass and influences its slippery narrative strategies with themes of resistance and liberation. Correspondingly, King's Coyote emerges not so much as a representative of anthropomorphic, embodied versions of trickster, but rather as a linguistic construct sent forth to disrupt our acceptance of certain “old stories”—stories that collude in the oppression of Native Americans. King's postmodern Coyote as such elucidates important contemporary interpretations of orality itself, as well as current post-structuralist discussions of culture, history, and anthropology. As James Clifford reminds us, “even the simplest cultural accounts are intentional creations.”5 In turn, we—as readers—when confronting King's beguiling narrative are collectively redefined and transfigured into alternative communities made aware of the political nature of representation and all “cultural accounts.” Rather than entering into word games, or even into communities structured by shared interpretation, we are absorbed into a narrative play wherein the oral moment of the story necessarily displaces any “fixed” interpretive structure.6 We decode narrative and apprehend meaning in other ways; through this acquired apprehension our relationships with others and with the text shift. Older hierarchies and simplistic understandings fracture, providing not only other ways to read but—through these readings—new ways of seeing the world.

Until recently, the image of Native American tricksters as embodied beings has been a persistent fantasy within the social imaginary of the West. Indeed, traditional religious and anthropological interpretations of trickster have tended to construct trickster as a comic figure who assumes human or animal poses. Paul Radin's seminal study of Winnebago trickster cycles, for example, presents trickster as an individual neither “human being [n]or god, but something of both.”7 As an embodied isolate, Radin's trickster functions within traditional stories at the level of character, and in turn his operations may be regarded as metaphorical. Recently William Bright has described trickster as a mythic figure, who, though a giver of fire, was also a “gross lecher and inevitable thief, liar, outlaw, a prankster whose schemes regularly backfire.”8 In emphasizing the human aspects of such figures as Old Man Coyote, Bright asserts that in “the Native American context, [tricksters] are not animals; they are first people, … members of a race of mythic prototypes who live before humans existed. … They had tremendous powers … and were also capable of being brave or cowardly, conservative or innovative, wise or stupid.”9 Such anthropomorphic descriptions have invariably led to a kind of typology, founded on seeing trickster as a mythical being; trickster is thus a figure whose disparate and complex identity escapes bianarism and is simultaneously associated with truth and falsehood, transgression and conservatism, generosity and theft, wisdom and foolishness, as well as lechery and innocence.

Recent critical commentaries informed by a post-structuralist vocabulary, however, have begun to assail this anthropomorphic version of trickster, viewing it in part as emblematic of a Western humanistic desire to embody trickster in a humanizing rhetoric of presence. Perhaps most vocal in this regard has been Gerald Vizenor, who reads such constructions of tricksters as illustrative of the “monologic” quality of Western anthropology, and its persistent desire to construct “Indian” within limited parameters. For Vizenor, humanistic anthropomorphic versions of trickster—as fully embodied—erode what he argues is the tropic, semiotic function of trickster. In his own trickster tales Vizenor vigorously resists notions of a mythic trickster—a trickster who transcends language—firmly rooting his tricksters within entanglements of discourse. Concurrently, Vizenor finds a resonant vocabulary for describing the semiotic workings of trickster within the terms of post-structuralist thought and discourse. Asserting that “semiotic theories reveal more about trickster narratives (the texture of language and structure of sentences) than do theories of social science,” Vizenor argues that trickster as “comic holotrope”—as a nexus of signs enjoining the speaker/writer with interpretive community—functions at the level of language and representation:

Tropes are figures of speech; here the trickster is a sign that becomes a comic holotrope, a consonance of sentences in various voices, ironies, variations in cultural myths and social metaphors. Comic holotropes comprise signifiers, the signified, and signs, which in new critical theories provided a discourse on the trickster in oral narratives, translations and modern imaginative literature.10

Indeed, Vizenor's own postmodern trickster tales, like King's Green Grass, represent highly imaginative efforts to remake and re-inscribe the sacred trickster within the postmodern context. Vizenor's Darkness in St. Louis Bearheart, with its multivalent levels of narrative, comic playfulness, deconstructive thrusts, and overall critique of Western notions of stable truths, might very well be considered the archetypal trickster narrative of modern imaginative literature. Trickster's influence in Bearheart, as in Vizenor's later stories and novels such as Griever: An American Monkey King in China, Trickster of Liberty, and Heirs of Columbus, forces readers to listen to trickster, to challenge their preconceptions regarding Western notions of “history,” “reality,” and the “sacred.”11 As Alan Velie notes, Vizenor accomplishes this through his own “trick,” getting readers to see the world through trickster eyes. “Vizenor writes like a trickster,” states Velie, “creating a narrator who is a professed trickster, telling a story of tricksters, all with the purpose of turning the audience into tricksters.”12

While such postmodern permutations of trickster may seem to detract from the figure's inherent sacredness, such constructions ironically offer a significant lesson in spiritual growth founded on new ways of seeing. Echoing Vizenor's desire to re-inscribe trickster within the semiotic realm, Anne Doueihi argues that traditional Western religious and anthropological interpretations that depict a transcendent trickster have to do with a Western preoccupation with origins. Trickster is sacred, the logic of this narrative proceeds, and thus must be understood as an embodied figure whose origins exist beyond history. Thus by over looking the complicated semiotic features of trickster stories, and by “taking narrative and meaning reverentially—as story and signified”—traditional scholarship has constructed a “parallel conception of trickster stories as themselves meaningful in that (and only that) they figure in the great story of human civilization, in the great story which is the history of religion.”13 As such these constructions legitimize notions of universality and hierarchy, placing the trickster within some larger Western narrative of an embodied, monotheistic form of spirituality.

By contrast, a post-structuralist interpretative paradigm allows Doueihi to view trickster stories as discursive constructs that “play” in the space between “discourse” and “story,” between narrative structure and the act of telling a story. From this perspective “story” is defined as “a sequence of actions or events, independent of their manifestation in discourse”; and “discourse” is “the discursive presentation of narration of events.”14 By over-emphasizing the referential aspects of the “story” within trickster narratives, many interpreters often overlook the way the story's position within a complicated discursive web detracts from any fixed or transparent meaning. Such readings invariably lead to readings of trickster stories as mediums for referential, “univocal” interpretations of reality. But by focusing on the semiotic structure of trickster stories, and how such a structure “performs” on the listener/reader of trickster narratives, we can begin to understand how such transparent, overly referential meanings unravel. Read from this vantage, trickster narratives undermine stable meanings and hold up such positivistic groundings as suspect, untrustworthy, and comically foolish. Thus, “instead of having one meaning, the text opens onto a plurality of meanings, none of which is exclusively ‘correct,’ because as the narrative develops in the trickster stories, the conventional level of meaning ceases to be appropriate.”15 For Douiehi, this semiotic lesson of trickster tales has liberatory power:

It is the power of signification, the possibility to mean, that the trickster celebrates. … [I]n the trickster's world, everything is already a sign of something. It is a sign because it is part of a sacred world; it is a sign of the sacred. The universe is essentially linguistic and ultimately, infinitely interpretable. The trickster is thus not a sacred being, but the way the whole universe may become meaningful, sacred, and filled with “power.”16

In Green Grass, Running Water it is just such a liberative journey, aided by Coyote, that the story both “performs” and thematizes in its depiction of a community of contemporary Blackfoot who negotiate life on and off the reserve. Unlike King's first novel, Medicine River (1989), which deals with life on the Blackfoot Canadian reserve in a relatively straightforward and seemingly linear way, Green Grass as a postmodern trickster narrative shrouds its story with a dense discursive web that undermines any stable interpretive platform.17 Adopting a form of what Vizenor has called “mythic verism,” Green Grass delights in interspersing the “fantastic” and implausible, with the all-too-real. Multistoried, multivoiced, playfully postmodern, Green Grass presents mutually informing stories that merge myth, history, tribal folklore, biblical scripture, and myriad tribal and dominant culture referents, all of which circulate like running water within the shifting frame of King's trickster story.

Amid this polyvocality, two basic stories unfold—one magical, one “realistic.” The “realistic” story has to do with Lionel and the daily lives of his Blackfoot friends and family as they head toward convergence at an annual Sun Dance on the Blackfoot reserve in Canada.18 This central story concerns the individual struggles of Lionel's “academic” uncle Eli, Lionel's feminist/teacher girlfriend Alberta, and Charlie Looking Bear, a lawyer. All except Lionel have left the reserve to seek lives on the “outside,” and the Sun Dance marks a communal coming home. For Eli in particular, who has left academia, the Sun Dance emerges as a celebration of the traditional past, which leads to his occupation of an old family house, one that is being threatened by the building of a dam on Indian land. Ultimately it is Eli's influence—aided by Coyote—that causes Lionel to reconsider the value of stories and community elemental to Native tradition.

The magical segments concern trickster Coyote, various “creation” stories, and the four old Indians who have left a Florida hospital to save Lionel. Like trickster Coyote, the four old Indians move back and forth between levels of narrative, playfully influencing the realistic aspects of the story. Eventually these levels of narrative merge, constructing the novel's complex and playful “mythic verism.”

At the intersection of these levels of narrative, several textual conversations emerge. Although these dialogues are necessarily intertwined, identity, ethnicity, culture, and history develop as significant topics. Appropriately, in the space between these conversations stands King's trickster Coyote, whose movement across a range of conceptual borders problematizes ontological and epistemological interpretations of the world.19 Levels of narrative ceaselessly contaminate one another, stories ceaselessly modify each other, and readers must constantly “invent” the text to suspend final interpretation within the indeterminate space of the interconnecting stories. In this way King's narrative compels readers to enter the complicated arena of trickster, to learn how language conditions reality and meaning among communal exchanges. This dialectical world-making is consistent with what Doueihi views as trickster's spiritual lesson:

The trickster shows us a way to see the world by opening our minds to the spontaneous transformations of a reality that is always open and creative. … It is in the language out of which they are constructed that trickster stories make accessible the deeper wisdom about the nature of the world.20

Ultimately, it is this through rupturing of stable linguistic ground that Green Grass allows for the possibility of transformation, the acceptance of new stories and possibilities. From this perspective King's Green Grass theorizes itself, performatively “making readers into tricksters.” It is “performative” in that it is an active text, a text that acts on the reader and requires new ways of seeing. This performativity ultimately lies at the center of King's story and is intricately tied to the novel's central lesson concerning Native American survival.

That Green Grass will attempt to provide this important lesson in cultural survival and renewal is signaled early on when Alberta has a discussion with her class that alludes to the ancient Indians who will help Lionel come to a similar awareness. The old Indians' names are Crusoe, Hawkeye, Lone Ranger, and Ishmael. Though mysterious at first, it is revealed soon that they are tribal representatives delivered to Florida at the end of the Indian Wars—Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, and Arapaho. Having escaped to the road they are out to “change the world,” though how that will happen is at first unclear. Like their sometime-companion Coyote, they too travel between the “realistic” and mythic spaces of King's narrative. In their playful exchanges with each other they incessantly tell their “own” stories of creation, each comically modifying events according to their individual traditions.

During Alberta's history lesson it becomes evident that these Indians are somehow associated with the wayward Indians who had “painted their stories” after having been driven off their traditional lands and forcibly relocated to a Florida detention center at Fort Marion. As Alberta, a Blackfoot who has left the reserve and become a teacher, explains to her students,

In 1874, the U.S. army began a campaign of destruction aimed at forcing the southern Plains tribes into reservations. The army systematically went from village to village burning houses, killing horses, and destroying food supplies. They pursued the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, and the Arapaho relentlessly into one of the worst winters of the decade. Starvation and freezing conditions finally forced the tribes to surrender.21

Alberta goes on to show her class “Plains Indian Ledger Art,” which, she explains, was drawn by some of the captive Indians and depicts such things as “the battles they had fought with the army and other tribes,” “their life on the plains,” and “life in prison.”22

But when Alberta asks what the students might deduce from the drawings and is met with silence, she asks: “Do they tell us anything about the people who did them or the world in which they lived?” Encountering more silence, she tells the students that none of the Indians escaped—but implies that the drawings themselves, spiritual and transportive in nature, suggest a kind of spiritual escape. This history lesson, shrouded in mystery, becomes important because it represents a lesson in cultural expectation, interpretation, and reading. The “stories” drawn by the Indians cannot become intelligible to the students because they don't possess the cultural or conceptual vocabulary to understand them. Moreover, the spirituality of the Indians cannot be discovered in the paintings because the students lack the context from which they might recognize meaning. Only by understanding the “story” of Indian annihilation and erasure in America might the story of spiritual survival and fortitude be grasped. In this sense the students, like readers, need to break free from the hegemony of traditional “white” stories of the frontier, and begin to understand how history is a construct. Such wisdom could provide an interpretive space wherein ancient Indians hitchhiking across the continent might become a possibility. Only through learning to (re)read the past can Alberta's students reconstruct Native American history and in doing so reconstruct the Native American community.23

Alberta's lesson has other implications as well, particularly when it comes to transcultural contact and the assessment of Indian cultures by non-Indians. Significantly, some of the students possess familiar “white” names, such as Elaine Goodale, John Collier, and Henry Dawes. King's reference to these famous “students” of Indian cultures alludes to the inevitable and disastrous result of objectifying Native American society, and in doing so presents readers with the impossibility of truly “knowing” another culture. As King's depiction of young Dawes suggests, “interpreting” cultures always implies a kind of cultural arrogance that can only lead to “mis-readings.” When Alberta asks Dawes his opinion of the drawings, Dawes responds that “they're kind of like stick figures. You know, like kids draw.”24 Dawes's condescending response, predicated on cultural authority and ignorance, necessarily reveals a paternalistic arrogance that has profound implications when transformed into governmental policies such as the Dawes Act. The scene, resonant with the names and familiar but reductive readings of Indian experience, comments upon the inherent violence of such monologic “versions” of cultural meaning. Meaning and genuine comprehension, instructs Alberta, are only possible when the fixed homogenetic cultural matrix is performatively disrupted.

It is important to note that as a trickster “performance” the dialogic structure of Green Grass immediately foregrounds the linguistic and cultural processes that produce meaning and that have crucial relevance to Alberta's lesson in reading and interpreting history. Readers literally enter Green Grass through an ongoing conversational gambit. The novel begins by invoking the mythic space of origin stories in the oral tradition:



Coyote was there, but Coyote was asleep. That coyote was asleep and that Coyote was dreaming. When Coyote dreams, anything can happen. I can tell you that.25

Following this, however, a number of demystifying gestures occur, undermining the clear spirituality of this mythic space and introducing parody. In particular this dialogic panel is followed by other similar panels in which the four old Indians muse about how to begin the story. The quartet tries various openings, sounding in their comic banter much like Beckettian fools: “ONCE UPON A TIME”; “A LONG TIME AGO IN A FAR AWAY LAND”; “MANY MOONCOMECHUKA. … Hahahahahahahahaha …”; “IN THE BEGINNING GOD CREATED THE HEAVENS AND EARTH.”26

These playful exchanges, which emphasize various conventional discursive strategies for staging stories, correspondingly point to Green Grass's staging of discursivity itself. Literary openings are attended by various codes, expectations, rules, logic(s), and their own ability to produce a conventional “sense of an ending.” The old Indians ultimately try numerous variations, and in doing so comically unmask the contingencies associated with storytelling, reality, and expectation.27

Coyote shares this surfacing and resurfacing frame with the four old Indians. Here trickster Coyote quite literally occupies the space between discourse and story. Functioning as Vizenor's mischievous and disruptive “comic holotrope,” Coyote confuses the “simple” story of Lionel's attainment of wisdom by constantly returning emphasis to Green Grass as a novel whose “moral” lesson will develop in part out of the text's trickster performance and beguiling structure. This decentering effect is again underscored in the curious conversation that opens the novel, and which precedes the “realistic” portion of the story concerned with Lionel's life. The exchange involves Coyote, Coyote's Dream, and “I”:

Who are you? says that dream. Are you someone important? “I'm Coyote,” says Coyote. “And I am very smart.” I am very smart, too, says that dream. I must be Coyote. “No,” says Coyote. “You can't be a Coyote. But you can be a dog. …” But when that Coyote dream thinks about being a dog, it gets everything backwards.28

Like a recurrent lens that will be distorted differently with each successive glance, this opening establishes the slippery semiotic games recurrent throughout Green Grass. “I” here clearly refers to King, the creative trickster who is constructing the narrative, but also to trickster as trope—as a signifier in narrative—as well as to a figure who speaks and seems embodied. “I” is also a character who is involved in the story, a construction like trickster. Similarly, in this backward story dog is transformed into GOD, a God who is a signifier that cannot transcend but who will nonetheless promise to become “sacred” in this story of renewal.

Readers reading/interpreting through this disruptive lens, then, must constantly be aware that they are involved in construction of meaning rather than simply reading a linear or cohesive story. In this way the novel engages readers in an active collaboration that has resonance with Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of “heteroglossia,” a concept that underscores the semiotic contingencies that condition all aspects of “telling” and representation. In Keeping Slug Woman Alive, Greg Sarris correspondingly engages Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of heteroglossia to underscore and emphasize how Native Pomo oral traditions—in many ways similar to Lionel's Blackfoot traditions—reflect similar masking and unmasking features within their sacred story traditions.29 For Sarris, such oral traditions emphasize the contingency of meaning and reality by self-consciously underscoring the idea that worldviews are storied constructs. Using his sister's voice to make the point, he writes that for Natives the “[t]hings you hear come back. A story for us Indians is like a cork in water. No matter where it goes, no matter how much you push, it floats back to the top.”30 Sarris further asserts:

For us, a story or teaching is never complete. … A story's meaning is dependent on the life beyond it. … Words and stories poison the healthy, heal the sick, empower lovers, transform the world.31

Bakhtin's commentary on the dialogic influences on the novel and language thus provides a resonant way for Sarris to discuss the complexity that informs oral culture and its emphasis on stories. Sarris concurs with Bakhtin, who notes that language is “heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the coexistence of sociological contradictions between the present and the past, between the differing epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendencies, schools, circles, and so forth, all given bodily form.”32 Correspondingly, in conversations with his family friend Mabel, Sarris notes a similar polyvocality:

Mabel provokes … a specific dialogue, or conversation, that can open the intermingling of multiple voices within and between people they encounter, enabling people to see and hear the way voices intersect and overlap, the ways that they have been repressed or held down because of certain social and political circumstances and the ways they can be talked about and usurped.33

Thus, as Sarris's works elucidate, many Native oral traditions of which trickster is a part are fundamentally self-conscious about the way stories circulate within communities, the manner in which such tales gain meaning and are thus always contingent.

Similarly, Brian McHale in Postmodern Fiction invokes Bakhtin's model to discuss the way postmodern narratives foreground polyvocality to emphasize the political and ideological factors involved in the production of “worlds.”34 Emphasizing this point, McHale cites Bakhtin:

Every language in the novel is a point of view, a socio-ideological conceptual system of real social groups and their embodied representatives. … [A]ny point of view on the world fundamental to the novel, must be concrete, a socially embodied point of view, not an abstract purely semantic position. … [And] an actual social life and historical becoming create within an abstractly unitary national language a multitude of concrete worlds, a multitude of verbal-ideological and social belief systems.35

For McHale, postmodern texts thus foreground the production of meaning, of “worlds.” As he writes, “by heightening the polyphonic structure and sharpening the dialogue in various ways,” postmodern fiction “foregrounds the ontological dimension for the confrontation among discourses, the achieving of a polyphony of worlds.”36

In provocative ways, King's Green Grass as trickster narrative marks the intersection between McHale's postmodernism and Sarris's Native oral traditions. Green Grass's performative strategies thus reveal and reverse—while collaborating with the reader in its dialogic structure—the “poisoning” power of words and stories. This critique is comically evident in Green Grass's numerous playful references to words and names that refract their traditional placements within “white” narratives. Most obvious is the use of the names Ishmael, Defoe, Hawkeye, and The Lone Ranger. Here these names refer to Indians—not the “white” halves of what Leslie Fielder long ago described as the frontier couple. “Uncoupled” from works that produced and grounded their former signification/identifications, the names playfully reveal the way the Other functions as an indelible component within discovery and frontier narratives, servicing the psycho-social construction of the Euro-American self.37 Similarly, numerous “historical” names and referents are detached from their traditional contexts and float as signifiers throughout the text. Old names are fixed to new identities. In the “water world,” the “realistic world,” Henry Dawes is not a famous advocate of Indian Christianization and education but an inquisitive child. Mary Rowlandson refers not to the famous Puritan but to a schoolgirl. Camelot is not a mythical place but a “progressive” Indian hospital prone to “minor mistakes.” Pocahantas is not a famous East Coast Indian but a modern stripper, “the sexiest squaw west of the Mississippi.”38 Similarly, Adam, of Biblical fame, has been recast as Ahdamn and circulates within the mythic loop of creation stories that occur in the “skyworld.” Here, too, Old Woman and grandmother Turtle, having slipped out of traditional space of Blackfoot stories, discuss microwave ovens and Ahdamm's penchant for naming everything in a “garden” that isn't really his in the first place.

In a zany way King's unhinging and recasting of these names thus forces a “confrontation between discourses,” which inevitably pushes us toward a recognition of how certain stories attain purchase within cultures. The traditional place for these names exists within a matrix of discursive fields that are subtended with power relations. Of course, within the hegemonic productions of such ideas as “the frontier” and “Indian,” many of these traditional sites of signification are associated with the tyranny and oppressiveness of colonial representations and production of meaning. In Green Grass this critique quite obviously leads to King's humorous play on the way we “read” our respective worlds and the cultural tensions that exist between forms of discursive production. As a semiotic border crosser, King's Coyote moves “betwixt and between” these discourses too, revealing how discourse and stories quite literally produce certain versions of such constructs as “reality” and “history.”

The lesson in reading/seeing that occurs throughout Green Grass is emblematic in the “who's on first” exchanges between the receptionist Babo—who is supposed to know about the old Indians—and the hapless detective Cereno, who has come to question Babo at the hospital. Babo and Cereno, of course, are familiar names from Herman Melville's famous trickster narrative, “Benito Cereno.” Melville's Cereno is the victim of representation, caught between two “worlds.” When Sergeant Cereno asks Babo about the escapees, she says, “Well, they were old.” And when he presses further about their identity and background, she tells Cereno, “We used to talk, you know, life, kids, fixing the world. … We'd trade stories, too, the Indians and me. That's what I could do, you know, tell you one of the stories they told me.”39 Of course, Cereno can no more understand the stories of ancient Indians who walk the earth than Alberta's students can understand the secret language of the Plains Ledger Art.

Repeatedly and in similar ways the characters in Green Grass find themselves captives of their own conceptual vocabularies and stories. Bill Bursum can only relate to Indians as figures in John Wayne movies. Charlie Looking Bear's father is fired from working in movies because his nose “is too big for an Indian.” Latisha, Lionel's sister, is beaten by her husband because she doesn't conform to the image of an “Indian” wife. Eli is haunted by the memory of border guards who confiscated his father's sacred head-dress, because to them it only represented a mass of “illegal” feathers.

As in Melville's “Benito Cereno,” all these readings of reality rely on culturally embedded perceptions—on grounding within in discursive fields. In Green Grass, as in Melville's story, water is the predominant metaphoric medium that signals worlds afloat. However, unlike Melville's Cereno, who knows that Babo's barber's knife at his throat can be “read” in painfully different ways, King's detective ultimately lacks the acquisition of such sacred knowledge. In Vizenor's words, he is doomed to his “terminal creeds,” a form of epistemological production that disallows difference. He is simply unable to understand. Moreover, his captivity within narratives is reflexive with Green Grass's larger interrogation of the way written “historical” narratives perpetuate the entrapment of Native cultures within the “static” historical representations of the past. This process is exposed in King's depiction of the “three” mistakes which threaten to keep Lionel working at Bill Bursum's Entertainment Center.

In Lionel's case, his initial gloominess and feeling of alienation quite literally are precipitated by the unyielding narratives of his so-called past. The narrative that haunts Lionel began when he was a child, when he feigned tonsillitis thinking he would get to stay home from the reserve school. But his plan goes awry and he only narrowly averts a heart operation after a nurse confuses his identity. Long after the mishap, though, people assume Lionel “has a heart problem,” and this assumption proves disruptive. Similarly, years later while a student in college he is asked to speak at a gathering of Indians. Though not really an activist, Lionel goes and soon finds himself in a stolen van heading toward the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee. Pursued by police and later arrested while “carrying a gun,” Lionel protests that he doesn't really “know a thing about AIM.” But even after the charges are dropped, a cop tells him: “Get your life together. With your record, you're running out of options.”40 Of course, as a dangerous, gun-carrying member of AIM with “a heart condition,” Lionel can only get a job at Bill Bursum's Home Entertainment Center just beyond the reserve—his third mistake.

King's presentation of Lionel's life as a life seemingly without options, prefigured by fictions which proceed him but which nonetheless conspire to fix his identity and limit possibility, allegorizes the familiar historic process of domination of Native Americans by written colonial narratives and “official histories” which have historically served to “invent” what it means to be an Indian. And such written histories obviously serve as oppressive and destructive colonial corollaries to the “actual” material violence and dispossession experienced by indigenous cultures. Historically, within such written histories Indians emerge as a collective, a static “sign” themselves, imprisoned as a “tragic” but necessary narrative of decline and ultimate erasure. Lionel's liberation from his own “written histories” fittingly comes from the power of spoken stories. Indeed, Coyote asserts the power of orality to resist such fixed narratives, to voice new forms of liberation.

In The Writing of History, postmodern theorist Michel de Certeau has asserted that it is the “Native voice” that the colonial writing of history has traditionally repressed or omitted, but which potentially has the power to disrupt written history in the West.41 For de Certeau, the production of history within the colonial context and its “heteronomous variants”—ethnology, pedagogy—have been predicated on “leaving” the Natives' voices behind. Contrasting orality with the sovereignty of written inscriptions of history and ethnology, he suggests that the writing of history occurs only when the “voice” of the other is repressed, for it cannot possibly be contained. Rather, the speech of the other must be exiled from historical and ethnological reportage, made “exotic,” for it is precisely that which holds the potential to destabilize the “continuity of signs” desired by such accounts. Writing thus “produces history” as an “archive” whose “will to power is invested in its form” and whose mission is the “manufacture of time and reason.” The voice of the other thus comes to represents that which “cannot be put into words, … that which would signal a ‘rift,’ a ‘jump’ in the religio-historic production of meaning.”42 Similarly, Homi Bhabha stresses the importance of orality as a mode of resistance to written colonial narratives.43 Orality, suggests Bhabha, resists hegemony and encourages more “hybrid” and communal world-views. As such, orality itself is “enunciative.” As Bhabha explains, “the enunciative is a more dialogic process that attempts to track displacements and realignments that are the effects of cultural antagonisms—and articulations—subverting the rationale of the hegemonic moment and relocating alternative, hybrid sites of cultural negations.”44

In Green Grass, voice and the oral traditions of which Coyote is a prominent part prove central as a liberating mode of resistance. Orality—the spoken story with its momentary presence—subverts the fixed narrative of any written tale. Spoken stories insist upon a narrative dynamism rather than codifying a static representation. Orality indeed displaces absence with an active, disruptive, and fleeting presence; it undermines the encoded narrative which seeks to contain Native American discourse. For King's Blackfoot community, stories voiced amongst friends thus hold the potential to intervene in a powerful way in the “writing” of their lives, and in Lionel's in particular.

Fittingly, it is amid a cacophony of competing transcultural and intertextual voices in King's story that Lionel's story of liberation emerges. As might be expected, the moment of Coyote's intervention and Lionel's renewal occurs when Eli takes Lionel to the annual Sun Dance at the reserve. The Sun Dance is a sacred rite of transformation, of revision. And the Sun Dance is communal, a shared experience celebrating the plurality of voices of its participants.

Prior to his return to the reserve and participation in the Sun Dance, Eli too, like Lionel, suffers from the prohibitions associated with his identity within the dominant culture. He too feels the pressure of “fixed narratives.” Having left the reserve and earned a Ph.D. in literature, his path seemed predestined by cultural expectations, based on old stories without possibility of revision. He had become the “Indian who couldn't go home”:

It was a common enough theme in novels and movies. Indian leaves the traditional world of the reserve, goes to the city, and is destroyed. Indian leaves the traditional world of the reserve, is exposed to white culture, and becomes trapped between two worlds. Indian leaves the traditional world of the reserve, gets an education, and is shunned by his tribe. Indians. Indians. Indians. Ten little Indians.45

Correspondingly, Eli's own story of renewal—his acquired ability to imagine different possibilities in what once seemed to be a circumscribed future—is revealed through a series of stories that hold the key to his emancipation. And it is in the passing on of these stories to Lionel that Eli hopes to offer him a lesson, a way to change his life.

This lesson occurs on the way to the Sun Dance, to which Lionel has reluctantly accompanied Eli. As they ride in a car toward the site of the annual ceremony, Eli begins to try and explain his motives for returning home, hoping it will have some resonance for Lionel. First, Eli tells the story of his wife Karen's death and her desire to see the Sun Dance before she died. Having been afflicted with supposedly “incurable cancer,” Karen agrees to go back to Eli's “home” to see the Sun Dance. Eli explains that off the reservation “everything was new” but that the idea of returning to see the Sun Dance had been important. But later, after surviving the immediate threat of her illness, Karen is killed by a drunk driver in a seemingly meaningless accident. As Eli tells the story, Lionel asks about returning home to the see the Sun Dance: “Change your life?” And Eli responds, “No … can't say it did … can't just tell you that straight out. Wouldn't make any sense. Wouldn't be much of a story.”46

Eli's point is clear: telling the story requires other stories, perhaps even stories that go beyond him. He explains: “After [Karen] died, I thought about coming home. … But I didn't.”47 Again he pauses, unable to construct his story in a way that will convey what it is he is trying to explain to Lionel. Presently the road they are driving on, which heads toward the more expansive reaches of the reservation, begins to open up. Possibility looms, but also brings fear:

The road ran on in front of them, a pitch of hills and coulees that dipped and rose on the land. It had been a long time since Lionel had travelled the lease road. Normally, he came in through Fort McLeode on the road that ran to Cardston. That road was all asphalt and mileage signs and billboards. The road was a wild thing, bounding across the prairies, snaking sideways, and, each crest of the hill, the road would vanish, and they would tumble out into the tall grass and disappear.48

Along the vanishing road, disappearance becomes as possible as emergence. Here Eli again searches for the right way to explain his return. But as he does so, the car gains the crest, exposing the encampment of the Blackfoot Sun Dance ceremony. The image proves resonant: “Below in the distance, a great circle of tepees floated on the prairies, looking for the world like sailing ships adrift on the ocean.” At this point Eli turns to Lionel and puts his answer in the form of a question: “What about it, nephew? Where would you want to go?”49

Eli's answer about why he came home is not really an answer at all. Rather, for Lionel as well as for the story's readers, it becomes a king of wise trickster riddle, a narrative that escapes total meaning except as a temporary assignation within involutions of other narratives. As the watery image suggests, meaning shifts, contexts float. The lesson is important, nonetheless: it is clear that the telling of stories and Lionel's understanding that Blackfoot culture is dependent upon his own telling of stories. Eli's question signals the importance of conversation, the necessity of Lionel's response and his part in a communal construction of meaning.

Later this lesson gets underscored at the Sun Dance itself, where Coyote and the four old Indians join Eli and Lionel. Trickster's entrance into the narrative sequence is consonant with transformation, with ruptures both semiotic and psychic. This anxiety regarding renewal and the rebirth of possibility becomes evident when Eli, in the company of his family, gets into an argument with George, Latisha's white husband who derides the ceremony. “You can't believe that shit,” he tells Eli, who prepares to dance. “This is ice-age crap. … Come on! It's the twentieth century. Nobody cares about your little pow wow. A bunch of old people and drunks sitting around in tents in the middle of nowhere.” But rather than Eli being the one to respond to George, Lionel joins in, telling him, “There's nothing for you here.”50

Lionel's response, of course, is the only thing Coyote and the four old Indians need to hear. Though they tell Lionel that “That's as much as we can do for you,” he remains baffled. “That's it?” is all he can say. Then Robinson Crusoe explains: “In the years that come, … you'll be able to tell our children and grandchildren about this.” In contrast to the ice-age rhetoric of George, the men begin to dance and the image of the camp as a renewed community becomes resonant with the promise of Eli and Lionel's vision as they approached the ceremony earlier by car:

The circle was tightly formed now, the older people sitting in the lawn chairs along the front edge, the younger people standing in the back, the children constantly in motion. … In a while the dancers would return to the centre lodge and the families would go back to their tepees and tents. And in the morning, when the sun came out of the east, it would begin again.51

Lionel's healing lesson, facilitated by trickster's intervention, concerns the value of community and stories in imagining new possibilities for tradition.

As might be expected, the final images of the novel return to the image of radical (un)grounding. Coyote's mischief produces an inadvertent earthquake, literally causing the ground to move, which ultimately leads to Eli's death by water as he occupies his mother's old house in the basin of the illegal Parliament dam. Rather than becoming part of a “tragic narrative,” however, his death is recontextualized and instead becomes an occasion for celebration. Subsumed by the deluge he returns to the flowing water, the shifting space of eternal movement, change, and renewal—“Below, in the valley, the water rolled on as it had for eternity.”52 And like the cabin—the family house symbolic of tradition—remains but a trace in memory, though alive in stories. Months later, as he stands where both Eli and the house had once been amid the sliding mud and running water, Lionel's aunt Norma tells him: “I hope you took notes. …” Then, “Eli's fine, he came home.” Lionel responds by saying, “Yeah … but he didn't come home because of the Sun Dance. And he didn't come home because Granny died. He told me that.”53

Ultimately, Lionel never articulates why Eli had returned home; it is left as a shared secret, a story within a story. And in the same way Lionel's quest for answers and identity is never resolved. “No truth but in stories,” maintains King's character “I,” and it is this truth which Lionel finally grasps. As readers we share in this secret, but we also must regard Lionel and Eli's story within the context of a trickster story, which seemingly always requires new acts of reading and interpretation. In King's fiction Coyote calls, cars float away, John Wayne dies, and history changes, and through these fractured, seemingly impossible occasions a young Blackfoot man experiences renewal and the reader escapes the constructs of culture.

When King's story finally ends it resists closure, suggesting the possibility of new stories. Coyote and “I” once again begin to “discuss how it happened.” Implicitly readers are invited to construct their own meaning, to enter into liberative conversation with Coyote. As readers of a “performative” postmodern trickster tale we are indeed invited to participate, to join in the subversive potential of Coyote. Old stories change; new stories emerge.

At the conclusion of King's novel we are thus reminded of trickster's sacred function within traditional oral cultures as a healer, but also as a disruptive semiotic element that resists colonial representations and stories of containment. King's conclusion, too, reminds us that many Native American postmodern trickster stories have a political and cultural agenda; they encourage us to become members of a community engaged in telling, hearing, retelling, contradicting, and reweaving, rather than in simply receiving. We, like King's protagonist Lionel, are thus beckoned by Coyote to see the world differently, to imagine new stories. Coyote's subversive “Yahoo!” signals this liberative potential.


  1. Thomas King, Green Grass, Running Water (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993).

  2. Ibid., 284.

  3. Ibid., 284. King's “Yahoo!” also signals the novel's gaming, particularly when it comes to “naming.” Eli is, at least on one level, a reference to the Old Testament prophets. Like his older namesakes, Eli is a wise man whose experiences and prophesies prefigure other later narratives, in the same way that the Old testament prefigures the New. Lionel's name refers to at least several literary figures. Most obviously he recalls the Lionel involved with the Knights of the Round Table and their search for the Holy Grail. Because of his insistence upon finding meaning, his involvement in literary discussions with Eli, and his “liberal” notion that meaning will help create a better world, Lionel is also easily associated with critic Lionel Trilling. Charley Looking Bear's father's “origins” can be traced to the historical personage of Luther Standing Bear. Luther Standing Bear witnessed the Sand Creek Massacre and later traveled with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He played a political role in the final days of the Indian Wars. Ultimately he moved to Hollywood, where he played minor parts in early westerns. Luther Standing Bear's position in Native American history is uncertain; some see him as a successful “trickster,” while others believe that he allowed himself to be appropriated by the white man.

  4. Gerald Vizenor, Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989), 204.

  5. James Clifford, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, J. Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press), 10.

  6. Quite evidently much of post-structuralist and postmodern theory attempts to define “conventional western reception of texts” and to suggest that our reading is always more about dislocation than a single unified and essential interpretation. Barthes, Derrida, Lyotard, and Bakhtin all have much to say that is relevant to the discussion here. Stanley Fish attempts to resolve the issue through his discussion of “interpretive communities.” However, Green Grass deviates from these discussions in several significant aspects. As a novel it “theorizes” itself, rather than becoming the repository/subject or object of theoretical discussion. More important, as a trickster narrative the novel marks the reader's necessary ability to recreate the text, rather denoting the ways in which the text fractures and recreates itself. For King, and for trickster fictions in general, the individual and orality combine to function as a subtextual counter-narrative to written textuality.

  7. Paul Radin, The Trickster (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), 35.

  8. William Bright, A Coyote Reader (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 3.

  9. Ibid., xi.

  10. Vizenor, Narrative Chance, 190. Vizenor's work, like this article, marks an intersection between current post-structuralist theories that emphasize how sign systems function within culture and Native American imaginative literature. While the historic evolution of the “post-structuralist turn” is obviously complex, Vizenor's own reading of post-structuralist thought follows a familiar trajectory. This trajectory connects Saussure's work on the structure of semiotic systems, to Derrida's and Lyotard's, and beyond, to a variety of post-structuralist interventions in the area of postcolonial, feminist, anthropological, and other modes of cultural criticism. While this dialogue is quite complicated, it is fair to say that these theorists have all participated in offering new ways of “reading.” Reading, in this sense, not only applies to texts but to forms of “culture” and cultural production itself (such as oral narratives). Reading consequentially involves the active deciphering of the complex way that meaning is structured both by the words that are present in a text and the words that are absent. Ultimately, Vizenor work finds resonance in post-structuralism's incredulity toward meta-narratives (Lyotard), Derrida's insistence on seeing cultural production as a kind of text, and post-structuralism's interrogation of “writing” as it applies to colonial power in the West. While some Native American critics find such post-structuralist ideas overly Eurocentric, Vizenor locates in them an important and relevant conceptual vocabulary capable of describing the complexities of trickster stories, both postmodern and traditional. Post-structuralism's mapping of the sign as a “trace,” as opposed to the seemingly “fixed” nature of Western “writing,” thus informs rather than detracts from his investigations of trickster narratives. Post-structuralism's critique of signs has been followed and mediated by a range of critics that map how semiotic systems are repositories of power rather than transcendent systems of “knowledge.” This, too, proves invaluable in discussing postmodern trickster's subversive potential. For excellent discussions of these issues, see Louis Owens's Other Destinies (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992); Arnold Krupat's “Post-Structuralism and Oral Literature” in Recovering the Word (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Karl Kroeber's “Deconstructionist Criticism and American Indian Literatures,” In Boundary 2 7 (1979): 73-89; and James Rupert's “The Reader's Lesson's in Ceremony,Arizona Quarterly 42, no. 1 (1986): 78-85. Indeed, Kroeber's and Rupert's early contributions in detailing the intersections of post-structuralist ideas and Native American texts prove particularly illuminating with regard to the historical evolution of these ideas and issues.

  11. Vizenor's “trickster novels” include: Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart (St. Paul: Bookslinger, 1978); Griever: An American Monkey King in China: A Novel (New York: Fiction Collective, 1987); and Heirs of Columbus (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1991). See also Landfill Meditation: Crossblood Stories (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1991).

  12. Alan Velie, “The Trickster Novel” in Narrative Chance, Gerald Vizenor, ed. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989), 136.

  13. Anne Doueihi, “Inhabiting the Space between Discourse and Story in Trickster Narratives,” in Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts and Criticisms, W. Hynes and W. Doty, eds. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993), 194.

  14. Ibid., 193.

  15. Ibid., 199.

  16. Ibid., 201.

  17. Thomas King, Medicine River (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1989). See also King's All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), in which King discusses trickster within the context of Canadian literature.

  18. The discussions of the Sun Dance here also reference other religious celebrations associated with the sun. Discussion of “I,” the sun, and empire-building also are reminiscent of the Sun King, a comment on Western hierarchies and appropriations, and a pun on the name of the author as well. Like many famous film directors, King makes cameo appearances in his text. He is like Hitchcock, referencing himself in his own cinema.

  19. Within traditional Blackfoot cosmology, trickster Coyote is called A-pe'si. Coyote is present at Creation, during which he helps The Old Man (Na'pe) create the world, as well as men and women, from bones and buffalo. As with other Native American trickster figures, Blackfoot Coyote's interventions are alternately disruptive and constructive. In a number of traditional tales, A-pe'se refers to Na'pe as “brother,” suggesting the significance of their inter-relationship within oral Creation stories. For an oral retelling of traditional Blackfoot stories see Francis Frazer's The Bear Who Stole the Chinook (Vancouver: Douglas Press, 1991).

  20. Doueihi, “Inhabiting the Space,” 200.

  21. King; Green Grass, 15.

  22. Ibid., 16.

  23. Alberta's lessons are curiously reminiscent of the legendary Sequoyah. According to legend, Sequoyah believed that Native Americans would never have sufficient power to resist the Anglo incursion until they possessed writing. Sequoyah then devoted himself to the creation of a pictographic syllabary and to the teaching of writing. Alberta's efforts to teach history through pictographs raise many of the same issues. Her place in King's narrative underlines the tension and incompatibility between oral stories and written history.

  24. King, Green Grass, 16.

  25. Ibid., 1.

  26. Ibid., 6-11.

  27. King plays with a variety of creation stories in his text, perhaps in an attempt to note the very absurdity of these discussions of origins. The text transforms the nearly clichéd lines into a nearly Dadaist play. Coyote's lines, “In the beginning, there was nothing. Just the water …” conflict with the western notion of origin which is expressed in terms of written language. “In the beginning there was the word …” insists Western epistemology, arguing for an origin that began in a fixed narrative. But Coyote's moving water suggests a more mutable, dynamic story.

  28. King, Green Grass, 2.

  29. Greg Sarris, Keeping Slug Woman Alive (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 11.

  30. Ibid., 11.

  31. Ibid., 127.

  32. Ibid., 4.

  33. Ibid., 5.

  34. Brian McHale, Postmodern Fiction (London: Routledge, 1989), 165.

  35. Ibid., 165.

  36. Ibid., 166.

  37. Readers will recall how Defoe's Robinson Crusoe defined himself through his relationship with Friday. Crusoe comments at length upon the perfection of Friday, noting his physical beauty and his essential goodness of character. This ideal construction contrasts with Crusoe's depiction of himself. Hawkeye is one of the names for James Fennimore Cooper's Deerslayer, Natty Bumppo. Like Crusoe, Hawkeye's identity is defined through his relationship with the “other.” And, like Crusoe, Hawkeye can be read as a place of origin for questing characters and protagonists in the literature of discovery. Hawkeye provides a paradigmatic figuration. The Lone Ranger is an interesting presence. Like Hawkeye he figures in a large number of tales, always accompanied by Tonto. But the Lone Ranger is masked; his identity is obscured. He is a crusader of unknown origin. Like all of the four-hundred-year-old Indians, the Lone Ranger appropriates a name associated with imperialism as a way of reclaiming identity.

  38. King, Green Grass, 186.

  39. Ibid., 47.

  40. Ibid., 56.

  41. Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 215-30.

  42. Ibid., 215-32.

  43. Homi Bhabha, “Post Colonial Criticism,” in Remaking the Boundaries (New York: Modern Language Association, 1993), 444-45.

  44. Ibid., 443.

  45. King, Green Grass, 253.

  46. Ibid., 320.

  47. Ibid., 320.

  48. Ibid., 321.

  49. Ibid., 321.

  50. Ibid., 342.

  51. Ibid., 343.

  52. Ibid., 356.

  53. Ibid., 373-74.

This essay was made possible by a generous Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship provided by the University of California. In that context I would like to thank John Carlos Rowe for his invaluable support and guidance. Thanks also to Emory Elliott and Louis Owens—and, of course, to Deborah Paes de Barros.

Sharon M. Bailey (essay date winter 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8421

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 encounters soldiers who arrest her and imprison her in Fort Marion, Florida. At some point in this last encounter, each woman drops her new Indian name and assumes the name of the Western literary figure of the previous encounter.

In the more realistic plot these same four Indians, now with the names Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye, journey to Blossom and the neighboring Blackfoot reservation looking for things to “fix” (133). The action of this plot consists primarily of the various citizens of Blossom reflecting on their relationships, on their injuries inflicted by Canadian and American government bureaucracy and insensitivity, and on what they perceive to be expected of them as Indians. As the plot progresses, we see the various characters watching a John Wayne western, and the book climaxes with an earthquake, which breaks the dam and kills one of the main characters.

Just as there are two contrasting plots, there are also two contrasting portrayals of narrative technique: an oral and a written. The narrative frame, which is introduced on the very first pages and then interspersed throughout the novel, relies exclusively on dialogue to convey information. The myth plot is also related in this manner, re-creating the oral tradition of “telling” the myth. The story is even interrupted often by Coyote, who gives her opinion about the events and makes changes to the story. In contrast, representations of English/Anglo-American culture within the mythic plot rely heavily on books and acts of writing. The first people the women meet are all figures from the Bible, and of the second people the women meet, three are characters from novels. Whereas the Indian story is told “orally,” the English/Anglo-American elements that are incorporated into the myth are fragments of written manifestations of Western religion and culture. Much of the humor of the novel derives from “orally” pointing out errors in the written stories. The narrator informs us, for example, that God did not create the world, that Noah's ark was full of poop, that Moby-Dick was really a black lesbian whale, and that “Nasty” Bumppo was too short to carry his rifle properly. Playing off the fact that the written word is considered more stable than the spoken word and off the Western propensity to believe what we read, the oral narrative strand pokes fun at what becomes the inflexibility of written texts and the superiority of the more plastic oral storytelling technique.

At the core of this contrast are the two opinions, represented by the two opposing hypothetical camps of proponents of oral and written forms of literature, that each kind of narration has the exclusive claim to the ability to convey meaning. Arnold Krupat argues that the truth value attributed to language when a signifier is seen to be correctly, even inherently, linked to a signified is a phenomenon which is unique to cultures which use written forms of information storage. Historically, oral cultures seem to be typically unconcerned with fixed meanings (118). However, he points out that there is a tendency among scholars of Native literatures to hold a “signified-based theory of language,”1 or to assume that meaning is fixed and can be accurately communicated. He further writes that “as students of oral cultures and traditions, Native Americanists have in particular referred this possibility to speech and voice” (117).2 I propose that King is playing off this opposition, not standing firmly in either camp, but getting the best of both of them. In this war of written versus oral words, it is not a question of which culture has possession of the Truth, but rather of which culture has the literary means of conveying it. In pitting the one narrative form against the other, King questions first whether a written text really represents an inflexible, authoritative, dogmatic version of reality, such as is being lampooned by the narrators of Green Grass, Running Water, and, second, whether the oral text, through its plasticity (or in spite of it), can ever be the vehicle through which reality is accurately represented.

Because of the various subplots which pit Blackfoot Indians against Canadians, Americans, and other non-Natives, it is understandably tempting to label this novel as Native fiction. However, a closer look at possible justifications for categorizing this novel as Native fiction will show that it is not such a clean fit. The first and most irritating rub is that King is only part Cherokee, not at all Blackfoot, and was raised in northern California, far from any reservations, whether Blackfoot or Cherokee. Rodney Simard, however, rejects typification of the author based on genetic, cultural, and social criteria as hopelessly problematic, questioning how and by whom the standards should be set (244). Scott Momaday offers a vague but perhaps more useful definition of Indianness: “An Indian is an idea which a given man has of himself. And it is a moral idea, for it accounts for the way in which he reacts to other men and to the world in general. And that idea, in order to be realized completely, has to be exposed” (162). This now-classic definition has been explored by many critics. This kind of imagination which defines the identity of the person is far from a Cartesian mental exercise: “I think I am an Indian; therefore, I am.” As defined, for example, by Paula Gunn Allen in “Bringing Home the Fact” or Gerald Vizenor in “Trickster Discourse,” imagination is a concrete process of incorporating and perpetuating tradition, and its most important outlet is storytelling: articulating and sharing the values of the community. However, if we apply this definition to the problem at hand, we risk begging the question. We cannot argue that Green Grass, Running Water is Native literature because King has the idea of himself that he is Indian, and we know that he has this idea of himself because his novel is a work of Native literature. Therefore, it might be better in this case to argue that the authenticity of a Native novel lies not in the author but in the novel itself, either in the content or in the presentation of Native culture.

As already mentioned, the myth that is retold is the creation myth, presumably of the Blackfoot Indians. Since this plot dominates at least half of the novel, it might be useful to define both myth in general and creation myth in particular. Jarold Ramsey defines myths as “sacred traditional stories whose shaping function is to tell the people who know them who they are; how, through what origins and transformations, they have come to possess their particular world; and how they should live in that world, and with each other” (4). In other words, myths contain the knowledge of a single people's origins and history. Although myths from different Indian groups have been shown to have similarities, it cannot be assumed that myths are interchangeable between Indian groups. Creation myths, Ramsey continues, differ from other types of myths in that they are primarily concerned with how the people came to exist and to live where they do (23). The myth told in Green Grass, Running Water conforms to this definition of a creation myth to the extent that it describes the prehistory of the characters of the novel. Each of the four myths begins with the time when the world was covered with water; then the first human fell from the sky and began organizing things for the future inhabitants. The stories end with the incarceration of the first human in Fort Marion, a historical event that marks the beginning of reservations and hence the beginning of contemporary reality for the Plains Indians (King, 1990, 14-15).

Although the myth is constructed to resemble an authentic Blackfoot creation story, inaccuracies abound. According to Thomas E. Sanders's account of the Blackfoot creation story, Old Man travels across Blackfoot territories, fixing up the world to its present form (37-41; cf. Ramsey, 8). First Woman and her son only come later in the story as the first human creations of Old Man. No one falls from the sky, and there is very little water. Also, Fort Marion, strictly speaking, is not a part of Blackfoot history. It marks the defeat of the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, and Arapaho tribes of the Southern Plains.3 Finally, the secondary figures of the myths in Green Grass, Running Water are GOD, “Ahdamn,” Noah, Gabriel, Jesus, the Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and “Nasty” Bumppo. These are not characters one would expect to find in an “authentic” Native American creation story.

Another possible criterion for authenticity is the effectiveness with which the story mediates between Native and non-Native cultures. Simard, in pondering what qualities qualify Black Elk Speaks as authentic Native literature, poses the question of whether audience might not be a factor (244-45). Although the question is tangential to his main argument and not elaborated on, it is an interesting one. Leslie Marmon Silko, in “An Old-Time Indian Attack,” states that the inclusion of Indian songs and stories in white anthologies is blatant theft, and she implies that consumption of those anthologies by white readers indicates a lack of identity on the part of the whites and a desire to usurp the Indian identity. These stolen and “translated” songs and stories have lost their truth value when taken from their proper context and turned from their intended purpose—i.e., when they are consumed by an unintended audience. George L. Cornell likewise argues that oral stories are the property of their people and only authentic when told in a legitimate context to an Indian audience. When recorded and anthologized by white ethnographers, the stories lose their authenticity and become “products of another culture's imagination” (176). According to these two scholars, Native literature is authentic when it is intended for a Native audience.

The opposite argument would seem more appropriate for Green Grass, Running Water. The novel is tucked into the category of Native fiction, not because it is intended for a Native audience, but because it features Native characters and is intended for a primarily non-Native audience. This approach conforms to James Ruppert's expectations of Native literature. In juxtaposing oral and written texts, King presents the differences between Native approaches to truth and knowledge (approaches that may be more or less consistent between tribes) and non-Native approaches. In this respect, the authenticity of what is told is secondary to the authenticity of how it is told. Ruppert discusses the Native American novel as one that attempts to show the reader (who is non-Native) a different cultural experience of reality.

As the mediational text moves back and forth between “ways of encoding this reality,” implied readers reevaluate interpretation, are informed, and can be changed as they try on alternate epistemologies, different cultural goals, and different notions of reality and truth. … The mediational text endeavors to move the readers implied by the text to question the way they form knowledge and meaning, but in the end it seeks to reeducate those readers so that they can understand two codes, two traditions of discourse.


King is in a position where he must mediate between the culture he is portraying and the culture of his audience. However, as he focuses more closely on those aspects of each culture that distinguish it from the other, he becomes increasingly less accurate and relies increasingly on grotesquely stereotyped images of Indianness. This can be seen, for example, in his handling of Latisha and the Dead Dog Café. The successful restaurant serves normal beef but advertises it as dog meat (117). The tourists, whom Latisha distinguishes as either American or Canadian flavored, are drawn by the prospect of getting an authentic Indian meal. Similarly, Portland Looking Bear's career as an actor is jeopardized by his nose, which is not large enough to be convincingly Indian. When he refuses to wear a rubber nose, he loses a lead role to a red-haired Italian (168). Whenever King portrays his characters as Indians, it is with the aid of absurd stereotypes. Furthermore, racial identity in the novel is not an absolute fact but rather is contingent on context. Although Latisha the restaurant owner views herself as Indian and therefore not in the same cultural pool as her Canadian or American customers, when faced with her husband's patriotic American flag-waving she develops a very strong sense of her Canadian heritage. She even works to instill this identification in her son Christian by nursing him with the incantation “You are a Canadian. You are a Canadian. You are a Canadian” (176).

More than presenting Native culture to a non-Native audience, King's most consistent concern is for presenting the difference between what an Indian is and what an Indian does. In spite of the sensational appeal of Indians who eat dog meat or have very large noses, the fact is that Latisha's and Portland's Indianness is not dependent on the expectations of the Canadian/Anglo-American consumer. This is again illustrated in the conversation between Sifton and Eli: “‘Besides, you guys aren't real Indians anyway. I mean, you drive cars, watch television, go to hockey games. Look at you. You're a university professor.’ ‘That's my profession. Being Indian isn't a profession’” (155). Rather than seriously presenting Indian and Anglo-American cultures as irreconcilably different, the novel portrays cultural differences as usually the result of artificially imposed expectations. King proposes instead that, epistemologically, Indians and Anglo-Americans work on the same level.

A more sophisticated definition of authenticity is offered by Andrew Wiget. Rather than locating authenticity either in the author or in the text, Wiget defines authenticity as a rhetorical construction encompassing past and current traditions and values (258). It is with multivocal discourse, argues Wiget, that the Native text can distinguish itself from the Anglo-American text. Rather than a single narrator who tells a single story, stories are told by a range of Indian voices. He writes: “This sublimation of authority, which derives from the recognition that we live in a world made of stories, stories which compete with one another for our attention, also creates a space for an Indian voice, so that instead of ‘stories about Indians’ we can create ‘an Indian's story’” (261).

The novel does employ this multivocal discourse, insofar as it rejects the single plot which builds coherently to a significant climax and an all-encompassing resolution. There is neither a single main character nor a single conflict. The various characters of the realistic plot earn their places in the story by being family and neighbors—i.e., members of the Blackfoot community—but the influence they exert over one another's lives is as often as not minimal. Furthermore, not only does the narrative and plot structure of Green Grass, Running Water conspire to sublimate English/Canadian/Anglo-American forms of textual authority, but the appropriation of the authority of representative non-Native texts becomes a motif throughout the novel. The multivocal discourse undermines the authority assumed to be inherent in the written (and ostensibly stable) text, and the written text is forced into a losing battle to defend its truth value. Just as the four old Indians “fix” the John Wayne movie, granting victory to the Indians in the final shoot-out (356-57), the reader listens to the orally told, “fixed” versions of familiar written texts, such as the Bible or Moby-Dick.

However, even though the Native oral text, recreated by the dialogue-like narrative structure, effectively undermines the authority of the written texts, it is unable to assume for itself that authority. The same forces that are set to work undermining the authority of written works ultimately destroy the authority of the oral work as well. The retelling of the myths does not mean anything that could be articulated as Native American truth(s). Rather, the retelling of the myths serves to make apparent the function of language. In his treatment of Hawthorne's story “The Minister's Black Veil,” J. Hillis Miller shows that the veil becomes a symbol of the process of creating meaning rather than actually having meaning in itself.

The wearing of the veil … suspends two of the basic assumptions that make society possible: the assumption that a person's face is the sign of his selfhood and the accompanying presumption that this sign can in one way or another be read. A whole series of presuppositions accompany those assumptions: the presupposition that there are natural as opposed to arbitrary signs, in this case the face; the presupposition that the face as exterior and visible natural sign refers to an interior, non-linguistic entity, the consciousness, subjectivity, soul, or selfhood of the person who presents that face to the world; the presupposition that the procedure whereby we read a person's selfhood by his or her face is paradigmatic for sign-reading in general.


In his analysis of Hawthorne's tale, Miller juxtaposes verbal language—the relationship between word and meaning—and the physical language which relates a face with the soul it signifies. When, by veiling his face, the Reverend Hooper disables the physical language, he also disables verbal language and shows language in general to be arbitrary.

In Green Grass, Running Water King uses oral storytelling to disable written authority. The characters of the narrator and Coyote are constructed on the basic assumption that oral text can serve as a metalanguage which is capable of conveying the true nature of reality which the written text is unable to represent. Each time a written text is re-presented orally in the novel, its meaning is shown to be different from what was supposedly intended. By placing a cleft between the written text and its historical meaning, the text becomes, so to speak, arbitrary. Thus, in setting orality and writing in juxtaposition, King draws meaning into question; but the arbitrary nature of the story, once established, becomes fact whether the story is told in writing or orally, and the oral text fails as metalanguage. So we find King poking fun at his own oral narrator with the same glee with which he lampoons the non-Native icons of culture.

The narrator of the orally conveyed creation myth undermines English/Canadian/Anglo-American ideas of truth and reality by travestying a variety of finished works and acts of writing.4 The Bible is the first written text whose authority is sabotaged. This work differs from the other works satirized (Moby-Dick, Robinson Crusoe, and the Leatherstocking Tales, among them) in that the Bible represents for its devotees not a story containing perhaps some truth but rather Truth itself. Whereas the works of Melville, Defoe, and Cooper represent literary and cultural values, the Bible is a religious work and an object of faith. Furthermore, inherent in Christianity is the belief that its precepts are true, not only for members of its own faith but for all people, regardless of whether these people have been initiated to this truth or whether they accept it. Consequently, it is no small matter when the beginning of God is placed after the beginning of creation. The attack on a fundamental Christian belief takes on a truly ludicrous edge, however, when the narrator relates how GOD came to be: “So, that Coyote is dreaming and pretty soon, one of those dreams gets loose and runs around. Makes a lot of noise. / Hooray, says that silly Dream, Coyote dream. I'm in charge of the world” (1). The errant dream cannot possibly be Coyote, who is in this case the prime mover, of sorts. Therefore, Coyote grants the dream the name Dog, “But when that Coyote Dream thinks about being a dog, it gets everything mixed up. It gets everything backward. … I am god, says that Dog Dream” (2). Even before the novel has begun, the authority of one of the most sacred books in Western culture is transformed into a joke and, it would seem, supplanted by the authority of the storytelling narrator and the trickster Coyote.

In Christian doctrine, the primacy of God is the foundation of the belief system. By placing the creation of God after the creation of Coyote, the narrator has already displaced Christianity from its position of Ultimate Truth. Therefore, when the narrator of Green Grass, Running Water goes further and repeatedly identifies and ridicules the most basic Christian beliefs, it must be concluded that the narrator has more planned than simply replacing Christian creation with Blackfoot creation. Throughout the novel, various biblical and cultural figures invoke rules, specifically Christian rules, in attempts to control the behavior of the Indian women. Furthermore, they are convinced that their rules will be heeded simply by virtue of the fact that the rules are invoked, and they seem oblivious to discrepancies between the rules and what can be observed to be the case. For example, Young Man Walking on Water reminds Old Woman of the following Christian rules: “The first rule is that no one can help me. The second rule is that no one can tell me anything. Third, no one is allowed to be in two places at once. Except me” (388). Theologically speaking, these rules refer to Christ's omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Yet, for all his effort to impose his rules on Old Woman, the rules remain nonsense. Young Man Walking on Water is lost, and he does not know whom he is seeking; hence he is neither omnipresent nor omniscient. As he is unable to quiet the waves and boat, he is also not omnipotent.

In the same manner, the narrator also mistreats more tangential Christian beliefs. Under the rubric of Christian rules falls not only the basic godliness of God, but also the belief that women must have big breasts (162) and that people must not sing to boats (390). The biblical justification for these two rules might—with a little imagination—be seen within the Christian tradition. In the case of the former, Genesis 2:18-24 describes how Eve was created as a helper and sex partner to Adam, and 1 Corinthians 7:4 states, “For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does.”5 Therefore it can be reasoned that it is a woman's duty to be physically attractive to her man. If her man likes large breasts, it is her Christian duty to have them. The latter rule harks back to another Christian rule cited by the Noah of Green Grass, Running Water, namely one prohibiting talking to animals. Biblical justification for this rule could be found in Genesis 1:28, where God grants man dominion over animals. In Green Grass, Running Water Noah interprets this to mean that one cannot talk to the animals without sacrificing one's superiority is sacrificed, it is only a small step to bestiality (160). Therefore it is reasonable to deduce that if talking to animals demeans humans and leads to bestiality, talking to boats would similarly undermine one's humanness and possibly even lead to sodomy. Laura E. Donaldson stresses the threat which the women's practice of talking to animals poses to the authority of mankind: “According to the great chain of being revealed in the first chapter of Genesis, humans occupy a unique place because only they are made according to God's likeness and only they possess dominion over all other living entities. In contrast to this divinely ordered hierarchy, the creation stories of Turtle Island manifest a much more decentered and less anthropocentric view” (33). However, neither Noah nor Young Man Walking on Water is concerned about the state of the women's eternal souls. On the contrary, Noah resents the possible sexual competition with the animals, and Young Man Walking on Water is peeved that Old Woman refuses to respect his omnipotence. These two rules represent the personal desire of the man invoking the rule, and a general cultural value: namely, that subservience to man is a good trait in woman. The rather distant logical connection to the Bible simply sanctions the rules.

In the cases of these two rules just discussed, a cultural value is given the gloss of religious dogma. The narrator reinforces this conflation by placing the rules in the mouths of biblical characters. At the same time the narrator playfully negates the truth value of these ostensibly Christian rules in just the same manner as the godliness of God is negated. The encounters by the women with the cultural figures in the second half of each creation story are treated in much the same way. Although these characters are derived from literary rather than religious works, the narrator establishes the characters as representatives of a dogmatically true belief system comparable to that of Christianity. This is accomplished primarily through references to the assumed authority of books and, as was already seen, to rules.

In the second encounter in each of the four creation stories, the woman is forced into the role of a nineteenth-century Indian as projected in English/Anglo-American fiction. Again, as in the case of the encounters with biblical figures, the authority of the works of literature is intimated only to be negated. This is particularly apparent in the second and last versions, where the woman is given a new name directly out of a book. Changing Woman, for example, is forced into the role of the exotic Indian from the novel Moby-Dick.

What's your name?

Changing Woman.

That just won't do …, says the man, and he quickly thumbs through the book again. Here, he says, poking a page with his finger. Queequeg. I'll call you Queequeg. This book has a Queequeg in it, and this story is supposed to have a Queequeg in it, but I've looked all over the ship and there aren't any Queequegs. I hope you don't mind.

Ishmael is a nice name, says Changing Woman.

But we already have an Ishmael, says Ishmael. And we do so need a Queequeg.

Oh, okay, says Changing Woman.


The situation is only slightly different for Old Woman. “Nasty” Bumppo insists that since she is an Indian, she must be his friend Chingachgook. When he is shot, however, he decides that she needs the name of a killer. After trying several white names and finally consulting a book, he names her Hawkeye (436-37). It would be expected that all this would be distressing to the women, who are denied first their right to be themselves, then the right to be women, and finally the right to be real Indians. However, all the women accept their new names with the air of indulgence that one assumes when dealing with a misinformed but harmless fool. In short, the women feel neither imposed upon nor threatened by the bookish reality to which the other characters subject them.

Thus, the narrator of the four creation stories has satirized both the Christian tradition and the English/Anglo-American literary tradition. Finally, to complete the picture, the narrator also pokes fun at American (and to a lesser extent Canadian) law and bureaucracy. All four women are arrested, but the arrest of Old Woman is especially interesting (427-39). Again the soldiers check her identity in a book, rejecting several names until she calls herself Hawkeye. At that point they recognize her, check off the name in the book, and arrest her. The charges are impersonating a white who wants to be an Indian. Without the verification of the book, the soldiers are unable either to name the woman or to charge her.

The subversion of and disdain for the authority of writing in connection to the four creation stories can also be seen in the realistic plot. Presentations of the act of writing can be categorized according to the Indians' attitudes and the whites' attitudes. Camelot, for one, takes the authority of her cookbooks very lightly, substituting elk for artichokes (86) or moose for octopus (190). Dr. Hovaugh, on the other hand, places much more weight on the authority of books.

“What [primitive people] thought were omens,” said Dr. Hovaugh, adjusting the binoculars, “were actually miracles.”

“No kidding,” said Babo.

“When we get back,” said Dr. Hovaugh, “I'll lend you a book I have.”


The two different attitudes toward the written word come into conflict when Milford's truck is stolen. The white used-car salesman offers a bill of sale as proof that Milford sold the truck to him. Amos, the reservation police officer, is convinced that Milford did not sell the truck, accepting as sufficient proof Milford's spoken statement that the signature on the bill is forged (342). The white concept of law favors the written bill of sale over the spoken statement, and Milford's truck is legally considered sold.

Finally, within the narrative frame, the authority of books and writing is also disparaged. Coyote has a penchant for citing books, for which the narrator repeatedly chides her. To cite only two examples, Coyote takes the side of Ahab in insisting that the whale is white and male rather than black and female. Coyote insists that the narrator read the book, and there is no Moby-Jane. To this the narrator tells her to trust her eyes rather than what she has read: “‘Just look out over there. What do you see?’ ‘Well … I'll be,’ says Coyote” (220; ellipsis in original). During the fourth retelling of the creation myth, the narrator must once again remind Coyote not to believe what she reads in books.

“Well,” I says, “Old Woman falls into that water. So she is in that water. So she looks around and she sees—”

“I know, I know,” says Coyote, “She sees a golden calf!”

“Wrong again,” I says.

“A pillar of salt!” says Coyote.

“Nope,” I says to Coyote.

“A burning bush!” says Coyote.

“Where do you get these things?” I says.

“I read a book,” says Coyote.

“Forget the book,” I says. “We've got a story to tell. And here's how it goes.”


The attitude of the narrator is that books interfere with the storytelling and add nothing. The trickster Coyote, on the other hand, enjoys mischief and distraction more than the orderly relating of the story, and she encourages the chaos that is caused every time books, writing, and Christian rules appear.

In these and many other instances the written text is shown to be the hallmark of irrelevance, error, and nonsense. In contrast, the narrator would lead us to believe that there is a truth conveyed through the oral text—or, if not truth, at least an accurate representation of reality. Evidence of this faith in the superiority of the spoken text has already been seen in the fact that little value is assigned to what is written, or, in extreme cases, in the fact that what is written contradicts what can be “seen” to be true, as in the case of Moby-Jane. Further evidence of the potential truth of storytelling is the fear that is shown of making a mistake. Clearly there is a wrong way to tell the story. In fact, the Lone Ranger makes mistakes in beginning the story four times, and must begin again each time (9-12). Nor are the mistakes taken lightly.

“You have to get it right,” said Hawkeye. …

“Everyone makes mistakes,” said the Lone Ranger.

“Best not to make them with stories.”


Written texts are thoroughly distrusted, and the spoken text is set up as the antithesis.

Although the narrator of Green Grass, Running Water completely undermines the authority of the written text, King's development of the narrator and the narrator's position within the novel allow the reader room to doubt the narrator's authority on that issue. On the most basic level, the authority of the written texts is being dismantled by “oral” stories that are actually not oral at all. They are printed in a book, which is as inflexible as any other book in existence. Even on the first page, where the biblical creation story is supplanted, the humor of the dog/god pun depends on English orthography; it would be nonsense in any other language or if the listener could not spell.6 Likewise, when the narrator proves that Moby-Dick is actually Moby-Jane by pointing to it and asking, “What do you see?” it seems to be forgotten that the story is all just words in a book and no one can see anything. Ironically, this is not forgotten when Coyote and the narrator are discussing Robinson Crusoe's nakedness, for the narrator comments, “At least no one can see him” (325). Furthermore, although the creation story is repeated in order to get it right, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that the right version will ever be told. It would seem, in fact, that just the act of reaching the end of the story immediately necessitates starting over (107, 250, 361, 469). In spite of her concerns about making mistakes and the apparent exasperation at having to start over four times, the narrator also lets slip that “it's all the same story” (163) and “there are no truths … only stories” (432). As much as it is the case that the story needs to be retold “until we get it right” (256), it also seems to be the case that each version of the story is as right as the story will ever get.

One deduces from the zeal with which the story is told and the willingness with which the narrator and Coyote begin again that the end is not the content of the story but the telling itself. Gerald Vizenor recognizes this postmodern aspect of storytelling when he writes, “The very first stories told, the first stories heard, the first imaginative acts and continuous imaginative acts were not consigned to some functional purpose but arose in a burst of enthusiasm and imagination that suited the occasion, that enhance[d] the moment” (1994, 69). The telling of the story becomes an event independent of the previous events of telling the story or of the original event which is presumably the subject of the story. For example, let us consider just one part of the creation story. Each version ends with the incarceration of the woman in Fort Marion. In all, including the version of the history of Fort Marion told by Alberta (14-19), the story is told five times in the novel. Each time it is told, the circumstances have changed. Since the immediate conditions under which the story is told are different in each case, details are also necessarily changed, and ultimately we are told five different Fort Marion stories. Furthermore, we can be sure that none of the five stories agrees exactly with the original event of the deportation of the seventy-one Plains Indians to Florida. This is not surprising, since it is the inflexibility of the written word that is criticized by the narrator. Repeated telling, even at the risk of never reaching the truth or finally getting it right, assures the relevance of the story to the immediate circumstances. In this respect, the oral story has then achieved its final goal of getting it right every time it is told.

Although books and written texts are present in the novel in contrast to the oral story, it is not patent that the written story is not also subject to this same plasticity. Miller writes, “All these moments, at the beginning, along the way, and at ‘the end,’ when the story was written, published and whenever the story is read, are so many historical events. They are moments when language enters life” (110). Even though the words on the page are fixed, each time a book is read, the different audience and circumstances in essence alter the story and create a new event, just as each retelling of a myth is a unique event. As proof of this one could point out that within Green Grass, Running Water there is a “reading” of Moby-Dick which is substantially different from any that this critic has yet found, and yet it is recognizably a reading of the novel. Were Melville's novel truly inflexible, such a reading would not be possible.

By contrasting oral and written modes of telling a story, King shows the story to be fluid and subject to the whims of the audience and storyteller. However, as the text becomes more fluid, it loses its connection to a historical event that could be called its meaning, and the story becomes a historical event in itself. The same transformation can be seen in King's handling of onomastics, the origins of names. In the first version of the creation story we have an account of Adam naming the animals.

Ahdamn is busy. He is naming everything.

You are a microwave oven, Ahdamn tells the Elk.

Nope, says that Elk. Try again.

You are a garage sale, Ahdamn tells the Bear.

We got to get you some glasses, says the Bear.

You are a telephone book, Ahdamn tells the Cedar Tree.

You're getting closer, says the Cedar Tree.

You are a cheeseburger, Ahdamn tells Old Coyote.

It must be time for lunch, says Old Coyote.


Ahdamn is playing the role of the first namer of all things, but he is giving the wrong names to them. In King's short story “One Good Story, That One” there is a slightly different version of this same episode.

I think [Ahdamn] is busy then, writing things down. All the animals' names he writes somewhere, I don't know. Pretty boring that.

Deer come by, says Me-a-loo.

Elk come by, says Pa-pe-o.

Blue-flower-berry come by, says Tsling-ta.

Ahdamn not so smart like Evening, that one thinks Blue-flower-berry is animal, maybe.

Dog come by, says A-ma-po.

Raven come by, says Ne-co-tah.

Coyote come by, says Klee-qua.

Snail come by, says E-too. …

Boy, all worn out. All those animals come by. Coyote come by maybe four, maybe eight times. Gets dressed up, fool around.

Says Piisto-pa.

Says Ho-ta-go.

Says Woho-i-kee.

Says Caw-ho-ha.

Ha, ha, ha, ha.

Tricky one, that Coyote. Walks in circles. Sneaky.

That Ahdamn not so smart.


In “One Good Story, That One” there are two names given to each animal, except Coyote, who gets at least six, a different one every time she circles around. Furthermore, given the context of this episode—the storyteller is duping white anthropologists by telling them their own story7—and given that Ahdamn is not so smart, there are grounds to suspect that the Blackfoot names do not even correspond to the English names within the episode (see Atwood, 249). Rather than being the one who gives the animals their names, Ahdamn of both versions is deluding himself, wasting time, and showing his ignorance of the real names of things.

Since in Green Grass, Running Water God is a creation of Coyote and therefore not truly in the beginning, and since in “One Good Story, That One” we have two or more (perhaps wrong) names given to every animal, it cannot be, as Walter Benjamin writes, that “God rested when he had left his creative power to itself in man. This creativity, relieved of its divine actuality, became knowledge. Man is the knower in the same language in which God is creator” (746). The names that Ahdamn gives the animals are not their proper names, inherent in the animals themselves, and of which Ahdamn received divine knowledge. The names seem rather to be already established and agreed upon without our being able to pinpoint a historical moment when the names were first given. Even names for objects which are not yet invented—microwave ovens or garage sales, for example—are already in circulation. The case seems rather to be that, as Ferdinand de Saussure writes:

No matter what period we choose or how far back we go, language always appears as a heritage of the preceding period. We might conceive of an act by which, at a given moment, names were assigned to things and a contract was formed between concepts and sound-images; but such an act has never been recorded. The notion that things might have happened like that was prompted by our acute awareness of the arbitrary nature of the sign.

No society, in fact, knows or has ever known language other than as a product inherited from preceding generations, and one to be accepted as such.


The narrator does not justify the correctness of the names of objects or trace the names back to a mythical prime namer. However, there seems to be a consensus that certain objects have certain names. This is consistent with Saussure's above argument and his argument that it is the arbitrariness of the sign that protects it from attempts to be modified (73). Since there is nothing but a consensus binding a word to an object, Ahdamn's attempt to rename objects is ridiculous and essentially ignored.

Ironically, if by the time First Woman/Evening and Ahdamn arrive in the garden a consensus has already been reached as to the names of objects, this places the beginning of language before the beginning of the creation story. As odd as this may seem, it is actually not any stranger than the statement, “In the beginning, there was nothing. Just the water. Coyote was there.” Creation, apparently, is a historical event that predates itself. Without a concrete historical event to relate, it comes as little surprise that the creation story is very difficult to get right, while at the same time it is right every time. Liberated from an original event, the story becomes as arbitrary as the sign, which cannot be traced back to any original act of naming. Just as Miller begins to see more retellings of Hawthorne's “twice-told” tales, extending infinitely into the future, the story releases itself from responsibility to an original historical event, becomes a historical event in itself, and, in its culturally agreed-upon form, spawns its own future forms. Like “One Good Story,” the story of Ahdamn and Evening has grown out of a sacred Christian story, become an Indian creation story, and through the white anthropologists will only continue to be preserved and transformed in the volumes of Authentic Native American Mythology, ad infinitum. As Vizenor writes, “Last words are never the end” (1979, xiii). The final authority of the story lies not in its origin or in its “Native” author or content, but in its arbitrary relationship to its own content.


  1. Krupat bases his usage of this phrase on Barbara Johnson's article “Rigorous Unreliability.”

  2. As a point of comparison we might look at another historical moment when the academy's interest in oral cultures peaked: during the Romantic movement in Germany. The Brothers Grimm insisted that the fairy tales they recorded had an immutable form which was orally transmitted with fidelity through generations and over centuries. Wilhelm Grimm writes in a preface to Kinder-und Hausmärchen, for example: “[A] happy piece of luck was the acquaintance with a peasant woman from the village of Zwehrn near Kassel. … Those who believe that oral narratives are routinely falsified, that they are not carefully preserved, and that long recitations are, as a rule, impossible, should have the chance to hear how precisely she stays with each story and how keen she is to narrate correctly; when she retells something, she never changes its substance and corrects an error as soon as she notices it, even if it means interrupting herself. Devotion to tradition is far stronger among people who always adhere to the same way of life than we (who tend to want change) can understand” (212). Goethe illustrates his idea of how this transmission of tradition is so perfectly achieved in Götz von Berlichingen, where Maria teaches her young nephew the story of the pious child. She corrects the nephew when he makes mistakes in wording, even when the mistakes do not affect the content of the story (act 1, the “Jagsthausen” scene). Ironically, it always seems to be the literati and not the storytellers who most passionately make the case for the immutability and truth of the orally transmitted story.

  3. For a complete history of the incarceration of the Plains Indians at Fort Marion, see Karen Daniels Petersen and Edwin L. Wade.

  4. It is not clear in the novel whether the “I” narrator is relating the myths, as is implied on page 3, or whether the stories are being told by the four Old Indians, as implied on page 9. For the sake of clarity, I will attribute all four versions of the story to the narrator “I.”

  5. While the Bible does in fact state this, to be fair to Paul, I will quote the remainder of the verse: “… likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does” (Standard Revised Version). A more commonly quoted (and equally out of context) verse justifying woman's subservience to man is 1 Corinthians 11:8, “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man.” The equalizing and usually overlooked verse is 1 Corinthians 11:11-12, “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.” The practice of using Bible verses out of context is one of Christendom's more ignoble traditions. Laura E. Donaldson makes the same arguments for woman's subordination to man, her sinfulness, and the evil of talking to animals, trees and boats using 1 Timothy 2:11-14 (Donaldson, 34-35) and Leviticus (Donaldson, 41n). She also argues that Noah's and Young Man Walking on Water's rules are not in the spirit of the Scriptures but can only be seen as representing an overly literal reading of a few passages, taken out of context. Of the rather misogynistic verses in 1 Timothy, for example, she writes, “Mainstream biblical scholarship has reached a consensus that this [passage] does not articulate the homogenous position of the New Testament Church” (35).

  6. Another orthographic pun, which would pose quite a challenge to an oral narrator, is Ahab's unpronounceable cry, “Whaleswhaleswhaleswhalesbianswhalesbianswhaleswhales!” (219).

  7. Vizenor writes that “Tricksters have become anthropologists if only long enough to overturn their theories and turn them into cold shit” (1994, 70). Taking the narrator of this story as a cue, perhaps we should read the narrator and Coyote of Green Grass, Running Water as Native anthropologists anthologizing Western literature after their own fashion. After all, even in literary criticism, one can always begin again, as King himself suggests in the closing paragraph of “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial.” After proposing a four-part exegetical tool that might bypass some of the more dangerous premises of the postcolonial model, he concludes, “And it may be that these terms will not do in the end at all” (16). Like retelling of the story itself, perhaps reinterpretation ensures the relevance of the criticism to the immediate circumstances and achieves the final goal of getting it right every time.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. “Bringing Home the Fact: Tradition and Continuity in the Imagination.” In Swann, pp. 563-79.

Atwood, Margaret. “A Double-Bladed Knife: Subversive Laughter in Two Stories by Thomas King.” Canadian Literature, 124-125 (1990), pp. 243-50.

Benjamin, Walter. “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man.” In Critical Theory Since Plato. Hazard Adams, ed. San Diego. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1992. Pp. 743-49.

Cornell, George L. “The Imposition of Western Definitions of Literature on Indian Oral Traditions.” In The Native in Literature. Thomas King, Cheryl Calver, and Helen Hoy, eds. Oakville, Ont. ECW. 1987. Pp. 174-87.

Donaldson, Laura E. “Noah Meets Old Coyote, or Singing in the Rain: Intertextuality in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water.SAIL, 7:2 (1995), pp. 27-43.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Götz von Berlichingen. Stuttgart. Reclam. 1984.

Grimm, Wilhelm. “Preface.” Maria Tatar, tr. In The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press. 1987.

Hobson, Geary, ed. The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature. Albuquerque. University of New Mexico Press. 1979.

Johnson, Barbara. “Rigorous Unreliability.” Critical Inquiry, 11 (1984), pp. 278-85.

King, Thomas. “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial.” World Literature Written in English, 30:2 (1990), pp. 10-16.

———. Green Grass, Running Water. New York. Bantam. 1994.

———. “One Good Story, That One.” Malahat Review, 82 (1988), pp. 38-43.

Krupat, Arnold. “Post-Structuralism and Oral Literature.” In Swann, pp. 113-28.

Miller, J. Hillis. Hawthorne and History. Cambridge, Ma. Blackwell. 1991.

Momaday, N. Scott. “The Man Made of Words.” In Hobson, pp. 162-73.

Petersen, Karen Daniels. Plains Indian Art from Fort Marion. Norman. University of Oklahoma Press. 1971.

Ramsey, Jarold. Reading the Fire. Lincoln. University of Nebraska Press. 1983.

Ruppert, James. Mediation in Contemporary Native American Fiction. Norman. University of Oklahoma Press. 1995.

Sanders, Thomas E., and Walter W. Peek. Literature of the American Indian. Beverly Hills, Ca. Glencoe. 1973.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, eds. New York. McGraw-Hill. 1966.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. “An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts. Part One: Imitation ‘Indian’ Poems; Part Two: Gary Snyder's Turtle Island.” In Hobson, pp. 211-16.

Simard, Rodney. “American Indian Literatures, Authenticity, and the Canon.” World Literature Today, 66:2 (Spring 1992), pp. 243-48.

Swann, Brian, and Arnold Krupat, eds. Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Berkeley. University of California Press. 1987.

Vizenor, Gerald, ed. Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures. Albuquerque. University of New Mexico Press. 1989.

———. “Trickster Discourse: Comic and Tragic Themes in Native American Literature.” In Buried Roots and Indestructible Seeds: The Survival of American Indian Life in Story, History, and Spirit. Mark A. Lindquist and Martin Zanger, eds. Madison. University of Wisconsin Press. 1994. Pp. 67-83.

Wade, Edwin L., and Jacki Thompson Rand. “The Subtle Art of Resistance: Encounter and Accommodation in the Art of Fort Marion.” In Plains Indian Drawings 1865-1935: Pages from a Visual History. Janet Catherine Berlo, ed. New York. Abrams. 1996. Pp. 45-49.

Wiget, Andrew. “Identity, Voice, and Authority: Artist-Audience Relations in Native American Literature.” World Literature Today, 66:2 (Spring 1992), pp. 258-63.

Patricia Linton (essay date spring 1999)

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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 knowledge that encompasses and exceeds the knowledge of individual characters.

We encounter scholar-narrators in such texts as N. Scott Momaday's The Ancient Child as well as Gerald Vizenor's Griever and The Heirs of Columbus. The narrator of The Ancient Child provides epigraphs from Kiowa, Navajo, and Sioux oral texts as well as from Jorge Luis Borges, Yvor Winters, and an ethnographic dictionary of the Navajo language. At the core of the novel is the Kiowa story of Tsoai, but embedded within the narrative are lines from Emily Dickinson's work, lines from Bizet's Carmen, and references to Kafka as well as to Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid Suite. The English-language text is laced with Spanish, French, and diné bizaad, the Navajo language. Vizenor's Griever draws upon popular and scholarly sources dealing with Chinese history and literature. In The Heirs of Columbus, Vizenor incorporates tribal history and narrative, quotations from such diverse sources as Samuel Pepys' diary and Albert Hyamson's history The Sephardim of England, and references to the music of Dvor̆ák. In both Griever and The Heirs of Columbus, Vizenor appends an epilogue that details sources for the narrative; in Heirs, the epilogue succeeds the narrative text with no break in the third-person narration.

I borrow the term “literati narrator” to link the task undertaken by scholar-narrators in these contemporary Native American novels with that of writers in another nonwestern tradition, the literati or scholar novelists of classical Chinese prose fiction. Studies by Andrew H. Plaks, Anthony C. Yu, and C. T. Hsia of the literati novelists in China in the period from the late fifteenth through the sixteenth century foreground three characteristics that resonate with the narrative persona developed in contemporary Native American fiction: their emergence in the context of broad cultural ferment, their sense of responsibility to the traditions from which they drew, and their self-conscious attention to form (Plaks 25-36). The literati novelists wrote at the interface of oral and written narrative traditions. Each of the long masterworks of Ming narrative had an extensive history in folklore and oral tradition, as well as antecedent written sources.1 The scholar novelists of the period were conscious of their responsibilities to well-developed artistic and popular legacies, as well as to new and diverse audiences. According to Plaks, the narrative patterns of the Ming masterworks reflect the “burden of culture” felt by their authors, who shared a commitment to the “struggle to define the relationship of the latter-day artist to his ancient heritage” (50). As a result, their works exhibit a high degree of experimentation and a distinctive narrative surface in which genres blend and the voice of the literati narrator is often elided with that of the implied author.

The cultural concerns and the narrative strategies of these sixteenth-century writers parallel those of contemporary ethnic novelists, particularly writers in the borderlands where alternative cultural traditions interact. The narrators of the Ming texts exhibit a combination of “high wit and deep seriousness” (Plaks 25). Issues engaged in the text are philosophically and socially significant, but the discourse also has a lively surface, designed to appeal to an educated reader. Associated with their wit is a sense of playfulness with respect to the medium; literati novels were directed toward a narrower readership than the popular fiction of the day and exhibit a tendency toward innovation and experimentation with the genre. Finally, the voice of the literati narrator conveys an explicit consciousness of past artistic tradition. The surface play includes, although it is not limited to, allusions and commentary focusing on art and literature.

In the discourse of the contemporary literati narrator, there is a similar element of display, but it is display with an ideological edge. In Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water (1993), as in much contemporary American fiction in which alterity is an issue, the narrator demonstrates an insider's knowledge of two cultures: the heritage that defines a discrete cultural or ethnic community and the dominant culture's Euro-American tradition. Moreover, the narrator of Green Grass, Running Water commands not only the broad spectrum of general culture but also the high culture of literary and other artistic production. The narrator shows (or shows off) a mastery of both realms, speaking not only as one who is knowledgeable but as one who is capable of educating others. The discourse of the narrator has multiple objectives—not least of which is to inform, to impress, and to challenge the reader. In other words, part of what occurs in the discursive space is a highly elaborated self-authorization in which the narrator establishes his range and expertise.

As a result, the reciprocal characterization of the ideal reader is narrowed: the truly competent reader is a member of a narrow group who, like the narrator, has insider-status in two cultural realms. In his analysis of the contemporary Native American novel, Owens observes that whenever the Native American writer composes in a culturally alien form—like the novel—he or she demonstrates expertise in Euro-American literary culture. Two classes of readers have specialized experience that prepares them to interpret the resulting text: “those few with privileged knowledge—the traditionally educated Indian reader—as well as those with claim to a privileged discourse—the Eurocentric reader” (Owens 14). But only a reader with both kinds of expertise can expect to be truly competent. In one respect or another, most readers who take up the book will find themselves unable to comprehend it completely.

Although the narrator's display of erudition challenges both readers knowledgeable about Euro-American literature and readers grounded in an alternative culture, it works primarily to the benefit of the nondominant, nonwestern cultural community by protecting it from the “mastery” of the elite Western reader. As Doris Sommer argues, members of a “mainstream” audience, their reading honed by years of privileged training, may acquire a sense of entitlement, an expectation that every text will sooner or later yield to their enthusiastic embrace. By demonstrating a scholar's knowledge of both the dominant tradition and an alternative heritage, the literati narrator prompts this kind of reader to recognize and respect barriers to easy assimilation. In Sommer's words, such narrators “assume that their own positionality is primary and that access to it is limited. [… T]heir texts refuse to run to meet the reader” (“Resistant” 530).

Texts may resist assimilation in a variety of ways. Sommer focuses particularly on texts that deflect a reader's will to power by means of silence, evasiveness, and refusal to elaborate (“Textual” 145-49). But texts may also discipline their audiences to recognize cultural difference and accept modest goals of readerly competence by narrative display of intellectual virtuosity, remoteness, or even excess. Privileged western readers, Sommer observes, often assume that texts beg to be understood (“Resistant” 542); in fact, however, some texts make their points by using exactly the opposite strategy—by confronting readers with their own inability to comprehend.

In King's Green Grass, Running Water, the literati narrator's wide-ranging use of Euro-American texts and contexts can be seductive, an apparent invitation to comprehension by cultural outsiders that in the end seems clearly counter to the novel's intentions. Although he is aware that the bulk of his readership is not Native, King has made it clear that the “insider” audience for his fiction consists of Native readers: “I really don't care about the white audiences. They don't have an understanding of the intricacies of Native life, and I don't think they're much interested in it, quite frankly” (qtd. in Vizenor, Manifest Manners 174). His comments suggest not only that familiarity with Native experience (including the traditions of oral literature) is crucial for entry into his fiction, but that a fuller understanding of Native ideology—“the intricacies of Native life”—is required for genuine competence. King affirms that his sense of a Native audience sustains his writing, and that on behalf of that audience he withholds information that might accommodate outsiders at their expense. Part of his responsibility to the Native community is to preserve silences, to avoid telling too much (Rooke 73). “The deadly serious object of the game,” as Sommer argues, “is to stop us short” (“Resistant” 547). King's description of his own practice parallels Sommer's observation that strategic barriers in the text distance the normally privileged Euro-American reader:

It does presuppose the white audience is going to be there. But it also reminds the Native audience that you're not telling too much, that you're not hanging out the laundry as it were. Native audiences know much of this and nothing else needs to be said. It's a tricky thing, because […] as you create those silences, in part you create them to place closure on those prying eyes that are looking in. And those aren't Native eyes for the most part. But it also provides the Native community with that sense of being on the inside.

(qtd. in Rooke 74)

Other kinds of insider readings are possible but are not privileged in the same way. King's novel encompasses political contexts which define Canadians against the negative examples of United States history and popular culture, but at the same time situate the First Nation peoples of Canada as other in relation to Euro-Canadian culture. Thus, the positioning of individual characters and groups of characters with respect to the dominant culture is unstable. On occasion, King's Native characters identify themselves as Canadian. Latisha and George Morningstar—whose name Latisha likes because it sounds slightly Indian, although George is not (King 143)—articulate the tensions of their marriage in terms of a nationalistic debate focusing on the differences between Canadians and U.S. Americans. Before George's psychological imperialism and Latisha's strained forbearance lead to the collapse of the relationship, Latisha is reduced to whispering in the dark to her infant son “a chant, a mantra, ‘You are a Canadian. You are a Canadian. You are a Canadian’” (176).

While King acknowledges that his material is Canadian,2 he disavows a fundamental concern with nationalism or with distinctions between the Euro-American cultures of the United States and Canada:

I guess I'm supposed to say that I believe in the line that exists between the U.S. and Canada, but for me it's an imaginary line. It's a line from somebody else's imagination; it's not my imagination. It divided people like the Mohawk into Canadian Mohawks and U.S. Mohawks. They're the same people. It divided the Blackfoot who live in Browning from the Blackfoot who live at Standoff, for example. So the line is a political line, that border line. It wasn't there before the Europeans came.

(qtd. in Rooke 72)

In Green Grass, Running Water, when Lionel Red Dog, “Canadian citizen, government employee, and status Blackfoot Indian” (King 62), gets caught up inadvertently in the series of confrontations between AIM (American Indian Movement) activists and agents of the United States government that culminates at Wounded Knee, Lionel's allegiance to his Native identity ultimately costs him his place in the Canadian government. Later in the novel, the narrative “I” offers a bitter parody of the words of the Canadian National Anthem (“O Canada, our home and native land …”) that articulates Native resentment of exploitation by Canadian Europeans:

“I know that song,” says Coyote. “Hosanna da, in-in the highest, hosanna da forever …”

“You got the wrong song,” I says. “This song goes ‘Hosanna da, our home on Natives' land.’”

“Oh,” says Coyote. “That song.”

(King 299)

The title of the novel is itself a metonymic allusion to the bad faith that separates Native and European Americans. It is a coded reminder of a history of appropriation and the instability of European intentions: “As long as the grass is green and the waters run. It was a nice phrase, all right. But it didn't mean anything. It was a metaphor. Eli knew that. Every Indian on the reserve knew that. Treaties were hardly sacred documents. They were contracts, and no one signed a contract for eternity.” In contemporary usage, the meaning of the phrase has been inverted: it is understood to mean “not forever.” But the slippage has occurred not so much in the text as the context—not the “forever” of sacred documents, but the “forever” of contracts, which Eli figures is at best five or ten years (King 296).

The title phrase resonates throughout the narrative as a code for betrayal, but betrayal compounded so many times that it has become predictable. In the mouths of Native characters, the phrase expresses bitter humor. As Charlie Looking Bear watches a romance on television, he feels lonely and finds himself wishing his sometime lover, Alberta Frank, were with him. In the television drama, the chief and his white captive declare their love: “‘My darling,’ the woman on the television was saying, ‘I don't ever want to leave your side.’ ‘As long as the grass is green and the waters run,’ said the chief, holding her in his arms” (King 234). This scene, fraught with inversions and contradictions, may represent a scriptwriter's facile expression of an Indian's heartfelt “forever,” which to a Native would actually mean “as long as it suits me,” which in the context of gender relations hints at yet another stereotypical betrayal. In a different thread of the plot, a white landowner tries to convince Eli Stands Alone to move his cabin. Bursum, the entrepreneur, comments, “Can't stay there forever,” to which Eli replies: “As long as the grass is green and the waters run” (295). Eli's retort encapsulates in sardonic humor his intention to stay, his awareness that the white establishment can displace him any time it decides to change the rules in its own favor, and his implicit accusation that the effort to take his own small plot reiterates the larger historical displacement of Native Americans from their tribal lands.

In Green Grass, Running Water, the narrative “I” is the voice of a trickster, the companion or alter ego of coyote. The complex narration proceeds on two levels that gradually converge. The “inner” story space offers a narrative about a group of Canadian Blackfoot characters, who are drawn back to their reservation for the annual Sun Dance. Interspersed are conversations among six transcendent characters who are attempting both to tell a proper story, from the beginning, and to “fix up the world” (133) by intervening in the lives of the characters in the inner story. These transcendent figures include four Native elders (masquerading as Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye, but actually avatars of First Woman, Changing Woman, Thought Woman, and Old Woman) who have escaped from a government-run sanatorium in the United States, as well as the trickster Coyote and the narrative “I”.

Yet describing the story space as divided into two intersecting planes or fields is in some respects a mistake. Although the two sets of characters have different ontological statuses, the perception that they share the same world is an important element of Native ideology. In Grandmothers of the Light, Paula Gunn Allen writes that, for Native Americans, myths are “accounts of actual interchanges” involving transcendent beings (6). Such figures do not function as metaphors or representations of psychological realities, but share with humans the landscape of ordinary life:

Though [myths] function on a number of levels of significance, as is the nature of all literature, they are factual accounts. They inform consciousness and direct awareness within as well as without, and they connect with deep levels of being, not because the figures they tell about are immaterial denizens of the shadowy world of the unconscious, but because the supernaturals live within the same environs that humans occupy, and interchanges with them are necessarily part of the fabric of human experience.

(Allen 7)

In its reticence on the status of the transcendent characters, the novel illustrates Sommer's argument that a “minority” text may demonstrate a “strategic refusal to accommodate the reader” (“Textual” 149). The “mainstream” reader likely to make up much of the audience is, according to Sommer, “marked precisely as [a] stranger, incapable of—or undesirable for—conspiratorial intimacy” (150). This barrier, however, may be virtually invisible to outsiders because, at the same time, the novel does accommodate the reader with every diversion except access to private space. Critically informed readers have a variety of concepts available to account for talking animals, shapeshifters, extraordinary appearances and disappearances—concepts such as metaphor, metanarrative, magical realism, all of which are called to mind by the novel's self-consciousness about its own devices.

Throughout the novel two threads of narrative can be traced, both recounted by the narrative “I,” with commentary from Coyote. In one narrative line, Coyote and the narrator are involved in conversation with the four elders as each one in turn attempts to tell a proper origin story. Simultaneously, the six transcendent characters are on the move, traveling toward Canada from the hospital where they pass their time between interventions in the lives of ordinary humans—in this instance, the lives of the Canadian Blackfoot characters. The “I” of the novel is explicitly conscious of responsibility for both levels of narration: “‘But maybe they'll give us a ride,’ says Coyote. ‘No time for that,’ I says. ‘We've got to get back to the other story’” (King 261).

As the separate threads of plot finally intertwine, ordinary human characters engage in everyday conversation with the four elders, but do not “hear” the origin stories. It is not clear that humans see or hear Coyote and “I” at all. When Coyote speaks directly to an ordinary human, the response is typically mediated by one of the elders, although, on one occasion, Lionel Red Dog dimly perceives “a yellow dog dancing in the rain” (King 309). The different ontological status of the characters is reflected in the narrative by different structures of tense. Coyote and “I” always speak in present tense. The narrator's accounts of the human characters are reported in past tense. The activities of the four elders are sometimes in past tense and sometimes in present tense, depending on the context. When the elders interact with humans, the text records their speech and behavior in past tense, like human activity.

The following long passage illustrates the intricacies of these textual representations. In this scene, the narrator reports a conversation involving Native characters (Lionel Red Dog, Charlie Looking Bear, and Eli Stands Alone), a non-Native character (Bill Bursum), the four elders, and Coyote. The elders present Lionel with a birthday present: a leather jacket belonging to the film representation of John Wayne—not the intact jacket worn by the actor John Wayne in the Hollywood version of the movie, but the bullet-ridden jacket worn by the representation of John Wayne in the film “fixed” by the elders:

Bursum put the tape into the VCR and hit the play button.

“Watch this,” he said, and settled against the wall. […]

“A movie!” says Coyote. “I love movies.”

“Hey, Bill,” said Charlie. “What's on?” […]

“Come and join us, grandson,” said the Lone Ranger.

“Bring your uncle and your cousin.”

“Maybe we should give Lionel his birthday present before we start,” said Hawkeye. […]

Lionel took the package reluctantly and unwrapped it.

“Look at that,” said Bursum. “That's a really nice gift.”

“Let me see,” says Coyote. “Let me see.”

Lionel held it up. It was a jacket. A leather jacket. […]

“Looks old,” said Bursum. “It's got a couple of holes here in the back, but nothing serious.” […]

“We got to sing ‘Happy Birthday,’” says Coyote. “We can't have a party without singing ‘Happy Birthday.’”

“I guess you're right, Coyote,” said the Lone Ranger. “We better sing ‘Happy Birthday.’”

“Sure,” said Charlie, trying to keep from smiling. “Let's sing.”

(King 334-35)

This passage verifies the physical presence of the elders in the finite human realm (where their speech and action is represented in the past tense). Moreover, they materialize in human space (where it is palpable to human characters, including the non-Native Bursum) something drawn from a mythic or narrative realm: the bullet-torn jacket worn by John Wayne's character in a movie western that never existed until the elders altered the videotape to allow the Indians rather than the whites to win the final gun battle. But Coyote's comments are always rendered in the eternal present tense, and his interactions with humans are always mediated by one of the elders, in this case Lone Ranger.

The narrator has knowledge of the finite experience of the human characters, but is positioned among the transcendent characters and has access to their timeless experience as well. When Coyote talks with the elders or the elders talk with one another in the transcendent space, their dialogue and action are rendered in present tense:

Have you got it straight? says Robinson Crusoe.

Sure, says Thought Woman, I'll be Robinson Crusoe. You can be Friday.

But I don't want to be Friday, says Robinson Crusoe.

No point in being Robinson Crusoe all your life, says Thought Woman. It couldn't be much fun.

It would be a lot more fun if you would stop being stubborn, says Robinson Crusoe.

All things considered, says Thought Woman, I'd rather be floating. And she dives into the ocean and floats away.


The trickster narration by “I” encompasses the “omniscient” narration by each of the four elders as well as the narrator's own omniscient account of the Blackfoot characters. But a hierarchical relationship between the narrator and the elders or the elders and the ordinary characters is difficult to establish. The fact that the transcendent characters are always trying to get their stories right and are never fully satisfied with their efforts, plus the fact that the elders' interventions (“thirty-seven times that we know of” [49]) to “fix up the world” always result in cataclysms—the volcanic eruption at Krakatau in 1883; the stock market crash of October 1929; the volcanic eruption at Mount Saint Helens in 1980; the fire in Yellowstone National Park in 1988—suggests that the transcendent characters are hardly godlike in the western or the Christian sense. The tricksters really can affect the ordinary world by intervening, but they cannot control their interventions in order to make particular things happen, only to add new circumstances to the mix. Indeed, these trickster figures joke about the idea of omniscience, in an exchange that has both metaphysical and metafictional implications:

“How long do we have to wait?” said Robinson Crusoe.

“Not long,” said the Lone Ranger.

“Are you being omniscient again?” said Hawkeye.

“I think so,” said the Lone Ranger.

“I was afraid of that,” said Robinson Crusoe.

“What else would you like to know?” said the Lone Ranger.


As the novel closes, the narrative “I” is about to participate in the round of origin stories by beginning a new rendition; however, there is no sense that this version will be more authoritative or omniscient than any of the others. The closing conversation defers the possibility that stories or lives can have a singular origin or a definitive endpoint. Like the stories of the previous Native American tellers, and, indeed, like the introductory conversation between Coyote and the narrative “I” which prefaces the four elders' versions, the final exchange explicitly rejects the proposition that in the beginning there was nothing. As Laura E. Donaldson points out, King throughout the novel “comically conflates the so-called earth diver creation stories” (32), which begin with the world covered with water and in which one of the first tasks of creation is the formation of land, and a variety of Native American earth mother figures, among them Sky Woman and Changing Woman (37). Native American creation stories typically do not address or regard as a problem the existence of something (often a world covered with water) before creation. The issue of alternative versions of origin is raised at the novel's beginning and end, and repeatedly in conversation among the transcendent characters, with the text's closing lines echoing its introduction:

“Okay, okay, here goes,” says Coyote. “In the beginning, there was nothing.”


“That's right,” says Coyote. “Nothing.”

“No,” I says. “In the beginning, there was just the water.” […]

“Okay,” says Coyote, “if you say so. But where did all the water come from?”

“Sit down,” I says to Coyote.

“But there is water everywhere,” says Coyote.

“That's true,” I says. “And here's how it happened.”

(King 469)

Donaldson suggests that Coyote's insistence on the logic that something has to be first reflects hierarchical thinking and thus conflicts with Native emphasis on multiplicity and reciprocity: “The comedic bickering over the content of human beginnings serves a very important function since it suggests that the monotheist version of creatio ex nihilo—creation of the earth from nothing—achieves its singular and univocal status only by suppressing all other voices in this highly contested terrain” (32). The concept of the divine or the transcendent is not invested in a singular manifestation, nor are creatures given priority or dominion over one another. An origin story addresses some beginnings, not the beginning. Origin stories tell the truth, but the truth is in the telling, not in the match between the story and a singular set of facts which predates it. Thus the enthusiasm for retelling, reflected in the narrator's repeated comment, “‘Oh, boy […] It looks like we got to do this all over again’” (250, 468).

Gerald Vizenor argues that tricksters disrupt the coherence of cause-and-effect relationships. Fictional representations of trickster figures, however, are often mere “silhouettes,” unable to convey the radical contradictions that render the idea of strict order impossible or funny: “Nominal tricksters are silhouettes in most commercial literature, the concoctions of the other rather than causal contradictions” (Manifest 173). But Vizenor cites Green Grass, Running Water as an example of “trickster survivance in literature,” his term suggesting something stronger and more assertive than mere survival (173). The text demonstrates complex patterns of coherence, without suggesting cause-and-effect relationships as the basis for connection. King himself, in an interview focusing on his earlier novel, Medicine River, has indicated his resistance to making connections inside or outside the text serve as keys to interpretation: “I don't try to make these layers and linkages line up perfectly or to use them to point to a moral” (qtd. in Rooke 65).

Even in the first half of Green Grass, Running Water, when the transcendent characters and the ordinary humans have not yet begun to interact in the same space/time, the text establishes correlations among them. Although they do not appear to be in dialogue, in the ordinary sense, the text represents a communal reciprocity among them, a shared consciousness, by means of echoes linking one strand of narrative with another. These textual echoes function in a variety of different ways. Sometimes, for example, they consist of exact repetitions of language. The quips about omniscience in the conversation involving Robinson Crusoe, Lone Ranger, and Hawkeye, cited above, end with the line: “‘What else would you like to know?’ said the Lone Ranger.” After a white space, but on the same page, the narrative returns to the story of the ordinary human characters, as Babo Jones is interviewed by Sergeant Cereno: “‘What else would you like to know?’ said Babo” (King 51).

Other textual echoes involve not so much exact language as contested ideology that is at issue both in transcendent space and human space. Clustered bits of narration coalesce around issues that affect not just the lives of individuals but the life of the community as a whole. For example, one of the issues that emerges from the conflict among myths in the alternative origin stories is the western insistence on rules, specifically rules promulgated to establish and maintain social hierarchies. In the transcendent space, biblical mythology reflects the rule-making authority of the male deity and patriarchs like Noah. In the world of human activity, Native characters find that the rule-making authority of the dominant culture always works against them, exerting constant pressure to force them to yield to the interests of the Euro-American majority, never reciprocal pressure to force Euro-Americans to respect the principles of Native culture.

In one fifteen-page span of text, the narrative wanders back and forth among four contexts in which hierarchical oppression by the rule of law is portrayed. Eli Stands Alone resists the power of the state to appropriate the land on which his family's cabin sits. Every day he is visited by the representative of the province, Sifton, who recites the state's demand (formulated, in politically correct legal language, as a request): “I am required by law to respectfully request that you relinquish your claim to this house and the land on which it sits and that title to this property be properly vested with the province of Alberta” (154). Interspersed within Eli's conversation with Sifton is a narrative of his memory of an incident in his teenage years when he first began to understand the one-sidedness of western law. An outsider surreptitiously took photographs of the annual Sun Dance. Pressured by the adults of the tribe to give up the roll of film, the man managed a switch, giving them an unused roll: “Leroy had copied down the man's license number. He called the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] and explained what had happened, but there was little they could do about it, they said. The man hadn't broken any laws” (King 157).

The narrative then shifts to the transcendent characters, to Ishmael's story of Changing Woman, who has the bad luck to encounter Noah when she falls out of the sky. Noah assumes that anything that falls from the sky must be meant for him; he asserts that Changing Woman is his new wife and demands to see her breasts. Noah's brutish bullying is set against his conviction that everyone else's behavior is shocking:

Don't do it, says one of the Turtles. He'll just get excited and rock the canoe.

I have no intention of showing him my breasts, says Changing Woman.

Talking to the animals again, shouts Noah. That's almost bestiality, and it's against the rules.

What rules?

Christian rules.


As she begins to understand the self-serving nature of Noah's law, Changing Woman comments, “We got to get rid of those rules” (162). But Noah abandons her on an island, his parting condemnation incorporating an allusion to Canadian novelist Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage: “This is a Christian ship, he shouts. I am a Christian man. This is a Christian journey. And if you can't follow our Christian rules, then you're not wanted on the voyage” (King 163). At this point, the narrative shifts again to human space, to Charlie Looking bear renting a car to drive to the Sun Dance festival. The textual bridge is again the Euro-American culture's obsession with rules, in large matters and small: “Initial here that you've read the rules, here that you don't want the special no-deductible insurance waiver, and sign at the bottom” (163).

This sequence illustrates the subtle positioning of different circles of readership, with different kinds of privilege. In this relatively brief passage, non-Native readers are not so much excluded from understanding as diverted. The text addresses at least four different categories of readers with some claim to insider knowledge. Always at the core are Native readers who react against the “request” that Eli relinquish his family's home and the sacrilege of photographing the Sun Dance, but take particular delight in Changing Woman's rebuff of Noah. Her firmness in the face of Christian patriarchy also resonates with feminist readers. And, finally, the intertextual play on the title and subject matter of Findley's 1985 novel privileges both Canadian readers and literary insiders. Similar juxtapositions of different kinds of privileged information occur throughout the novel. Readers who know the names Henry Dawes and John Eliot are advantaged, as are those who know that it is best not to place a razor in the hands of a character named Babo. The text rewards different competencies, but it denies mastery to most readers, particularly those not informed about the histories and cultures of Natives in North America. For all the cleverness of the surface play, the coherence of the narrative depends fundamentally upon the reader's recognition of a Native worldview.

Another ideological thread woven throughout the fabric of the novel is the idea of making mistakes. The narrative suggests that some mistakes are more important than others, but challenges expectation of perfection, whether inherent or achieved. The assumed perfection of the biblical god is undercut in a variety of ways. Coyote equates this god with a dream that thinks it is in charge of the world but gets things wrong: “‘Isn't that cute,’ says Coyote. ‘That Dog Dream is a contrary. That Dog Dream has everything backward’” (King 2). God is petty, shouting hysterically about being transcribed as a little god instead of a big one: G O D. Naming, like everything else, should happen according to rules. G O D believes that stories should be told only one way, but G O D's origin story is contradicted by everyone else's, and G O D's lieutenants are manifestly incompetent:

Ahdamn is busy. He is naming everything.

You are a microwave oven, Ahdamn tells the Elk.

Nope, says that Elk. Try again.

You are a garage sale, Ahdamn tells the Bear.

We got to get you some glasses, says the Bear.

You are a telephone book, Ahdamn tells the Cedar tree.

You're getting closer, says the Cedar Tree.


Like language focusing on rules, language dealing with mistakes links fragments of narrative situated in different space/time contexts. The first fragment of text dealing with ordinary human characters records a conversation between Lionel Red Dog and his aunt Norma about choosing carpet:

“I don't know,” said Norma. “The green's nice too. Don't want to make a mistake, you know. […] You make a mistake with carpet, and you got to live with it for a long time.”

“Everybody makes mistakes, auntie.”

“Best not to make one with carpet.”

(King 8)

A short time later, the narrative records a dialogue about storytelling among the transcendent characters. Lone Ranger is having trouble beginning an origin story and is challenged by the others:

“But it's my turn,” said the Lone Ranger.

“But you have to get it right,” said Hawkeye.

“And,” said Robinson Crusoe, “you can't tell it all by yourself.”

“Yes,” said Ishmael. “Remember what happened last time?”

“Everybody makes mistakes,” said the Lone Ranger.

“Best not to make them with stories.”


Similarly, echoes focusing on mistakes link subsequent, nominally unrelated passages. The four elders, on their way to Canada to fix up the world once again, find themselves by the side of the highway: “‘So,’ said Ishmael. ‘Are we lost again? Have we made another mistake?’” (27). After a white space, the succeeding passage begins: “Lionel had made only three mistakes in his entire life, the kinds of mistakes that seem small enough at the time, but somehow get out of hand. The kinds that stay with you for a long time” (King 28).

In King's novel, the literati narrator seems not so much a controlling consciousness as a participatory consciousness; however, that participation encompasses not only the narrow span of human lives but the broad spectrum of realities that shape Native consciousness. Those realities, and the relationships among them, can be understood and conveyed insofar as they can be embodied in stories—unbounded permutations of stories that ultimately “get it right” by not falling prey to the illusion that anyone has already gotten it right. A narrator is a consciousness that tells; in this novel, in which neither the central narrator (the narrative “I”) nor the internal narrators (other transcendent characters) are limited to discrete space/time contexts, there is no sense of a barrier or differentiation between experiencing and telling. King's trickster narrator can best be understood in terms articulated in Vizenor's novel Dead Voices: “Tricksters are stories not real people” (Vizenor 106).

Stories are meant to be multiple, to encompass contradictions, to repeat and to evolve. As the narrative “I” reminds Coyote when he claims to be a true hero: “There are no truths. […] Only stories” (432). What the transcendent characters demonstrate in their own stories is that history can be revisited, endings can be rewritten, the letter does not have to be the law. Contrariness is the trickster norm. Thus the trickster intervention in the John Wayne movie so that one illogical/ideological ending is replaced by another: instead of soldiers miraculously appearing over the hill to save the outnumbered whites, the cavalry appears over the rise and just as suddenly disappears; the battle resumes and not a single Indian falls.

Babo Jones, reminding Dr. Hovaugh that to be enslaved is not the same as accepting the identity of the slave, offers to give him a shave with her great-great-grandfather's razor. Just as Babo Jones is a female avatar of a canonical male character, the Babo of Melville's “Benito Cereno,” the narrative suggests that none of the patriarchal narratives of the Euro-American tradition are truly authoritative. As she travels through the watery world, Changing Woman encounters Ahab and disputes his identification of Moby Dick, the great, male, white whale: “You're mistaken, says Changing Woman. I believe that is Moby-Jane, the Great Black Whale” (King 220). Euro-American culture is defined by its own surrender to the authority of the book, the law, and the narrative as written, and its insistence that other cultures surrender as well. Even Coyote can be duped:

“She means Moby-Dick,” says Coyote. “I read the book. It's Moby-Dick, the great white whale who destroys the Pequod.

“You haven't been reading your history,” I tell Coyote. “It's the English colonists who destroy the Pequots.”

“But there isn't any Moby-Jane.”

“Sure there is,” I says. “Just look out over there. What do you see?”

“Well … I'll be,” says Coyote.


The wit in this passage, and many others like it, arises from conflict between Native concepts of history and story and the logocentrism of the Euro-American tradition. “I read the book,” says Coyote. But there are realities that don't make their way into books: Moby Dick is in the book, but there is also a Moby Jane and she's right over there. Moreover, we have been reading a narrow list of books. “I” responds to Coyote: “You haven't been reading your history [your history …] It's the English colonists who destroy the Pequots.” The narrative achieves some of its most telling thrusts with the slippage of words: Pequod/Pequots, Natty/“Nasty” Bumppo. Eli is killed, his cabin destroyed, and his family's land inundated when three stolen cars “sailing” in Parliament Lake breach the dam: the Nissan, the Pinto, and the Karmann-Ghia.

Perhaps the most potent attack on the word-made-fetish is the implication that the dominant culture can be subverted by its own peculiar logic. The female archetypes of Native American mythology wander about the contemporary world in the guise of male Euro-American archetypes. The permeability of literary identity is demonstrated in the narratives of Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye; their stories reveal in turn that these personae are inhabited by First Woman, Changing Woman, Thought Woman, and Old Woman. When survival requires it, each disguises herself as a safe canonical figure. Accosted by Texas rangers at the site of a massacre, First Woman whips a black cloth out of her purse, cuts eye holes, puts on her mask:

Look, look, all the live rangers says, and they points their fingers at First Woman. It's the Lone Ranger. […]

That's me, says First Woman.

Hooray, says those rangers, you are alive.

That's me, says First Woman.

(King 76)

Similarly, when Old Woman is about to be arrested by soldiers for shooting Nasty Bumppo, she has to save herself by appropriating an identity that is in the right book. “Names? says those soldiers, and they all take out a book from their packs” (438). Old Woman identifies herself accurately, but her identity is rejected: “No Old Woman in this book, says those soldiers.” Chingachgook saves her life (but not, unfortunately, her freedom) by prompting the soldiers to check the book for a character named Hawkeye: “Well, says Old Woman, I guess I'm Hawkeye” (King 438-39).

Green Grass, Running Water demonstrates that stories are collaborations within and across different space/time contexts. In the origin tale that Hawkeye tells, Old Woman chides Young Man Walking On Water for trying to save his disciples by acting authoritatively and alone:

“There you go again,” says Young Man Walking On Water.

“Trying to tell me what to do.”

“Well,” says Old Woman, “someone has to. You are acting as though you have no relations.”


He acts as though he has no relations in more than one sense—by stomping his feet and shouting at the waves as though he can command the natural world without participating in it, and by denying that he has been helped by a woman after Old Woman lulls the waves with a song. But Old Woman doesn't argue long with someone so stubbornly wrong, and simply floats away. Her floating prompts a metafictional comment on the nonlinearity of this novel and the narrative strategies of the oral tradition:

“Not again,” says Coyote.

“You bet,” I says.

“Hmmmm,” says Coyote. “All this floating imagery must mean something.”

“That's the way it happens in oral stories.” I says.

(King 391)

Oral stories “float” in their resistance to closure. Individual tales drift, shaped by associative rather than linear logic, avoiding the false clarity of strict sequence and definitive resolution. Stories float with respect to one another, the body of the oral tradition more telling than any of its individual tales or renditions.

Thus, at every level this novel incorporates the emphasis in Native American ideology on cycles rather than linearity. There are cycles of telling in the narratives of the transcendent characters, cycles of intervention in the periodic excursions of the four elders aiming to set the world right, cycles in the experiences of human characters in the ordinary world—cycles that are always characterized by both repetition and difference. The intertextual relationships between the unfolding narratives of the trickster character in Green Grass, Running Water and their canonical literary antecedents represent a kind of “floating” signification that rejects stasis in a word, a name, a text. The narrative comments self-reflexively on its own repetition, disrupting even the linearity of page-by-page reading. One character repeats what another has said before, sending readers back to check:

“Gha! Higayv:ligé:i,” said Robinson Crusoe.

“We've done that already,” said Ishmael.

“Have we?” said Robinson Crusoe.

“Yes,” said the Lone Ranger. “Page twelve.”

“See. Top of page twelve.”

“How embarrassing.”

(King 257)

In this passage, the barrier of an unfamiliar language makes it unlikely that even experienced readers will be confident, without checking, that this is indeed the repeated phrase. Like this dialogue, section titles in Cherokee calligraphy demonstrate that the varied competencies required to comprehend the text fully are available to only a narrow portion of the audience. More to the point, because translation is itself an acknowledgment of difference, these passages remind us that certain kinds of intimacy cannot be earned or won, even through earnest scholarship.

Trickster interventions fix the world by disturbing the linearity of cause and effect, by floating back to already lived experience and already told tales to introduce the quotient of chaos that makes it possible to start anew. Coyote helps Alberta conceive the baby she wants, making her pregnant by another immaculate conception. Robinson Crusoe and Hawkeye chide, “‘You remember the last time you did that?’ […] ‘We haven't straightened out that mess yet’” (456). Acting in concert, Eli, Lionel, Alberta, Latisha, Harley, the four elders, and Coyote get another chance to thwart an acquisitive “tourist” trying to photograph the Sun Dance, and this time the culprit does not get away with the film. When an earthquake hurls three cars against the bursting dam, sweeping away Eli and his cabin on ancestral lands, the community plans a new cabin:

Lionel stood up and looked at the sun. “Well, maybe when the cabin is finished,” he said, “I'll live in it for a while. You know, like Eli. Maybe that's what I'll do.”

“Not your turn,” said Norma. “It's my turn. Your turn will come soon enough.”


In King's novel the literati narrator contributes to the effort to fix up the world an accumulated knowledge of many stories and a trickster discourse that represents an articulation of Native American consciousness. This narrator is situated among peers, one narrator among others. The emphasis is on reciprocity: turn-taking, collaboration, and the literary mischief set in play when trickster narrators tell their tales. King's narrator defers to other narrators, so that even in his final conceit—that he will now take his turn as teller, as though he has not already had a turn—he asserts an earned right to speak without explicitly casting it as “authority.” Everyone gets a turn, but even when it is your turn, “you can't tell it all by yourself” (King II). Omniscience is the stuff of humor, and so is canonical literature. First Woman, Changing Woman, Thought Woman, and Old Woman all get into the canon in the end, not because they particularly value it, but because the canon is the only safe place to be; all the soldiers carry books in their packs, and they are checking off names (438).

Like the classical literati novels, Green Grass, Running Water aligns contemporary literature with ancient traditions, taking on the additional burden of negotiating those concerns in the context of two intersecting cultural fields. Native American writers like King, Momaday, Vizenor, Linda Hogan, and Diane Glancy map the contours of their cultural/historical territory with multiple sets of coordinates. Their intricately elaborated representations incorporate all the signs and markers privileged in contemporary literary practice. But these writers also demonstrate, by superimposing one map upon another, that all maps are ideological constructs. And as Owens remarks—speaking of intellectual territory and the complicated relationships between ethnic literatures and the literary establishment—“[I]t is accurate, I think, to say that Native American writers have their reservations” (19).


  1. The masterworks of Chinese fiction considered by Plaks in his study are Chin P'ing Mei, Hsi-yu Chi [The Journey to the West], Shui-hu chuan [The Water Margin], and San-kuo chih yen-I [The Romance of the Three Kingdoms]. Chin P'ing Mei was translated by Clement Egerton in 1939 under the title The Golden Lotus; however, most later translations leave the title in romanized Chinese. In his study, C. T. Hsia considers two additional Ming novels as masterworks: Hung-lou meng [The Dream of the Red Chamber] and Ju-lin wai-shih [The Scholars].

  2. Thomas King was born in the United States but is a citizen of Canada.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman's Sourcebook. Boston: Beacon, 1991.

Donaldson, Laura E. “Noah Meets Old Coyote, or Singing in the Rain: Intertextuality in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water.Studies in American Indian Literatures 7.2 (1995): 27-43.

Findley, Timothy. Not Wanted on the Voyage. 1984. Toronto: Penguin, 1996.

Hsia, C. T. “The Scholar-Novelist and Chinese Culture: A Reappraisal of Ching-hua Yuan.Chinese Narrative: Critical and Theoretical Essays. Ed. Andrew H. Plaks. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977. 266-305.

King, Thomas. Green Grass, Running Water. 1993. New York: Bantam, 1994.

Momaday, N. Scott. The Ancient Child. 1989. New York: Harper, 1990.

Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1992.

Plaks, Andrew H. The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987.

Rooke, Constance. Interview with Tom King. World Literature Written in English 30.2 (1990): 62-76.

Sommer, Doris. “Resistant Texts and Incompetent Readers.” Poetics Today 15 (1994): 523-52.

———. “Textual Conquests: On Readerly Competence and ‘Minority’ Literature.” Modern Language Quarterly 54.1 (1993): 141-54.

Vizenor, Gerald. Dead Voices. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1992.

———. Griever: An American Monkey King in China. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

———. The Heirs of Columbus. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1991.

———. Manifest Manners: Post-Indian Warriors of Survivance. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1994.

Yu, Anthony C. Introduction. The Journey to the West. Vol. 1. Trans. and ed. Anthony C. Yu. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983. 1-62.

Blanca Chester (essay date summer-autumn 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6859

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.

Harry Robinson1


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 of Native verbal art, and part of a broader social context. Above all, the stories, as Robinson observes, should be enjoyed. “That is how you learn,” he says, “That is, if you enjoy the stories” (Nature Power 8). When Robinson tells stories, he is theorizing the world. His storytelling ultimately moves beyond either written or spoken word to tell us something about life as he has experienced it. The stories reveal knowledge as narrative. Moreover, they show how Robinson's world is experienced through several language and cultural systems—Okanagan, English, oral and written, for example. His collections of stories, Write It on Your Heart and Nature Power, are part of the dialogue between those languages and cultural systems. Green Grass, Running Water, a co(s)mic creation narrative told from a First Nations (Coyote) perspective, uses humour to create another sort of dialogue, a dialogue between oral and written, between Native and Christian creation stories, and between literary and historical discourses.

Like Robinson, King writes theory by telling, or in this case, writing, stories. King draws from oral tradition to incorporate aspects of Native storytelling into a highly contextualized and literate novel. A substantial source of King's reworking of oral storytelling performance within the context of “high” literature, I suggest, originates in the stories of Harry Robinson. While Robinson “tells” us theory, King writes theory by telling stories within what appears to be a post-modern novel. The novel itself mirrors Lee Maracle's claim that theory cannot be separated from story. She says that, “There is a story in every line of theory” (88). King's apprehension in Green Grass, Running Water of theory as narrative, or as narrativized, also emphasizes the differences between Native and non-Native ways of knowing the world. He brings together Western theory and Native theory in a way that creates a dialogue between the two.

King's storytelling is saturated in dialogue; the storied dialogues shared between writer and readers resemble and resonate with the kinds of dialogues that storyteller and audience share in oral storytelling performances. Native storytellers like Robinson and King theorize their world by telling stories. Their theory, therefore, is interactive and dialogic, rather than monologic. This kind of Native literary theory sees novels as an open genre. The first part of this paper examines some of the connections between Native oral tradition and King's writing, and suggests the continuity of Native oral tradition within the novelistic form. King uses an interactive and dialogic literary theory to dismantle the kind of theory that sees novels as closed systems. He writes Northrop Frye and structuralist literary poetics into Green Grass, Running Water, for example, in a way that suggests viewing Western theory through the lens of Native experience and traditions, rather than the other way around. What if, instead of reading the novel as a literary exercise, one reads it in the context of oral storytelling tradition? What happens if one takes for granted, as Robinson does, that stories are real? What if one assumes that Natives have always been writing novels in one way or another?

Robinson's literary influence on King was, as King himself says, “inspirational.”2 When one reads King's earlier novel, Medicine River, and compares it with Green Grass, Running Water, Robinson's impact is obvious. Changes in the style of the dialogue, including the way King's narrator seems to address readers and characters directly (using the first person), in the way traditional characters and stories from Native cultures (particularly Coyote) are adapted, and especially in the way that each of the distinct narrative strands in the novel contains and interconnects with every other, reflect Robinson's storied impact. The “oral” influence of Robinson on King's writing, however, paradoxically comes through written texts.3 This irony is perhaps reflected in King's own multi-faceted translations and recreations of various stories and characters from different Native cultural traditions. King connects Robinson's Okanagan Coyote with stories from the Blackfoot4 of Alberta, and the traditions of Thought Woman (Pueblo), First Woman (Navajo), Old Woman (Blackfoot, Dunne-za), and Changing Woman (Navajo).5 As Robin Ridington observes of these kinds of culture stories and culture heroes, “They are parts and they are wholes in conversation with each other” (n.p.). The conversation between these narratives in Green Grass, Running Water is framed with no real beginning, no middle, and no end—it is a continuous cycle that is always beginning again, as the world itself is constantly being re-created, through story.

King's narrator, the “I” of the text, addresses the reader directly: “you,” like Robinson's listening audience, are drawn into the performance, and are ultimately transformed into another character in one of King's stories. Through the process of reading one becomes part of a storied world. The reader, like Robinson's listening audience, thus becomes an active participant in the process of constructing “the text.” The various written dialogues that are created and carried on throughout Green Grass, Running Water suggest a dialogism that reflects oral tradition and First Nations and Native American perspectives of the world. The world is always brought into being, or created, through story.

The word “dialogism” also brings to mind Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the novel itself as an unfinished, developing genre; he suggests a view of the novelistic genre as dialogic process rather than literary product. To get a dialogue really going, however, one needs an intimate relationship between those who speak and those who listen. Dialogue by its nature thus privileges local and regional narratives over universal and global meta-narratives. When that dialogue is presented as a First Nations conversation between Native storytelling traditions and a literary novel, it reveals how a storyteller approaches each telling of a story as simultaneously new and old.6 It reveals a dialogue with the past that moves into the present, a history of Native tradition that now includes European elements within it.

Green Grass, Running Water plays with chaos. It resists externally imposed structures from Western cultural and literary traditions and it juxtaposes Native oral traditions against Western written traditions. Native stories interconnect with the literary works of American and Canadian authors like Melville, Hawthorne, Cooper, and Frye, among others, with the Christian creation story, mainstream history, and with a host of storied icons from popular culture, including John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe. By juxtaposing these different narratives, fragmented texts contextualize each other, creating meaning in gaps that cannot be read linearly. Consequently, another voice “speaks” to the reader: Native reality consistently intrudes on the carefully constructed realities of Western tradition. By drawing on his or her knowledge of different characters, events, and discourses, the reader is drawn into apparent chaos and confusion to become part of the performance. By playing on the interconnectedness of a wide range of stories, King shows how meaning is always process-driven and consensual—how it is inherently dialogic.

The conversation that King sets up between oral creation story, biblical story, literary story, and historical story resembles the dialogues that Robinson sets up in his storytelling performances. These include the incorporation of modern-day European elements into old stories—telling us how Coyote's son and Neil Armstrong both traveled to the moon, for example, and how white people were already there at the time of the Okanagan creation. Ridington notes, “Conversation between the myriad human and non-human persons of a storied world is at the heart of Native American poetics” (n.p.). The intimate relationship between human and non-human worlds of experience is reflected in King's novel where Coyotes and dogs “commune” with Old Woman, Thought Woman, and Changing Woman. Ridington, however, uses the word poetics to mean more than just the formal properties of the text; he uses it “to mean the ways in which people create meaning through language” (n.p.). This meaning, as Bakhtin suggests, lies in dialogue. Since Native American poetics, through oral tradition, emphasizes dialogue and dialogism, why wouldn't we, in the twentieth century, expect Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, Northrop Frye, John Wayne and the Lone Ranger to turn up in a novel written by a First Nations author?

But Melville, Cooper, and Frye are written into Green Grass, Running Water in a way that suggests they are part of contemporary Native literary tradition. It is their presentation as part of a particular narrative perspective, however, that constructs them in this way. King translates stories from the Bible, as well as canonical Canadian and American literary texts into the context of a Native novel. The issue of translation is particularly complicated because, in this instance, both “sides” of the translation use the same language—English—but they are not necessarily writing out of the same cultural traditions. First Nations texts with highly literate contexts can create dialogues with a wide variety of other contexts, just as orally told stories constantly absorb and transform their own context.

King's Dr. Hovaugh, for example, focuses on how “In the beginning all this was land. Empty land” (78). Hovaugh's story suggests the European conceptualization of Canada as empty wilderness—a land devoid of everything, including Indians, before the whites arrive. Hovaugh then tells what he considers the “long and boring story” of how “our” Indians came to be at the mental institution (78). Canadians, of course, have long considered their history (and literature) as “boring,” especially when compared to those of their neighbours to the south. Babo, in contrast, tells a Native story of creation, beginning with how Thought Woman falls from the sky (75-76). This story has its source in storytelling tradition, in fiction, while Hovaugh's focuses on the “facts” as he sees them. Babo, the four old Indians, and Coyote, all point out the importance of getting the story right. Stories are powerful entities. When the story is not quite right, Babo repeats it, nothing, “That's not right either. I better start at the beginning again” (76). But just as Babo and the four old storytellers never know where to begin their narratives, they never quite get to the end of them either. The stories defy teleology as they float from one place in the text to another, continually generating new meanings.

Babo has told Sergeant Cereno earlier that the escaped Indians were women, not men. They are, in fact, Indian goddesses who tell stories and, through the stories, create realities. Babo's favourite is the creation story. This story, however, like the story of the old Indians themselves, keeps escaping the confines of Western tradition—just as the old Indians slip away from Dr. Hovaugh's cultivated garden. It is the same story that King, or his narrator, is telling us now. But the question of who, exactly, is narrating the story is a slippery one. Is it Coyote, the “I,” of the text, or is it King himself? The ambiguity that surrounds this narrator reflects the problematic underpinnings of Native identity: who really is speaking and how is s/he situated in the text, and in the community?

King situates himself carefully as a storyteller. He tells a Native story within the context of what he knows (academic discourse, literature, history, popular culture, and so on) and is careful not to tell us about certain things. The Sundance, for example, is alluded to but not described, and it is pointed out that recording and photography are forbidden. These small pieces of information are revealed throughout the narrative, but it is left to the reader to connect them with King's role as a member of the Native community.


Green Grass, Running Water requires participants, readers, to interact with it. In dialogue with the text, the reader moves between the world of the novel and the world as experienced. The open-ended and dialogic quality of the storytelling contrasts with the literary theory of one of King's central characters, Dr. Joe Hovaugh, whom King models on Northrop Frye. As one reads the different stories within Green Grass, Running Water, it becomes more and more clear how interconnected they are, and how difficult it is to separate one from another. Their web-like interconnectedness, and their ability to absorb new elements, implies a system of thought that is inclusive rather than exclusive. This is an open work of literature, rather than a closed one.

Hovaugh's unease with the Canadian (literary) landscape leads, King's narrative suggests, to his compulsion to search out “occurrences, probabilities, directions, deviations” (39). Through the character of Hovaugh, Green Grass, Running Water alludes in a variety of ways to Frye's extensive schematization of literature in books such as The Anatomy of Criticism, The Great Code, and The Bush Garden. The narrator observes how Hovaugh felt that “Things in Canada seemed slightly wild, more out of hand, disorderly, even chaotic. There was an openness to the sky and a wideness to the land that made him uncomfortable” (260). Frye has written extensively of a “garrison mentality” that permeates Canadian literature. The wild physical environment (or nature, of which Indians are seen as a part and settlers are not) is ominous seen from a (civilized) perspective. In an attempt to create order from out of potential literary chaos, out of wildness, Frye schematizes and classifies literature. But Frye's structuralist theory reveals a closed system. Meaning, whether in literary texts or in general, arises from relationships between elements within the system. It is based on oppositions, and the referent, the “real” world, exists somewhere outside the system. Thus the literary text has less to say about the outside world than it does about some thing called “literariness.”

Frye's emphasis on the structural and synchronic elements of a text, and his emphasis on the importance of archetypes and myths rather than history, suggest, among other things, that historical progression has ended. Hovaugh's mystical and reclusive retreat to his mythical garden also suggests his own escape into timelessness, into a world of his own mythic making. Ironically, however, the four Indians have also managed to slip away from the confines of linear and chronological time to create their own histories, their own versions of reality. In Green Grass, Running Water, Hovaugh develops maps and charts, and correlates natural catastrophes to the old Indians’ narrative history, however, are important to him only because they function to reveal the system as a whole. For Hovaugh, it is the pattern that is crucial. “It's a pattern,” he says of the Indians’ disappearance and he struggles to make sense of that pattern in terms that he can understand (40). The possibility that he has contributed to the catastrophes that the old Indians cause because of his inability to see them for who they are never enters his mind. The Indians “fix” things—disrupting Hovaugh's patterns—because they need to restore some balance to a world where Natives and their ways no longer seem to exist, and where white monologues have taken over.

Dr. Joe Hovaugh is not only Northrop Frye, but also Jehovah, able to describe (from above) a mythical Biblical creation and divination (The Great Code). He cultivates his garden of literary theory carefully in Canada, lest wildness take over (The Bush Garden). He then charts his course towards Parliament Hill using the “literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogic” (Green Grass 324) modes of literary expression that Frye develops in The Anatomy of Criticism (72). In the place of a wild and chaotic land, Hovaugh has created a carefully manicured garden where tropes and conventions behave as they should. The problem is that the Native keeps going wild. And just as the four old Indians keep escaping the confines of Western institutionalization, King's text self-consciously defies categorization in Frye's terms.

In Frye's schema, the mythical mode operates out of the grammar of mythical archetypes. Myth provides a universal model of literature, but only within a structuralist universe. This mythical mode then aligns itself with the language of literature. Collectivity, history, and culture are not parts of this discourse; reality lies outside the system. But, in Green Grass, Running Water floating imagery replaces mythic archetypes. The reader experiences history continuously beginning and ending, beginning and ending again, through a series of cycles. The distinctions between myth and story, and between myth and reality, in these cycles of narrative, collapse as Coyote dreams stories into reality.

When Coyote dances in and out of creation stories (244) anything is possible. As Coyote thinks or dreams up something, anything can happen: reality is changed. For Frye, however, form is more important than (real) content. And satire requires both humour and “an object of attack” (Frye Anatomy 223-25). The Native American writer, Gerald Vizenor, however, argues that the comic operates at a collective, rather than individual, level. Native satire appears to be something different from what Frye describes. It is always connected to the trickster. This satire has an attitude that Vizenor describes in Narrative Chance as comic, and it is based on what he describes as chance, rather than system. When Vizenor argues that the trickster is based on chance, he connects Native satire with post-modernist notions of fragmentation, de-privileging unity in favour of the locally and regionally specific. The trickster always works from out of chaos rather than within an ordered system.

Coyote's dance constantly requires the “I” of the narrator to participate in the collective performance of storytelling. King's recreation of myth and the idea of mythic archetypes to include stories and icons from popular culture, stories from the Bible, and from canonical literary works, reconstructs the idea of myth as part of a changing and vital tradition. Myths contain storied realities. Coyote myths play with chaos—with the narrative chance that Vizenor argues also “lessens the power of social science and humanism” (192)—and defy schematization. Thus, King's kind of mythic literature runs counter to a Western literary tradition that is built on “occurrences and probabilities and deviations” of “literal, allegorical, tropological, anagogic” modes of expression.

Even symbols, which Frye describes as “any unit of any literary structure that can be isolated for critical attention” (Anatomy 71) mean something culturally different in Green Grass, Running Water. When questioned about the meaning of the floating imagery, the “I” of the narrator simply says, “That's the way it happens in oral stories” (293). Archetypal figures like God, and Adam and Eve are transformed to fit their new situations. They consequently engage in dialogue with a Native creation. This kind of dialogic creation contrasts with the structuralist approach of disregarding situation or context (locally specific Native literature, history, and culture, for example) in favour of the universal archetype. Frye says, “In all literary verbal structures the final direction of meaning is inward. In literature the standards of outward meaning are secondary” (Anatomy 74). In such a closed system, myths and archetypes are universalized categories, just as the Indian becomes a kind of universal archetype for Hovaugh. Consequently he is unable to describe the Indians who have lived with him for years, and he cannot even guess at how old they are.

In Hovaugh's carefully constructed world, meaning lies in circular and closed systems. Thus he draws a “deliberate circle around Parliament Lake.” He then draws another, and another (324). King's narrator then describes Indian “gifts” for us (327), defining each in a play on paradigmatic opposites (327). Real Indians don't exist in this system. But in the novel Hovaugh's organization of the world ultimately reveals itself as petrified and static. His is a world where circles are no longer cycles—where circles construct borders around knowledge. His world, unlike the world of the old Indians, exhibits a garrison mentality.

The differences between the four old Indians are as substantial as their similarities. For one thing, they all come from different Native cultures. But the differences between them are finally like the differences between white and Native. King sets them up in such a way—through chance—that the oppositions refuse to fully reconstitute themselves. All kinds of differences show themselves as interconnected, rather than opposed to each other. And it is through storied dialogues that that they reveal their connections.

Frye, the story of Green Grass, Running Water suggests, plays God with literature just as Hovaugh plays God with the lives of the Indians. In Anatomy of Criticism, Frye argues that the context of literature is not the world. But the stories that the old Indians tell keep slipping into the world as experienced, into reality. Literature, in a structuralist system, rarely reveals new content or experience, but merely new ways of perception. This inward movement is related to the aesthetic: Frye states, “The reason for producing the literary structure is apparently that the inward meaning, the self-contained verbal pattern, is the field of responses connected with pleasure, beauty, and interest” (Anatomy 74). And he goes on, “In literature … the reality-principle is subordinate to the pleasure-principle” (Anatomy 75). The illusion of reality is created through the construction of universal, and psychologically real archetypes. The old Indians, according to Hovaugh, are, therefore, “really” dead. But in King's narrative, stories create reality; words have the power to affect the world in ways that go beyond “pleasure, beauty, and interest.” And so the old Indians live on.

Hovaugh, however hard he tries, cannot make any real sense out of the patterns that the old Indians make. Part of the confusion lies in his apparent unwillingness to acknowledge that the old Indian archetypes might be “real.” As they would in oral tradition, the old Indians in Green Grass, Running Water keep turning up in new forms and new guises, re-creating reality as they go along. In distinguishing between oral and literate modes of discourse, Frye separates literary (figurative) and “ordinary” uses of language.7 Literally, the old Indians should no longer exist. But the belief in a literal language can encourage and deceive one into believing in the transparency and objectivity of language as a form of neutral communication. In contrast, within a self-consciously metaphoric (and metonymic) worldview such as Robinson's and King's, no division between the literal and figurative seems to exist. Coyote is here and now. The story that one tells here and now can have repercussions somewhere else. Linguistic objectivity is not taken for granted. Language is always subjective, always contexted, and always material.

In Green Grass, Running Water, the literary world and the real world are inseparable, just as in Robinson's stories human and animal worlds and story and reality are interconnected. As King's characters fall into other stories, other realities, they move between narrative forms, and between media: Alberta, Charlie, and Lionel are watching the same movie Western that Eli is reading. The four Indians from the mental institution are in the televised movie story too. The four Goddesses have fixed the movie, fixed things for the benefit of the Indians, but they have to harmonize things again because the cavalry keeps returning (186). Whites keep tipping the balance—dialogue keeps becoming monologue, the text suggests. The story has to change so that reality changes. Here is a realism that theorizes the world through storytelling.

Oral stories, literature, film, and reality contaminate each other's narratives. As the author/narrator inserts himself into the story (the “I” of Green Grass, Running Water), he moves between narrative events and what appear to be narrativized storytelling performances. In the outer frame is the Coyote story where Hawkeye, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and the Lone Ranger interact in an apparent storytelling circle. This story ends, only to begin again. This story permeates and slips into the narrative where Alberta, Charlie, and Lionel are trying to get on with their lives in Blossom, Alberta. King creates a dialogue between different cultural stories. He shows us that the question of otherness is a question of perspective. What we think of as otherness or difference is always relational; multiple characters, stories, and theories contextualize each other in the real world in meaningful ways. Ultimately, King's novel shows how First Nations storytelling continues to theorize the world through a Native literature written in English. But just as we are not accustomed to hearing stories as answers to questions, we are not accustomed to reading stories as theory.


By playing with stories that have no beginnings, middles, and endings, King maintains the dialogic fluidity of oral storytelling performance in a written text. These are stories influenced by oral literature in a variety of ways. In addition to the storied recursivity of the narrative as a whole, several aspects of King's translation of oral performance into writing reveal the complexity of the relationship between the English language and Native cultures. King uses the English language to translate Native worldview. But language is a kind of spatial construct. Written language separates and contains the world in specific sorts of ways, and translating between the oral and the written suggests the same kind of meaningful displacements that occur in the translation between different languages.

King manipulates the sound of certain names in a way that requires the reader to read the text out loud. He emphasizes the sound of the names as puns so that only through their aurality does the reader understand the reference. In order to “get” the reference, one has to speak the words out loud, and only then do “Louis, Ray, and Al,” for example, reveal themselves as “Louis Riel”—thereby suggesting connections to yet another narrative thread. Other names that function the same way in Green Grass, Running Water include Joe Hovaugh (Jehovah), Sally-Jo Weyha (Sacajawea), and the Nissan, Pinto, and Karmann-Ghia (Columbus's Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria). In conjunction with the focus on the narratorial “I,” and implied “you,” of the text, such features maintain oral resonances in the process of writing. They resemble, in a highly literate context, the “interfusional” spirit of Harry Robinson's writing where, as King has observed, the stories resist being read silently (see King, “Godzilla” [“Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial”]).

The names, however, do more than insist on simple oral pronunciation. In each case, as soon as the reader enunciates the words out loud, there is the suggestion of an assumed addressee or audience. No one usually speaks to him or herself. Embedded into the importance of names, therefore, is another aspect of storytelling performance. In creating a dialogue, or conversation, with the text the speaker/reader/listener enters into a highly contexted discourse where every name suggests a story, and every story suggests yet another story. As Ridington says, “Native stories are more than about the world. They actually create it. They are parts and they are wholes in conversation with each other” (n.p.). And Dennis Tedlock notes, “Storytellers can talk about stories, but their observations and speculations come from accumulated experience at hearing and telling stories” (15). Thus, a storyteller's observations and speculations are often inferred and carry with them an element of presupposition. The storyteller does not tell all he or she knows, or explain the meanings of names, places, and things. There is an assumption of a common matrix of cultural knowledge, and invoking words—names and places—suggests that shared epistemology. In King's novel, that sharing covers a broad spectrum of cultural knowledge.

Joe Hovaugh's name/story resonates with the biblical senses of Jehovah, and with the literary analogies of Northrop Frye at the same time. Of course, part of that resonance also lies in the fact that Frye worked extensively with the Bible. The story of Louis, Ray, and Al connects with the narrative of Louis Riel, and also resonates with the place of Nietzschean theory in an Indian theory/story—the Dead Dog Cafe bringing to mind Nietzsche's famous words that “God is dead,” or at least contrary in Blackfoot country.8 It also brings to mind the nihilism inherent in the myth of the vanishing Indian. None of these stories is separable from another, and the names themselves conjure up the stories. Sometimes the stories range far apart in place and time. Their multiple interconnections imply the syncretic and transformative abilities of oral stories. They are interpreting an ever-changing world by integrating new elements into old narratives.

In one of Robinson's stories Coyote, who is not Coyote yet, has a conversation with God and chooses his name. Before he chooses his name, as Ridington points out, “Coyote embodies paradox. His name is not a name that means something. How can he have a name that is not a name and still be Coyote before he has been given it as a name?” (n.p.). The name that Coyote chooses determines his role in the world. Since he has arrived late to the “name-giving place” (Write It 53), he has to choose between the name KWEELSH-tin, the name for Sweathouse, and the name Shin-KLEEP, the name for Coyote (Write It 60). The power that he gets when he chooses to be Shin-KLEEP is the power of Coyote; the “essence” of Coyote's being cannot be separated from the word, or the name, itself. As Ridington explains it, “No matter what his name and job description, Coyote retains his essential nature.” (n.p.). But Coyote's nature is one that repudiates essentialism: he has the power to change things around, to transform reality and himself, in ways that are limited only by his imaginative abilities to conjure up stories. Even his choice of a name moves away from ideas of essence, given the spiritual associations of the name for Sweathouse, the name and identity that Coyote rejects. Coyote's essential nature, it could be said, is a storied one that contains multiple realities. Stories that feature Coyote, or stories that are created by Coyote, make him who he is.

In King's story, the trouble starts with Coyote Dream choosing his name and his identity as an upper-case GOD that corresponds with the name. The discussion over names and identity at the beginning of the book resembles Robinson's story about how Coyote chooses his name and gets to be Coyote. The similarity between the two stories is so striking that it is possible King may have been inspired to write this passage by Robinson's Coyote story. One's identity; both of these narratives imply, comes out of the dialogue between words and their apparent essences, as well as through the relationship between different words and worlds of experience. In Robinson's story, Coyote only has two choices left to him. The chief tells him:

“There's only two left,
          but you not going to have them both.
You can have only one of them.”
So Shim-ee-OW didn't know what to say.
He don't know what to do and what to say.
So the Chief told'em,
“All right, I can explain how you're going to be
          if you're KWEELSH-tin,
                    that is, if you're Sweathouse.
          And I can explain how you're going to do,
                    How you're going to be if you're shin-KLEEP.”
                    That's Coyote.

(WIOYH [Write It on Your Heart.] 60)

In King's novel, Coyote and his dream argue about names and identity as well:

Who are you? Says that Dream. Are you someone important?

“I'm Coyote,” says Coyote. “And I am very smart.”

I am very smart, too, says that Dream. I must be Coyote.

“No,” says Coyote. “You can't be Coyote. But you can be a dog.”


In both instances there can only be one Coyote. Coyote, culture hero and trickster, however, reveals that language, words, are as deceptive and tricky as he is.

Stories are not always what they appear to be on the surface. Their form can even disguise meanings. The stories constructed through Coyote's dog dream, as they float in and out of their written contexts, play with language in a way that resembles what Vizenor describes as “trickster discourse.” But unlike Vizenor's conceptualization of post-modernist trickster discourse, which, like Frye's literary theory, remains grounded in the separation between language and reality, language seems connected to material reality for King. And Coyote creates both the stories and his audience. King observes, “As Native storytellers have become bilingual—telling and writing their stories in English, French, Spanish—they have created both a more pan-Native as well as a non-Native audience” (Introduction to All My Relations ix). Jeannette Armstrong, in her discussion of traces of Okanagan language and worldview in her own writing, observes, “In the Okanagan language, perception of the way reality occurs is very different from that solicited by the English language. Reality is very much like a story: it is easily changeable and transformative with each speaker” (191). The development of a First Nations English that reflects Okanagan rhythms and worldview, Armstrong suggests, is more often found in colloquial and “Rez English” than it is in the formal style of academic writing. But Rez English and the idea of trickster discourse are connected, at least in part, through a collective kind of (Native) worldview. Vizenor emphasizes that the sign of the trickster is the site of meaning because it is held in common by a community of people. But, non-Natives as well as Natives read books like Green Grass, Running Water, and meaning is therefore created not so much through the signs themselves as it is in the dialogue between them.

As King's narrator says, “‘There are no truths, Coyote … Only stories’” (326). This comment, of course, is as much a reflection on the nature of truth as it is of stories. In this kind of a conceptualization of language, the referent no longer exists outside the system, but is a part of it. Signifier, signified, and referent are interconnected in a way that they are not in structuralist and post-structuralist views of language. This idea of language as real, I suggest, is closer to Native American conceptualizations of the power of words, than the idea of language as a simple “medium” of communication. Rather than mediating between different conceptualizations of reality, language in this view retains the power to influence and construct multiple realities.

Just as Coyote is instructed to “Stick around. This is how it happens” (Green Grass 89), the reader has to stick around. He or she has to make sense from the novel after thinking about the stories a little while. As Ridington notes, Coyote epistemology challenges us to think about signs and signification differently. The storyteller is engaging in a conversation with Coyote and with the reader. The storytelling “I” of King's text suggests the kind of doubly-oriented speech that Bakhtin argues is characteristic of the novelistic genre. Bakhtin divides doubly-oriented discourse into several categories, one of which is dialogue—described by David Lodge as a “discourse which alludes to an absent speech act” (33). The speech act that has historically been absent in the discourse of North America is a Native speech act—an Indian voice. It is a presence that is very likely to reveal itself as a story, in narrative form, rather than as a simple speech utterance.

As Coyote and the narrator discuss storytelling, or theorizing, they construct messages about an argument—a theoretical point of view. In this case part of their argument seems to be that one should read stories as theory and as aspects of social process,9 rather than as literary play alone. The idea of stories as social process is closely connected with the conceptualization of language as part of material culture. The question of what constitutes history in the context of fictional narrative is closely linked to our ideas about what constitutes truth, reality, and story. As Julie Cruikshank notes, “The writing of history has always involved collecting, analyzing, and retelling stories about the past, yet the very act of collection means that some stories are enshrined in books while others remain marginalized” (4). She goes on to observe that any kind of history is based on “a selective reading of the past, especially when they [stories] are retold to make meaningful connections in the present” (4). Literary history is, obviously, also a kind of history, and the narratives that this history preserves remain implicated in how stories are connected as both past and present in a contemporary Native reality. King's use of Western literature and theory to re-create a Native story is the kind of social process that bases itself on the experience, rather than the essence, of a Native worldview.

Bakhtin distinguishes the novel from the epic and the poem on the basis of its dialogism, its complexity. But the same sorts of complexity are clearly found in Native storytelling. In his argument that the novel is a vital and living tradition, Bakhtin's words closely resemble descriptions of a vital oral storytelling tradition. He says, “The novel has no canon of its own, as do other genres; only individual examples of the novel are historically active, not a generic canon as such. Studying other genres is analogous to studying dead languages; studying the novel, on the other hand, is like studying languages that are not only alive, but still young” (3). The ability of oral stories to change, to incorporate new experiences into older ones, implies the sort of vitality that Bakhtin writes about. The inclusion of newer, European elements into fresh versions of traditional stories ensures their vitality. When King uses traditional stories in the context of the novel form, the stories themselves are re-created and they simultaneously re-create the world—again and again. The stories continue to theorize, and thus to create, Native reality. Not to blend the new into the old would suggest stasis, the stories frozen through a (printed) moment in time. It would suggest stories as word museums rather than as vital and living, like language and culture themselves.


  1. From an unpublished tape transcription of tapes held by Wendy Wickwire (Tape NMM #5—Jan. 28, 1982).

  2. From an interview with Peter Gzowski on CBC radio, “Morningside,” 5 April 1993, reprinted, this volume.

  3. According to Wendy Wickwire, King was offered audio tapes of Robinson's stories, but he did not take them.

  4. Note that Blackfoot is the plural used in Canada, while Native Americans from the same cultural group south of the border now use Blackfeet.

  5. Thanks to Robin Ridington for pointing these out to me. The characters of the four women also turn up in slightly different forms and guises in other Native traditions.

  6. Wendy Wickwire discusses the variations in Robinson's telling of stories by saying they “illustrate how Harry approached a story freshly each time he told it” (Introduction to Nature Power 18).

  7. This separation of literal and figurative is, of course, characteristic of most structuralist literary criticism. For the differences between Frye's criticism and French structuralism, see Eagleton 94

  8. In plains Indian culture, some people lived their lives backwards, as contraries (see Hirschfelder).

  9. Cruikshank examines the role of traditional Yukon storytelling in the context of social process.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Jeannette C. “Land Speaking.” Speaking for the Generations: Native Writers on Writing. Ed. Simon J. Ortiz. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998. 175-94.

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Cruikshank, Julie. The Social Life of Stories: Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1998.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

———. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Toronto: Anansi, 1971.

———. The Great Code. Toronto: Academic Press Canada, 1982.

Hirschfelder, Arlene. Encyclopedia of Native American Religion. New York: Facts on File, 1991.

King, Thomas, ed. All My Relations. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1990.

King, Thomas. “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial.” World Literature Written in English 30.2 (1990): 10-16.

———. Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1993.

———. Medicine River. Toronto: Penguin, 1989.

———. One Good Story, That One. Toronto: HarperPerenniel, 1993.

Lodge, David. After Bakhtin: Essays on Fiction and Criticism. London: Routledge, 1990.

Maracle, Lee. “Oratory: Coming to Theory.” Give Back: First Nations Perspectives on Cultural Practice. North Vancouver: Gallerie Publications, 1992. 85-94.

Ridington, Robin. “Theorizing Coyote's Cannon: Sharing Stories With Thomas King.” Theorizing the Americanist Tradition. Ed. Lisa Philips Valentine and Regna Darnell. University of Toronto Press. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999 (In Press).

Robinson, Harry. Nature Power. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1992.

———. Write It on Your Heart. Comp. and ed. Wendy Wickwire. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1989.

Tedlock, Dennis. The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Vizenor, Gerald. Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Literatures. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

Warren Cariou (review date December 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1777

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 imagine two more different novels, which is I think a healthy sign of the diversity of contemporary Native literature.

In Search of April Raintree is the wrenching story of two Métis sisters, Cheryl and April, who are taken from their parents by Children's Aid and raised in foster homes, sometimes together and sometimes separately. April has “pale skin” like her mother, whereas Cheryl has “black hair, dark brown eyes which turned black when angry, and brown skin.” The two sisters are almost identical except for their skin colour, which suggests that they are in some sense doubles, doppelgangers of racial hybridity. In Search of April Raintree is in fact almost gothic in its images of doubling, deception and violence. There are no ghosts here except the shocking spectres of racism, abuse and racial passing, but the result is far more haunting than any formulaic gothic tale.

The two sisters' different colouration marks their identities. From very early on, brown-skinned Cheryl is a proud defender of her Métis heritage. Even in grade school, she challenges the history textbook's version of the Riel Rebellion. She devotes her spare time to writing revisionist histories of the Métis people, but the novel's narrator April is not impressed with these histories. “How come all this mattered to Cheryl so much?” she asks. “Did it help her accept the colour of her skin?”

April is embarrassed to be associated with the Métis, and she uses her light skin to advantage when she decides to pass as white. In a way, April lives up to Cheryl's childhood name for her: “Apple.” She is often successful in disguising her Native heritage, and she even manages to marry a wealthy white businessman from Toronto. To maintain her facade of whiteness, however, she must avoid associating with her brown-skinned sister.

In Search of April Raintree is not so much about Native identity as it is about the dilemma of Native-white hybridity—a theme that is understandably common in Métis writing. April chooses one obviously deceptive way of effacing her hybridity: passing as white. But Cheryl's path is not entirely realistic either, since she preserves a romanticized image of Native people and particularly of her parents, whom she doesn't remember. Both sisters mislead themselves and each other, and this deception eventually has tragic consequences.

The novel's brutal and unflinchingly portrayed turning point takes us to an emotional extreme that has seldom been equalled in any literary tradition. This is one of the most visceral books I have ever read: it reaches straight for your most basic fear and love instincts, and it won't let go until you are completely drained. The violence in the novel is senseless yet almost inevitable, and it follows a kind of murky logic that terrifies. I think this nightmarish excess is justified because Mosionier puts us through the emotional wringer for very important political and ethical reasons. Reading this tragedy, we are brought face to face with the returns of racism and colonialism.

The weakness of In Search of April Raintree is its lack of polish. A great prose stylist Mosionier is not. The question is whether this drawback constitutes a serious flaw in the novel, and I believe it doesn't. Mosionier's artistry lies not in her style but in her ability to present characters in extremely complex and difficult situations, in ways that involve the reader in an intensely emotional experience.

One sign of April Raintree's richness is the diversity of critical responses to it. This new critical edition of the text, edited by Cheryl Suzack, contains ten essays on the novel by scholars and writers, including one by Mosionier herself. This is the first critical edition of any text by a Canadian First Nations writer, and Suzack is to be commended for initiating the project and for choosing some compelling critical essays, particularly those by Margery Fee, Jo-Ann Thom and Helen Hoy.

Green Grass, Running Water, Thomas King's wry masterpiece of white and Native struggles over land, water and culture, is very likely to reach the same kind of canonical status that In Search of April Raintree has now attained, and I look forward to reading a critical edition of it some day. This book left readers with high expectations for King's newest novel. Has he done it again? The answer to that question depends on what one means by “it.”

Truth and Bright Water contains tantalizing elements of mystery, fantasy and, most importantly, comedy à la King. The 15-year-old narrator, Tecumseh, gives us a naïve point of view on most of the happenings in the novel, and his naïveté in some ways heightens the comedic ironies of the book. However, Tecumseh is so clueless that King stretches the limits of credibility here; there are times when the boy seems to be much younger. I suspect the novel would have more narrative interest if Tecumseh was more of a live wire like his cousin Lum. But character is not what this novel is really about; allegory is.

The entire foundation of the book is its geographical symbolism. The communities of Truth and Bright Water are separated by the Shield River, which functions as a metaphor for the surface of artistic representation. Bright Water is a reserve on the Canadian side of the river, while Truth is a non-Native settlement on the American side. The two communities look at each other across the shimmering surface of the water, which they are unable to cross easily because the bridge between them was abandoned before its completion. The most important thing about this symbol is the contrast it creates between the mundane realities of truth and the more mythic aspects of existence found across the river in the play of bright waters—that is, in artistic representations.

Indeed, almost all of the Native characters in Truth and Bright Water are artists of one kind or another, even though several of them (including the narrator) actually live in Truth. The act of artistic creation often seems to give meaning to these people's lives—or if it doesn't give meaning, at least it earns them a little extra spending money when the tourists come to “Indian Days” looking for “authentic” Indian art.

At the heart of the novel's symbolic code is Munroe Swimmer, self-declared “Famous Indian artist.” Swimmer, has set himself the task of obliterating the community's symbols of colonization, particularly the missionary church on the hill overlooking Truth, which he purchases and then (magically) paints out of existence. His project is in fact to decolonize the images of North American history, and his name is indicative of this allegorical function, since he swims in the medium of representation, dropping some things into its depths and dredging up others.

Swimmer's ultimate motivation is political, though one wouldn't guess that at first glance—and the same can be said of King's novel. His jokes and symbols are highly politicized, but his touch is so light that many readers probably won't recognize it. There seems to be none of the anger here that we find in In Search of April Raintree, but on closer observation we find that anger has been transmuted into a kind of guerrilla comedy. It's what might be called the humour of decolonization: an unlikely amalgam of Fanon, Mourning Dove and Seinfeld.

The problem here is that Truth and Bright Water is so weighed down by the groaning architecture of its symbolism that there is hardly any room for the characters to have an appearance of agency or depth. I think this is why the narrator is so insipid: because he is really little more than a cipher to the larger symbolic structures of the novel. The whole novel has the feeling of an exercise rather than an adventure, and in this respect it differs from all of King's previous work. When we finally realize that most of the novel's events have taken place to justify an elaborate experiment in symbolism, the first reaction is chagrin that we have been duped. It might seem that this time the joke is on us.

However, I don't think this is King's real intention here. I suspect he just got so caught up in the machinery of his symbols that there was no room left for complex characters and narrative drive. Luckily, we might also have a second possible reaction to the novel: a belated delight in the depth and cleverness of King's web of symbols, which gives off an almost inexhaustible supply of meanings (in coming years a few English professors will earn merit increments by discovering these meanings and charting their possible significance). But unlike my experience of some other allegorical works—including Green Grass, Running Water, where the symbols enhance the narrative instead of mastering it—I'm not left with a strong desire to dive back into the symbolic surface of Truth and Bright Water.

There is a great divide between Mosionier's raw and intensely affecting novel and King's intricate, funny and somewhat overly clever one. Neither of these writers' approaches is necessarily more authentic or even more politically effective than the other, though I do wish King had moved slightly towards Mosionier's rough-around-the-edges style for the sake of narrative interest. The two novels stand as a testament to the vast range of contemporary First Nations writing. Future writers in this tradition will have to claim their territory somewhere between these two extremes.

Robin Ridington (essay date winter 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8134

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.



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.

(Prucha 65)

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.


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.

“Monroe Swimmer?”

“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.


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.”

“Against Soldiers?”

“Other things too.”

“Like what?”

“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.

(Ortiz 433)

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.


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.”


  1. 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.

    (Opler 40)

  2. 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.

  3. 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).

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

Works Cited

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. <

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.

James H. Cox (essay date spring 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12558

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 white men and then dying, and defeated individuals and tribes disappearing, often voluntarily, into a dark forest. Many Native American storytellers, on the other hand, speak and write of survival and resistance as an explicit protest of colonialism and their absence, imminent or completed, in the invader's stories. However, only in the last decades of the twentieth century has the direct revision and subversion of colonial literatures emerged as a popular narrative strategy for Native American authors. Scholars such as Roy Harvey Pearce, Robert Berkhofer Jr., Vine Deloria Jr., and Ward Churchill critique the “image” or “representation” of Native Americans in stories by colonizers, while Thomas King, for example, incorporates his critique into his story with intensive revisions and subversions of narratives that plot a Native American absence.1 King's strategy suggests that any understanding of colonialism in the Americas must involve familiarity with both Native American and European/European North American storytelling traditions. His fiction, in addition, mediates between cultures and belief systems while simultaneously privileging cultures and belief systems historically marginalized by the invading culture's exclusive and dominative discourses.2

In his first novel, Medicine River (1989), King considers briefly the conflicting worldviews and plots in European/European North American and Native American or First Nations narratives.3 Lionel James, an elder from a Blackfoot reserve in Alberta, Canada, travels to Europe as a storyteller because, he says, “Lots of white people seem real interested in knowing about Indians” (170). James explains that his European audiences reserve their interest for “stories about how Indians used to be. I got some real good stories, funny ones, about how things are now, but those people say, no, tell us about the olden days. So I do” (173). This determined focus on “the olden days” allows European audiences to confine “Indianness” to a distant past and ignore the enduring legacies of colonialism in the late twentieth century. Like their European North American counterparts, European audiences have little interest in acknowledging any contemporary First Nations presence beyond the lone, presumably nonthreatening storyteller to whom they are listening. James also notes he did not see any white storytellers during his travels. This observation emphasizes that he is on display and that the audience has a particular interest in his cultural “difference.” His amused tone suggests James is not simply another exploited Native; he is always prepared to tell a story that will defy an audience's expectations by revealing glimpses into the daily lives of contemporary First Nations people. The humorous stories James tells do not promise or culminate in tragedy or doom.4

King devotes his second novel, Green Grass, Running Water (1993), to an exploration of these conflicting storytelling traditions.5 With particular attention to the waters and floods that are fundamental to many of the world's creation and origin stories, he intervenes in and revises narratives that affirm colonial dominance and plot Native American absence. While Europeans/European North Americans frequently annihilate the Indians of their literary imaginations, King repopulates their stories with First Nations characters whose presence replots doom as survival of, and resistance to, colonial violence and domination. In Culture and Imperialism (1993), Edward Said writes:

Stories are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their history. The main battle in imperialism is over land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who now plans its future—these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time decided in narrative.6

Said's comments illustrate the urgency behind King's narrative strategies. Stories that assure readers that Native Americans will disappear from the landscape also enable the belief that white people have a manifest destiny to own the land and plan its future. However, by emphasizing a strong contemporary Native presence and dynamic Native storytelling tradition, King's revisionary narratives disable European/European North American narratives of domination and conquest that help to enact, enhance, and enable colonialism. In King's story doomed Native Americans, such as Tashtego in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), figuratively resurface in the life-affirming plot that culminates in Alberta Frank's pregnancy and the Sun Dance.7

Within different though related contexts, critics frequently explore King's works of fiction as acts of revision and subversion. Marlene Goldman and Florence Stratton, for example, focus their readings on King's subversions of colonial cartographies. Goldman writes, “King revises inherited maps and replaces them with representations that speak to a Native worldview,” and adds that in Green Grass, Running Water, “King's project also involves subverting a whole range of Western representational strategies, including the map, the linear narrative (in books—particularly the Bible—but in movies, as well), the stereotype, and literacy itself.”8 Like Goldman, Stratton's primary interest is in King's interrogation of European/European Canadian cartographic and geographic discourses as acts of colonial aggression. However, a discussion of King's novel is very difficult without also noting, as Stratton does, his revisionary and subversive strategies in relation to other narrative modes. Stratton even suggests that maps are narratives of domination and conquest, and if we read maps as stories, especially as stories that construct “blank spaces” that both signify the Canadian “wilderness” and articulate a First Nations absence, then both Goldman's and Stratton's readings are parallel to my own interest in King's direct intervention in European/European North American written storytelling traditions.9

The lives of King's characters are entangled in and informed by both the colonial legacy in the Americas and the narratives that enact and enable colonial domination. King begins to extricate his characters' lives from the domination of the invader's discourses by weaving their stories into both Native American oral traditions and into revisions of some of the most damaging narratives of domination and conquest: European American origin stories and national myths, canonical literary texts, and popular culture texts such as John Wayne films.10 These revisions are acts of narrative decolonization. Like Betonie in Silko's Ceremony (1977), King acknowledges the power in knowing and perhaps in collecting the stories and names of European/European North American cultures. In addition he suggests there is power in adapting Native stories and ceremonies to the new context that is defined in part by contact and conflict between Native and non-Native worlds.11 In Green Grass, Running Water King demonstrates how oral and ceremonial traditions can inform and maintain contemporary Native lives and communities, and he constructs as a revisionary and subversive presence his First Nations characters in other narrative landscapes and histories articulated and defined for many centuries almost exclusively by European/European North American authors.


King indicates in the early sections of the novel that he is not simply telling a story according to Native American rather than European/European North American conventions. He is, in addition, revising those non-Native storytelling traditions that enable, enhance, and justify acts of violence and domination. Djelal Kadir demonstrates in Columbus and the Ends of the Earth: Europe's Prophetic Rhetoric as Conquering Ideology (1992) that Christian prophetic traditions helped to guide the understanding Europeans had of colonialism. Of European colonial enterprises in the “New World,” Kadir writes:

The daily contingencies, the historical events of the task's attempted completion become secondary to the transcendent purpose of the task. The historical acts born of that calling, in other words, become way stations for a pilgrimage greater than the tasks themselves, and the human agents who follow the calling are but elected instruments deployed for that greater purpose.12

That “greater purpose” includes the occupation, domination, and conquest of the New World. In this “purposive history,” Kadir explains, “the deeds of God's elect carry with them the sanction of their divine calling. In practical terms, this [prophetic tradition] is an unquestionable form of enablement that justifies all acts and sanctifies all means.”13 The Christian sacred traditions assessed by Kadir provided Europeans and their descendants with an understanding of the relationship between themselves and indigenous populations that, in turn, facilitated attempts to annihilate Native Americans by assimilation and extermination.14 The active pursuit of colonial domination and the narration of European conquest, in other words, begins with an origin story that helps to plot the inevitability of both.

King recognizes the often direct correlation between a culture's sacred stories and human action; by guiding or demanding responses to specific contexts these origin and creation stories are active agents in the world. Therefore King begins his revision of colonial narratives that plot Native American doom by intervening in the Judeo-Christian origin story. In Genesis 1:1-2 the Judeo-Christian God creates the heavens and the earth and then “hovers over the face of the waters.” The biblical verses that follow narrate the division and containment of the waters by God. In the prologue to King's novel Coyote has an autonomous and contrary dream GOD that believes he is in charge of the world.15 GOD's first concern is the water: “Where did all that water come from? shouts that GOD.” After Coyote tells his dream to relax, GOD says, “But there is water everywhere” (3). King displaces God's role in creation: to create the heavens and earth, hover over the face of the waters, then divide and contain them. GOD'S first impulse in King's novel is to regain his lost position, and his most pressing concern is that the waters are out of his control or beyond his authority. King's intervention in Genesis involves a liberation of the waters of creation from the control of GOD. In addition, this intervention and revision initiates an act of liberation from the narrative colonization of Native America.

Water flows throughout the many narrative strands of Green Grass, Running Water and functions as a fluid symbol of creation, destruction, or both simultaneously. In addition, water is the source of creation in many Native American origin stories and in King's novel, which begins, “So. In the beginning, there was nothing. Just the water” (1). This water is not a threatening force that needs to be controlled and contained by a god, a treaty, a government, or a dam, for example. In King's novel water precedes any act of creation or the existence of any creator. Rather than a god creating the heavens and earth then hovering over the face of the water, the creation in Green Grass begins with water and a sleeping and dreaming Coyote.16 In his narration of four Native American origin stories King also illustrates that water is a participant in, rather than an apparent hindrance to, the creation of animal and human worlds. The contrasting role of water in the Judeo-Christian and Native American origin stories suggests, in King's novel, divergent responses both to the natural world and to the humans who reside in that landscape. God's and GOD's urges to divide and contain—or divide and conquer—the waters of creation inform the actions of those colonizers in the Americas who proceeded on the assumption that their destiny was to dominate the land and indigenous populations.

While European North American anthropologists, ethnographers, and cultural tourists (such as late-twentieth-century New Agers) have inscribed Native American stories into their own worldviews, King performs a similar appropriative act of the Judeo-Christian origin story, though from a less-privileged cultural, ideological, and narrative space.17 King does not proceed with a story based on the assumption of European cultural and racial superiority. He reconfigures the power dynamic articulated in the invader's discourse—European/European North American as inherently superior, Native American as inherently inferior—by making GOD the product of Coyote's imagination. King then replots the trajectory of Christian prophetic traditions that provide divine assurance of and, therefore, enable domination and conquest. Within this historically marginalized understanding of colonial contact and conflict Coyote is a representative of non-proselytizing, polytheistic Native American cultures. He is powerful but appears uninterested in the act of creation and jests nonchalantly. As the occupant of oral narratives Coyote is the articulation of a balance between traditional understandings of the world enforced by community expectations and the convictions of individual storytellers. In addition, in King's novel Coyote appears to know that with the next telling of a creation story, the world will be made anew. On the other hand, the GOD of Coyote's wayward dream is a representative of the proselytizing, monotheistic Christian worldview and is temperamental and aggressive. GOD is the captive of a written text and, therefore, his character and role in the plot of King's novel is predetermined: he will demand that creation proceeds according to his Word as documented in Genesis. The character GOD, with his struggle to gain the power to control and define the creation of the world and its occupants, shares the attributes of the deity whose words were utilized to justify some of the worst depredations of colonialism.

Following the prologue King establishes that his novel also diverges from and is a challenge to secular non-Native storytelling traditions. The novel has at least six characters who either narrate the story we are reading or play a substantial role in the directions the many plots take: the storyteller; Coyote; and four Native American female creators in the guise of four old Indian men, of indeterminate age, whose names are Robinson Crusoe, Hawkeye, Ishmael, and the Lone Ranger. King explains in an interview that these four Indian men are “four archetypal Indian women who come right out of oral creation stories,” and adds, “they've been forced to assume these guises—by history, by literature, by just the general run of the world—and so that's what they call themselves now.”18 As the four disguised creators prepare to begin the story, the Lone Ranger says, “Once upon a time …,” then “A long time ago in a faraway land …,” “Many moons comechucka …,” and, finally, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth” (9-11). After each start her companions protest that she has started the wrong story. The novel will not adhere to the conventions of non-Native fairy tales, legends, or romances ventriloquized through wise sachems constructed in European/European North American imaginations. Again, the novel also will not follow the plot of one of the privileged sacred texts of Western culture. Only after the Lone Ranger and her companions begin the story in the Cherokee language, with the words of a Cherokee divining ceremony, do they agree to continue.19 These passages suggest King's primary concern with what Elizabeth Cook-Lynn calls the potentially “chilling” consequences of the stories some authors tell about Native Americans.20 A story that begins “Many moons” and concludes in a great warrior's death-song for his entire tribe, or that proceeds from “In the beginning” to the annihilation of Indians by imagination, assimilation, or extermination, is, to use Cook-Lynn's words, a chilling deployment of stories. To replot sacred and secular narratives that promise the doom of Native Americans, to find and then free the waters with a divining ceremony rather than contain the waters in order to control them, is, on the other hand, nourishing.

In this beginning section readers learn that the plots of conventional colonial storytelling traditions are actually “mistakes,” occasionally the product of an intervention by Coyote, that results in a world out of balance and without harmony in human relations. In the discussion about how to begin, Ishmael interrupts the Lone Ranger to say, “That's the wrong story” (11). Ishmael adds, “Remember what happened last time,” and after the Lone Ranger says, “Everybody makes mistakes,” Ishmael warns, “Best not to make them with stories” (11). As active agents in the world stories produce, guide, and, in part, define human lives, and Ishmael indicates that the last time the Lone Ranger began with Genesis, the result was an unarticulated and undesirable “mistake” that Ishmael does not want repeated. Within the context of King's novel these “mistakes” signify the assumption of European cultural and racial superiority, the invasion of the Americas, the perpetration of violence against indigenous populations, and the narration of inevitable domination and conquest.

King divides his novel into four sections through which he weaves his revisions and subversions of Genesis into the story of Coyote's journey to a Sun Dance in Alberta with Robinson Crusoe, Hawkeye, Ishmael, and the Lone Ranger.21 GOD recognizes there has been an intervention in what he considers his creation, and his angry concern regarding the loss of total control over the creative act illustrates his fear of the ideological and cultural implications of the usurpation of his authority. When King returns to the narrative strand that includes Coyote and GOD, GOD asks a series of questions: “Where did all the water come from?”; “What happened to my earth without form?”; and “What happened to my void?” (37; my emphasis). As in the prologue, GOD's concern is with the water and the water's role in creation. GOD articulates a possessive view of the world, but Coyote's presence challenges GOD's assumption that he has the privilege to create the world, out of the ever-present water, according to his demands. In addition, by partially silencing and marginalizing GOD King prevents the narration of biblical plot and prophecy that colonialists deployed to sanction various acts of domination. This intervention in the primary sacred text of Christianity, in other words, subverts many authoritative claims based on that text, such as the cultural and racial superiority of Europeans and the manifest destiny of people of European descent and Christian allegiance to dominate the Americas.

While GOD protests to an unhelpful Coyote, the narrator begins a Native American creation story and thereby starts to replot those stories upon which many Europeans/European North Americans developed an understanding of colonialism and their own divinely sanctioned right to dominate. The Lone Ranger tells the story of First Woman, who falls from the Sky World into the Water World, where Ducks catch her and help make land from mud placed on grandmother Turtle's back.22 The communal participation in the creation of land by animals and First Woman contrasts to the single-voiced command by a male deity that creates the firmament in Genesis 1:6. In addition, the cooperation of animals and humans illustrates a particular worldview that does not express a separation between the “human” and the “natural” worlds. In Genesis 1:26 God gives Adam dominion over animals, and in Genesis 9:2 God tells Noah, following the flood, that “the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth.” The fundamentally different Christian worldview informs a cultural value that promotes the exploitation and domination of the environment. This specific cultural value enables the reading of North American landscapes as “undeveloped” or “uncivilized” and therefore as “empty.” Rhetorical “emptiness” erases Native American populations and facilitates the acquisition of Native lands by white entrepreneurs, governments, and corporations with little or no regard for Native concerns: flooding Cherokee or Sioux lands, for example, is much easier if the federal government believes there are no “real” Cherokees or Sioux.23 In other words, whoever controls or cooperates with the waters of creation (and destruction) has a potentially chilling or nourishing impact on the world. By articulating an understanding of the world and the North American landscape that diverges from dominative Western interpretations, King blocks a reading of the landscape as empty or available for possession and exploitation.

King's revisions of Genesis render the Judeo-Christian origin story a powerless source of the worldview many colonizers invoked as justification for violence and domination. In King's novel, for example, First Woman occupies Eve's position and Adam is “Ahdamn.” The Tree of Life also talks in King's story. Though there is a talking animal (the serpent) in Genesis, GOD protests the existence of a talking Tree of Life. Witnessing what he considers a travesty in his domain, GOD jumps into the garden to attempt an intervention of his own. This intervention is, however, unsuccessful. By inscribing the biblical narrative into a Native American creation story, King subverts the Christian God's authority. Coyote's tricks, the presence of a powerful Native American female creator, and the “damning” of Christianity's “First Man” leave GOD in a foul temper with no power to voice his story and no audience for his complaints. Within the context of King's novel, Europeans and their descendants who support and participate in colonial projects also no longer have the power to narrate a story according to their worldviews.

In addition to denying GOD's authority to narrate the creation, King exposes how many of the privileged narratives written by European/European North American authors encourage the domination of extra-European populations and women. To illustrate the utilization of the Judeo-Christian origin story for cultural self-aggrandizement, King emphasizes the disparity between GOD's self-representation and First Woman's perceptions of him: while GOD considers himself as powerful as Coyote, First Woman perceives him as a dog. King extends the contrast between GOD's understanding of his own power and privilege and his actual power and privilege within King's text when First Woman, Ahdamn, and Old Coyote begin to eat against his orders. GOD threatens First Woman and Ahdamn with the enforcement of “Christian rules,” but First Woman decides she does not want to live with such a “grouchy GOD for a neighbor” and leads Ahdamn out of the garden (73-74). In Genesis God punishes Adam and Eve for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil by revoking their immortality, afflicting women with painful childbirth, assigning to men the hard labor of tilling the earth, and finally banishing them from the garden. In King's revised story, First Woman chooses to leave behind both the garden and GOD's unsuccessful attempt to impose his authority, and Ahdamn follows her. First Woman's voluntary departure from the garden is a reclamation of the institutional authority women had in many Native American communities prior to colonization.24

King effaces the boundaries between the creation story and the main narrative to illustrate the power that sacred stories have to influence “real” lives or to shape the world into a particular view that has cultural and political currency. Immediately following First Woman's and Ahdamn's exit from the garden King weaves his subversion of Genesis into the story of the Lone Ranger (that is, First Woman in disguise) and Tonto. In this popular culture narrative of white heroism the story begins when Tonto saves the Lone Ranger from death. However, as the story continues Tonto occupies a subservient position in relation to the white man, who affirms his hero status at the beginning and end of every radio program, television episode, or film. The first section of the novel ends with the incarceration of First Woman and Ahdamn at Fort Marion in Florida, where the U.S. Army held Native American prisoners of war in the nineteenth century. Colonial authorities, King suggests, are never easily evaded. In order to escape, First Woman puts on a black mask and assumes her Lone Ranger identity, which fools the guards. King writes, “So the Lone Ranger and Ishmael and Robinson Crusoe and Hawkeye head west” (106). In these passages he begins to weave the narrative of the revised creation story into the stories of his other characters. The cultural currency of the Lone Ranger narrative provides First Woman with a free pass out of the U.S. Army prison; this intervention in the popular culture narrative subverts the European American claim to the West as the landscape of white heroism. The subversion also reclaims that landscape for a Native American creator and her three disguised companions. King's strategy of joining these two narrative strands—the ancient sacred and the contemporary popular or technological—also emphasizes the transhistorical persistence of European/European North American stories that articulate, enhance, and enable continued colonial domination.

In the second section of the novel King emphasizes the more cyclical patterns of many Native American storytelling traditions and the inflexible, linear, and teleological patterns of many European/European North American storytelling traditions. The latter traditions fix the outcome of colonialism as domination and inevitable conquest of the extra-European world. King's focus shifts in the second section from the revised narrative of Adam and Eve to the story of Noah, another biblical patriarch who is, after Adam, God's second anointed colonizer of the world. This section begins with words similar to the opening passages of the first, but with Ishmael (the name that disguises Changing Woman) as narrator: “All right. In the beginning there was nothing. Just the water. Everywhere you looked, that's where the water was. It was pretty water, too” (112). Changing Woman occupies Eve's space in the revised narrative of this section, and when she falls from the sky, like First Woman, she lands near Noah, who is suspicious of women as a result of Eve's responsibility for the “fall of man” in Genesis. In Genesis 6:1-8 the author blames the wickedness of man for the flood that kills every living being, with the exception of those on Noah's ark. To emphasize the male attempt to dominate European/European North American culture, the Noah of King's novel invokes patriarchal privilege to assign blame to Eve for this destruction, too. King's Noah, in fact, also revises the biblical narrative, though with oppressive rather than liberatory objectives.

The Noah in Green Grass, Running Water shares several unflattering traits with GOD. Like GOD's garden, Noah's canoe has strict regulations, based on a Christian worldview, that govern behavior. Following GOD's example Noah attempts to impose the same cultural values on his water-borne domain that many European immigrants, Christian missionaries, and the federal government invoked to justify domination of the North American landscape. For example, when Changing Woman talks to the Turtles, Noah says, “Talking to the animals again. … That's almost bestiality, and its against the rules … Christian rules” (160). Noah is also an agent of patriarchal Christian order, though unlike GOD Noah objectifies Changing Woman and has an interest only in her potential for procreation. Unable to capture Changing Woman, who is understandably reluctant to accept Noah's sexual advances, Noah says, “This is a Christian ship. … I am a Christian man. This is a Christian journey. And if you can't follow our Christian rules, then you're not wanted on the voyage” (163).25 Finally, Noah also has a juvenile temper that manifests when the world does not conform to his demands, after which he enacts severe punishments: he abandons Changing Woman, who refuses to follow his rules, on an island. When the narrative continues a ship passes the island, and King weaves the Changing Woman story into a revision and subversion of Moby-Dick, a canonical literary text that also revises and subverts, though without transcending, European/European North American worldviews. The second section ends when Changing Woman, like First Woman in the first section of the novel, is nominally imprisoned at Fort Marion.

The first two sections of the novel have conflicts between representatives of European and Native worldviews. The struggle for King, Coyote, and the female creators disguised as white men is to produce a narrative that opposes conventional European/European North American stories of the conquest of Native America, stories that might end with the permanent incarceration at Fort Marion of First Woman and Changing Woman. The variants in King's plot, however, illustrate that the stories of colonial contact and conflict are not always the same: neither Native Americans nor Europeans/European North Americans always “win” or “lose.” For example, Changing Woman is unable to escape immediately, perhaps as a result of Coyote's intervention. Yet, as readers learn in the following section, Coyote's rather cavalier narration of the plot results in the arrest and incarceration of Thought Woman. Unlike the Christian creator, Coyote is fallible; he makes mistakes and continually threatens the balance of the world. Though Coyote's foolishness always contains the possibility of disaster and destruction, he usually promises liberation, as with First Woman, and almost always produces humor: the soldiers who arrest Thought Woman have flowers in their hair, compliments of a Coyote under pressure to narrate the right story.

The Old Testament stories, however, appear to promise only oppression and violence. After Noah invokes the “Christian rules” near the beginning of the second section, Coyote asks Ishmael, “Rules? … Is this that contrary dream from the garden story?” Ishmael answers, “Of course. … It's all the same story” (163). Not only does the narrative appear to be the same, but so does the water, which flows from the water of creation to the biblical flood to the oceans upon which Ahab's ship travels. Coyote muses later in the novel, “all this water imagery must mean something” (391; my emphasis). Coyote's words dare readers to attempt to contain the water in a single interpretation, but the water ebbs and flows and shifts meanings depending on the literary and cultural contexts. The flow of the water in the European/European North American stories primarily carries men seeking to control the world. Conversely, the water in the Native American stories catches the women who fall from the sky and supports them, with the help of animals, as they create the world. Though it is a fluid symbol, the water signifies conflicting worldviews and narrative trends in the stories King constructs and rewrites: the water carries either the threat of domination and doom in Noah's canoe, Ahab's ship, or a flotilla of used cars with oddly familiar names, for example, or female Native American creators who resist all forms of domination.

In the third and fourth sections King introduces readers to several more of the colonizing culture's representative patriarchs, all of whom attempt to dominate Native creators by inscribing them into Christian storytelling traditions and belief systems. For example, Robinson Crusoe (the disguise of the Navajo cultural heroine Thought Woman) falls from a river into the sky and meets A. A. (Arch Angel) Gabriel, who has a business card that reads “Canadian Security and Intelligence Service” on one side and “Heavenly Host” on the other. This Gabriel enforces the laws both of the Christian God and the Canadian government. More directly connected to the water that flows throughout the novel is Old Woman, an important figure in Blackfoot stories, who appears in the guise of Hawkeye and narrates the fourth section. She also falls from the sky then meets Young Man Walking on Water (Jesus). In a revision of Matthew 8: 23-27, Young Man Walking on Water fails to calm rough waters by shouting commands. Old Woman accuses him of “acting as though you have no relations” (390), then she quiets the water by singing to the waves. His attempt to dominate the waters fails; her attempt to communicate with the water succeeds. King explains that the expression “all my relations” is, in a Native context, “an encouragement for us to accept the responsibilities we have within this universal family by living our lives in a harmonious and moral manner (a common admonishment is to say of someone that they act as if they have no relations).”26 In this revision of a biblical narrative Young Man Walking on Water does not act in a harmonious and moral manner. The saved men, however, decide to follow him rather than Old Woman as a result of their inability to believe that a woman could have calmed the waters. In these passages King illustrates a specific point where the narrations or “plots” of European and Native belief systems begin to bifurcate.

The repetitive narrative pattern in the novel's four sections includes variants of wording, plot, and characterization that reflect the different narrators of the sections, and therefore suggests that a dynamic oral tradition rather than a static written or electronic tradition informs King's novel.27 This narrative strategy also exposes the rigidity of conventional European/European North American storytelling practices that for hundreds of years have articulated primarily, though not exclusively, Native American subservience, inferiority, and doom. King illustrates that there is more than one plot in the story of Native and non-Native relations, and suggests that the imposition of a monolithic plot of doom is an act of domination that silences stories and lives. By revising and subverting the Judeo-Christian origin myth in Genesis and the story of Noah, and by critiquing or undermining the power of Gabriel and Jesus, King draws our attention to the narrative construction of belief systems and emphasizes that authorial choice rather than divine sanction informed the production of narratives that plot the European conquest of Native America.

In addition to King's revisions of Genesis he intervenes in canonical literary texts that privilege European-influenced worldviews and position non-Europeans in marginalized or subservient roles. Specifically, King replots the narratives of domination or conquest in Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), and James Fenimore Cooper's Leather-stocking tales (1826-1841). He begins his revision by recasting Robinson Crusoe, Ishmael, and Hawkeye as female Native American creators in disguise as Native American male elders with the names of European/European North American literary heroes. King capitalizes on the authority the dominative literary culture confers upon these texts by invoking the names of their protagonists. By altering their ethnic and gender identities, however, he dramatically shifts the colonial perspectives of the original texts and subsequently interrogates the cultural, political, and ideological foundations of the cultures that informed their production. The female creators are escapees from a mental hospital on the site of Fort Marion in Florida; the head of the “asylum” is Dr. Joseph Hovaugh.28 The women occupy, therefore, a place of subversive authority and function as elusive tricksters outside of the control of the Christian and colonial world's representative, the doctor whose name approximates Jehovah's.29 As Robin Ridington notes, “Native American storytelling is, I believe, the key to their way of theorizing.”30 King's revisions and subversions are in fact an invitation to revisit the texts to which he alludes and to investigate the messages these authors convey about colonial contact and conflict in the Americas.


In European and European North American storytelling traditions about colonialism, a narrative of domination is a story in which Native Americans remain unquestionably inferior and subservient to characters of European descent. Yet, while domination implies a presence to be dominated, a narrative of conquest is a story that culminates in the absence of Native Americans from the text: authors of these narratives create a Native American presence only to plot that presence out of the story. By revising Moby-Dick King indicates, perhaps, his admiration of Melville's revisions of biblical narrative into an epic about American whaling; Ridington explains that King “likes Melville's literary tricks.”31 In addition, Melville's canon includes more extensive criticism of European and European American expansionism than, for example, Cooper's.32 Edward Said, in fact, notes that Moby-Dick is an intensely critical exploration of “the American world quest.”33 However, this quest, as D. H. Lawrence dramatically articulates, ends in a doom that encompasses not only Ahab but his entire crew—the representatives of the world's extra-European populations. In spite of his critique of a historical trajectory that appears to promise only destruction, Melville writes a narrative of conquest. At the end, as “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago,” all members of extra-European worlds are absent and only the white man survives, buoyed by Queequeg's coffin and recovered by a biblical mother, Rachel, in search of her lost (white) children.34 King alludes to this line in Green Grass, Running Water, though in his novel the “great shroud of the sea” is the water that drowns Eli Stands Alone but brings life to the cottonwood trees used in the Sun Dance.

Moby-Dick contains many references to Native Americans, and these references contribute to a major subtext in the novel: Melville's fabricated history of European North American contact and conflict with Native Americans in which he erases violence committed against Native Americans, appropriates a Native American historical and cultural inheritance for the multiethnic crew of the Pequod, and limits the roles of Native American characters to either prophecy-dispensing elder or noble hunter. In addition, Melville's Native Americans represent a human prehistory that he constructs as the source of a “savage” and fundamental component of human identity toward which all participants in a whale hunt proceed. The Pequod's voyage, therefore, constitutes the search for and then destruction of a primeval Native American identity that Melville sees as a human rather than as a specific cultural or historical inheritance. The pursuit of, resistance to, and even consumption of the “savagery” of the human soul (as represented by the search for Moby Dick) is Melville's articulation of a metaphysics of whale hunting enabled by the presumed defeat of Native America and the subsequent appropriation of their history and culture. Moby-Dick is a narrative of domination in that Melville constructs his plot on a distorted and appropriated Native American history, and relegates Native American characters to romanticized and subservient roles in relation to the privileged European American characters. In addition, the novel is a narrative of European conquest in that the plot culminates in the absence of Native Americans and all extra-Europeans. Melville's text, then, provides King with abundant material for revision.35

A brief analysis of the name of Ahab's ship, the Pequod, and the three Native American characters in the novel (but primarily Tashtego), reveals how reading Moby-Dick with the revisionary example of Green Grass, Running Water in mind exposes the limits of Melville's imaginative horizons: Melville could critique imperialism and the will to dominate much more than his contemporaries, but he could not imagine a plot in which extra-European populations survive and thrive. When Ishmael chooses the Pequod to carry himself and Queequeg to sea, he provides a brief history of the ship's name: “Pequod, you will no doubt remember, was the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians, now extinct as the ancient Medes” (104). The words “now extinct” suggest that unnamed, irresistible historical forces erased the Pequots from the landscape and, therefore, obscure one of the more violent events of early colonization: the 1637 massacre by Massachusetts Puritans of the Pequots who actually occupied territory that became the state of Connecticut.36 Following the massacre there was, Richard Drinnon writes, a “relentless pursuit” of the survivors. After the seizure of some Pequot refugees, Drinnon adds, a Skipper named John Gallop “took twenty or so captives a little beyond the harbor and threw them bound into the sea or, as a Puritan historian exulted, fed ‘the fishes with ‘em.’”37 By ignoring the Puritan assault, Pequot resistance, and continued violence Melville constructs an ostensibly unproblematic narrative that allows the crew of the Pequod to occupy a historical and cultural space that serves as a metaphorical inheritance from the Pequots. When Ahab walks the deck of the Pequod, however, he treads upon this erased history; his entire crew floats above the “twenty or so captives” that Gallop drowned.

As a “character” the Pequod's “identity” is multiethnic and multicultural, but to reinforce the identification of the Pequod with an appropriated Native American past and thus to construct a fabricated inheritance for Ishmael and the crew, Melville connects additional images of Native America with the ship: an enclosure on the quarter deck that looks like a “wigwam,” for example, with whale bones secured by fibers that resemble “the top-knot on some old Pottowottamie Sachem's head” (106). The “wigwam” and “top-knot” help construct a “noble craft” (106). The Pequod's “identity,” then, is primarily imbued with an appropriated history inhabited by the “noble Native American savage.” In addition, Ishmael's observations upon first boarding the Pequod provide the earliest connections Melville makes between this nobly savage Native American inheritance and whale hunting.

Queequeg is the most celebrated harpooner as a result of his friendship with Ishmael. Critics generally ignore the primary Native American character of the story, Tashtego, as well as brief appearances by the “old squaw Tistig” who says that Ahab's name will prove prophetic, and “Tashtego's senior” who provides important information about Ahab's legend. Tashtego, however, plays a prominent role in the novel in reference to the crucial moments of the plot. Ishmael explains that Tashtego was “an unmixed Indian from Gay Head, the most westerly promontory of Martha's Vineyard, where there still exists the last remnant of a village of red men, which has long supplied the neighboring island of Nantucket with many of her most daring harpooners” (164). After he establishes Tashtego as a full-blood and one of the last of his tribe (and thus perpetuates the vanishing race discourse that justified colonization), Ishmael exoticizes Tashtego's “aboriginal past,” which further confines Native Americans to a distant, ostensibly “simple” and paradisiac history. Tashtego, therefore, is a familiar character in European American literature. Melville was surely aware of the conventional plots that determined Native Americans out of existence, and his deployment of such a stereotypical character could function to critique rather than affirm Ahab's violent, Puritanical authoritarianism that drives the Pequod to destruction. On the other hand, Melville recognizes the symbolic currency of certain misrepresentations of Native Americans and appropriations of their history, despite his critique of imperialism and discourses of savagism and civilization. In addition, he envisions the same culmination to the plot as his literary contemporaries: doom.

At crucial moments in the plot Tashtego rather than Queequeg occupies Melville's focus: Tashtego sights the first whale of the voyage, for example, and he is the first to harpoon a whale (376). Ishmael explains that upon sighting the first whale Tashtego alerts the crew, “Like some prophet or seer beholding the shadows of Fate, and by those wild cries announcing their coming” (288-89). Tashtego has intimate connections, Ishmael suggests, both to whales and to Fate, that is, to doom. Tashtego also falls into a whale's head that is hanging over the side of the Pequod, and Queequeg saves him in a scene Melville renders as a birth. In a summary of Queequeg's heroics Melville writes, “through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished” (444). After the whale gives birth to Tashtego and Melville establishes the cetaceous lineage of this Native American full-blood, Tashtego sights Moby Dick for the first time on the voyage, though Ahab claims the prize—a doubloon nailed to one of the masts—for himself (688). As these passages affirm, Melville constructs Tashtego as a character who guides the Pequod into the savage, primeval world of the whale of which Tashtego is already a symbolic member.

Tashtego occupies a privileged narrative position within Melville's metaphysics of whale hunting, but he perishes with the Pequod. With the exception of Ishmael, though, Tashtego is the last crew member readers see alive, as his hand emerges from the sea to hammer a sea hawk's wing to the mast. Melville writes,

so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.


Ahab's monomaniacal defiance of the power of nature and the gods dominates the last part of the novel, but in the last scene it is Tashtego, not Ahab, who becomes a powerful agent of the devil, the character responsible for capturing the “living part of heaven,” the archangel in avian form, which the Pequod needs for passage into hell. While this Puritanical captain is responsible for leading the Pequots to a second (though symbolic) massacre, the Native American's “savage” and “pagan” identity still provokes the violence in Melville's narrative.

Like the Pequod's, Ahab's identity is complex. In Removals: Nineteenth Century American Literature and the Politics of Indian Affairs (1991), Lucy Maddox explains Ahab's descent from the Puritans, specifically from Cotton Mather.38 Melville notes, however, that although Ahab was “nominally included in the census of Christendom, he was still an alien to it.” Melville then compares the Pequod's captain to John Logan, the son of a Cayuga chief and husband of a Shawnee woman (206). In a series of events that helped facilitate the beginning of Lord Dunsmore's War, Logan avenged the murder of his pregnant sister by European American settlers.39 Ahab, then, also occupies a borderland between Europe and Native America, but Melville's and Ahab's searches both end in destruction: the possible fusion of European and Native American identities appears as doomed as the Pequod's voyage. Maddox explains that in spite of Melville's “radical critique of the civilization-or-extinction argument” that dominated debates between European Americans about Native Americans during much of the nineteenth century, he “is ultimately incapable of dislodging or replacing the models he is resisting.”40 These models include literary plots that terminate in the inevitable absence of Native Americans. Melville's inability to transgress the culturally sanctioned boundaries of possible outcomes to European colonialism exposes him to the critique of twentieth-century authors who have an interest in revising and subverting the narratives that plot the destruction of Native Americans.


In the second section of Green Grass, Running Water King critiques the discourses of patriarchy, race, and empire that Melville explores in Moby-Dick by intervening in the narrative of the Pequod's voyage and by providing substantial revisions and subversions to it. King also revises Melville's “Benito Cereno” and briefly mentions “Bartleby the Scrivener,” though the references to Moby-Dick pertain more directly to the revision of narratives that plot an inevitably tragic destiny for Native Americans. In Ishmael's section Changing Woman finds herself on an island until she sees a ship approach. From the deck of the ship Ahab shouts the question he asks every whaler he passes during the Pequod's voyage: “Have you seen a white whale?” After Changing Woman swims out to the ship, Ahab introduces himself as the Pequod's captain, then shouts, “Whaleswhaleswhaleswhalesbianswhalesbianswhaleswhales,” and the crew-members grab their weapons (219). Melville questions the sustainability of the Pequod's authoritarian culture; King explicitly indicts the Pequod's voyage as a metaphorical representation of Puritanical oppression. In King's revised narrative the prey of the Pequod's crew are the “whalesbians” who are doubly marginalized by gender and sexual alliance.

King's interventions in Melville's novel offer an even more critical examination of the cultural belief system that sanctions Ahab's antagonistic, violent, and patriarchal view of the world. As Ahab exhorts his crew to kill, Changing Woman protests, but Ahab explains, “This is a Christian world, you know. We only kill things that are useful or things we don't like” (219). Presumably “things we don't like” include extra-European populations. Coyote then interrupts the story and notes that Ahab looks like “that GOD guy” (219), which further conflates the Pequod's captain with God and suggests that Ahab, in his quest to kill the white whale and drive the Pequod to destruction, is a representative of a vengeful, destructive, and oppressive Christian world. The Ahab in Green Grass, Running Water also articulates overtly the discourses of race and European empire that circulate throughout Moby-Dick and render Tashtego, the African-descended Daggoo, and the Pacific Islander Queequeg as doomed noble savages and exotic traces of a fundamental human identity.

Rather than being the victim of an inscrutable God, an indifferent Nature, or the “savage” within himself, as in Melville's text, the Ahab in King's novel faces resistance from both a female creative force and the avatar of populations marginalized by European North American colonial and patriarchal forces. When the story continues, the shout of Ahab's men becomes “Blackwhaleblackwhaleblackwhalesbiansblackwhalesbiansblackwhale,” again suggesting that the voyage of the Pequod is an exercise in both patriarchal and racist oppression now against the triply marginalized “blackwhalesbians” (220). The succeeding passages find the characters arguing over the direction of the narrative. Ahab resists the shouts of his men and claims he sees Moby Dick, but Changing Woman says he actually sees Moby-Jane, the Great Black Whale. Coyote intervenes to claim that he has read Moby-Dick and explains that “the great white whale” rather than the Great Black Whale destroys the Pequod. Changing Woman corrects Coyote, noting that the English colonists, not Moby Dick, destroyed the Pequots (220). When the crew finally tells Ahab the whale is not only black but female, thereby exposing some of the cultural assumptions regarding race and gender upon which Melville structures his narrative, Ahab responds with a draconian command reminiscent of Noah's abandonment of Changing Woman: throw the recalcitrant sailors overboard. Moby-Jane finally sinks the ship then she and Changing Woman swim away together in a rather “whalesbian” fashion. Moby-Jane explains, “We do this every year. … He'll be back. He always comes back” (221). King revises Moby-Dick and then captures the new narrative in a cycle during which Moby-Jane returns annually to torment and punish Ahab. In Melville's novel Moby Dick functions, in part, as the “other” that Ahab is unable to dominate or conquer. King demystifies the white whale as indecipherable literary symbol by articulating his own understanding of the marks on a sperm whale's skin: these hieroglyphics represent the inscrutable lives and voices of non-Europeans, whose absence many colonialist imaginations fervently desire.

The cumulative revisions of different genres of narratives of domination and conquest—from origin stories employed as tools of domination to literary narratives—suggest King's interest in revising the entire dominative history of white-Native relations. King sets his novel in 1992, the year of the Columbian quincentennial, and provides a satirical retelling of the voyage of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, one of the first narratives of the conquest of North America. His intervention in this narrative inserts a Native American perspective into this initial moment of contact between the European and Native American worlds. During the unfolding of the narrative of Green Grass, Running Water, three non-Native characters lose their cars. The only clue is a puddle of water in each car's empty parking space, and the police are unsuccessful in their investigation. The cars reappear near sunrise, however, floating across a reservoir formed by a dam that the Blackfoot tribe did not want; one observer explains that he sees, “A Nissan, a Pinto, and a Karmann-Ghia” (448). The cars float across the reservoir and “into the dam just as the earthquake began. … It was comical at first. … But beneath the power and the motion there was a more ominous sound of things giving away, of things falling apart. … And the dam gave away, and the water and the cars tumbled over the edge of the world” (454). King's description of the dam as “the edge of the world” suggests his narrative has metaphoric, mythological, or even religious connotations. As Djelal Kadir explains, the New World for Columbus constituted both the geographical and the apocryphal ends of the earth. The arrival of Columbus's ships might have been briefly comical, but European “discovery” of the Western Hemisphere began a major shift in world history that included the devastation of many Native American populations. Readers might recognize the reference to William Butler Yeats's poem “The Second Coming” in which the Irish poet, also living in a historical context defined by invasion of his home country, prophecies an apocalypse. The poem reads:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.(41)

(emphasis mine)

King's reference implies that the arrival of Columbus and the shipwreck of the Santa Maria (which led to the first European settlement in the Western Hemisphere) signals the beginning of a disaster that he renders as a flood; even with out identifying the allusion to Yeats's poem the meaning is explicit.

However, reading the earthquake solely as a destructive event reinscribes King's Native characters into another tragic narrative. The floating cars and then the earthquake are “comical at first” because they are Coyote creations; prior to this event the novel's resident trickster could not refrain from a little dancing and singing.42 Coyote has summoned Europeans with one of his unpredictable creative acts. New World exploration, in other words, was a trickster-influenced endeavor and perhaps even one of Coyote's “mistakes,” like the virgin birth about two thousand years ago to which King frequently refers. Throughout the novel Eli Stands Alone refuses to allow the company that constructed the dam to destroy his house, which his mother built and which occupies land that would be flooded should the dam begin operation. Eli's resistance takes the form of a daily, ritual conversation with Clifford Sifton, the dam's architect and the namesake of the Superintendent of Indian Affairs and Interior Minister of Canada from 1896 to 1905.43 The conversation always ends when Eli answers “no” to Sifton's request to vacate the land. After the earthquake the rushing water carries away Eli and his home. In Moby-Dick the waters consume Tashtego and the entire crew of the Pequod and appear to represent, primarily, destruction or the “Doom!” of Lawrence's reading. In King's novel the once-restrained waters that carry Eli from the landscape also return nourishment to the cottonwoods the Blackfoots use for their annual Sun Dance. To paraphrase Coyote, all the water imagery does mean something in Green Grass, Running Water: not doom, but a balance of destruction and creation, with a primary focus on the restoration of life.

The Coyote earthquake and the wreck of the automobile flotilla are the culmination both of King's revision of European American national mythology and of Moby-Dick. The dam in Green Grass, Running Water is the “Grand Baleen,” and, as Florence Stratton explains, the name originates with “the Great Whale project in northern Quebec, which was to have been the second phase of the James Bay project.”44 Stratton continues:

In 1992, Great Whale suffered a tremendous setback when New York state cancelled its contract to purchase power from Hydro Quebec, the result of a Quebec Cree campaign against further development. It is a victory King implicitly celebrates in his novel. In 1994, the project was cancelled altogether.45

The “Grand Baleen Dam,” therefore, represents the imposition of colonial authority on First Nations geography. However, in King's novel the Great Whale is also Moby Dick, “an immense porcelain wall, white and glistening in the late morning light,” that is, a monstrous creation of European American imaginations that promises destruction and doom (118).46 Coyote's presence, which “allows us to create a particular kind of world in which the Christian concern with good and evil and order and disorder is replaced with the more Native concern for balance and harmony,” helps King to explode these European American imaginations constrained by linear narratives and absolute binaries.47 He returns the Great White Whale (the Grand, and white, Baleen Dam) to the water, which “rolled on as it had for eternity” (455). King might agree with Melville's critique of a worldview predicated on the execution of violence against the natural world and a teleology of doom, but he rewrites the last line before the “Epilogue” of Melville's novel to liberate readers from the terminal plot of Moby-Dick. The dam, that is, the physical manifestation of European American and European Canadian imaginations and narratives, no longer restrains the water. Readers are again at the beginning of a story and, King urges us, now try to imagine not three ships on the horizon or one ship sinking with representatives of all the world's populations into a “yawning gulf” (Moby-Dick 723), but rather a woman falling from the sky and an earth diver resurfacing from the bottom of the ocean. Imagine, that is, not a linear progression towards apocalypse but a cyclical movement toward a regeneration that culminates in the Sun Dance and the apparently miraculous pregnancy of Alberta Frank.48

Many of the stories that European/European North American authors tell about contact and conflict with the Native world are variations on God versus First Woman, Changing Woman versus Noah, or Old Woman versus Young Man Walking on Water. Many of these stories end in conquest, in the absence of Native Americans. King's story, which articulates a balance of destruction and creation, resists domination, and emphasizes regeneration, also repeats or, more precisely, recycles in defiance of termination. In other words, the narrative is not apocalyptic; the plot does not culminate in the “end of the story” or, even, an arrival at the “end of the earth.” As the fourth section begins with the same ritualistic words as the previous sections, Coyote says, “Hey, Hey … This is the same story” (367). This “same story” is a radical revision of narratives of domination and conquest. King repopulates the landscape with a Native American presence that resists the notion of an assumed or inevitable conquest and, therefore, subverts an invader's view that Native Americans must vanish from the landscape to create a space for advancing European and European North American settlers. Hawkeye tells Coyote in the fourth section of the novel, “There are no truths. … Only stories” (432). This emphasis on the power of stories to define the world and therefore to influence how we view the world and other people, explains King's focus on the narratives that articulate an assumed European/European American racial and cultural superiority and the presumed divine conferment upon them of the stewardship of the North American continent. King's novel is a reconstruction of a pan-Native American worldview and self-represented identity that revises narratives of domination and conquest to remind colonizers that as long as the grass is green and the waters run, only their stories end in doom.


  1. See Roy Harvey Pearce, Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (1953; reprint, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); Robert F. Berkhofer Jr., The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Vintage, 1978); Vine Deloria Jr., “The Indians of the American Imagination,” God is Red: A Native View of Religion (1972; reprint, Golden, co: Fulcrum, 1994), 25-45; Ward Churchill, “Fantasies of the Master Race: Categories of Stereotyping of American Indians in Film,” from Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the Colonization of American Indians (Monroe ME: Common Courage, 1992), 231-41.

  2. Herb Wyile explains that though King writes primarily for Native audiences, “he also has commented that Green Grass, Running Water is, more than his previous work, directed at non-Native readers, reflecting the need to engage those readers in mutual decolonization.” See “‘Trust Tonto’: Thomas King's Subversive Fictions and the Politics of Cultural Literacy,” in Canadian Literature 161/162 (1999): 118. In his discussion of Native literatures as tribal, interfusional, polemical, and/or associational, King suggests many Native authors write primarily for Native audiences. See Thomas King, “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial,” World Literature Written in English 30.2 (1990): 10-16. For his observations on non-Native audiences of Native literatures see Thomas King, ed., “Introduction,” All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), xii.

  3. Thomas King, Medicine River (Toronto: Penguin, 1989); subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text. King is of Cherokee, Greek, and German descent though he writes about a Blackfoot community in Alberta, Canada.

  4. In an essay on Medicine River Percy Walton describes how King deconstructs and subverts English Canadian misrepresentations of First Nations people. See Walton, “‘Tell Our Own Stories’: Politics and the Fiction of Thomas King,” World Literature Written in English 30.2 (1990): 78.

  5. Thomas King, Green Grass, Running Water (New York: Bantam, 1993); all subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

  6. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1993), xii-xiii.

  7. Robin Ridington writes, “Blossom Alberta really is the book's simple, life-affirming message. Sun and life-giving water center the Sundance in a forked cottonwood pole. The people blossom there.” See Robin Ridington, “Coyote's Cannon: Sharing Stories with Thomas King,” American Indian Quarterly 22 (1998): 352.

  8. Marlene Goldman, “Mapping and Dreaming Native Resistance in Green Grass, Running Water,Canadian Literature 161/162 (1999): 19-20.

  9. Florence Stratton, “Cartographic Lessons: Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush and Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water,Canadian Literature 161/162 (1999): 82-102. While my focus is on King's revisions of European American texts, Stratton explains King's interventions in and subversions of European Canadian author Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush (1852).

  10. The revision of a fictional John Wayne and Richard Widmark film plays a prominent role in the novel's third section. The four Native American female creators, in disguise as Hawkeye, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and the Lone Ranger, intervene in the film so that the U.S. Cavalry, not the Indians, disappear. In the revised film, King explains, “none of the Indians fell” (358). Many conventional Hollywood westerns are narratives of domination and conquest. King even resurrects Christopher Columbus as Crystal Ball Cologne, an Italian actor who secures all the good Indian parts in Hollywood films, to emphasize the role of films in erasing Native lives and silencing Native stories. For an analysis of these allusions see Margery Fee and Jane Flick, “Coyote Pedagogy: Knowing Where the Borders Are in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water,Canadian Literature (161/162): 131-39. For an identification of many of the names and other allusions in the novel see Jane Flick, “Reading Notes for Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water,Canadian Literature (161/162): 140-72. Names such as Bill Bursum (Bursum Bill of 1921), who owns the electronics store where readers see Hawkeye, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and the Lone Ranger revise the film, are a major part of King's revisions and subversive humor. Due to the already published discussions of these allusions, my primary focus is on his more substantial revisions of entire narratives that articulate the doom of Native Americans.

  11. In Ceremony Betonie collects newspapers, calendars, and phone books. He explains to Tayo that the accumulation of these stories and names has endured for many generations. See Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (New York: Penguin, 1977), 120. The phrase “contact and conflict” is an inadvertent “allusion” to Robin Fisher, Contact and Conflict: Indian-European Relations in British Columbia, 1774-1890 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1977).

  12. Djelal Kadir, Columbus and the Ends of the Earth: Europe's Prophetic Rhetoric as Conquering Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 18.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Scholars have amply documented the role of missionaries in European/European North American colonization. For an examination of this topic from a Native American point of view see Osage/Cherokee author George E. Tinker's Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993).

  15. Coyote's dream, dog/GOD, might be connected to the role of the contrary in some cultures of the Plains. In the transcripts of John Neihardt's interviews with Black Elk there is a description of a heyoka ceremony in which Black Elk participated. The ceremony includes the sacrifice of a dog, after which a participant offers the dog to the Thunder-beings in the west, then to the north, east, and south, then to the sky and the earth. In particular see the description of the heyokas (“sacred fool or rather sacred comedian”) walking among the audience. See Raymond J. DeMallie, ed., The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 232-35.

  16. Coyote plays a fundamental role in King's subversions. In “Coyote Pedagogy,” Fee and Flick explain that King's frequently obscure allusions, jokes, and puns with multiple references help form a trickster-like understanding of the world. Gerald Vizenor offers the following analysis of the trickster and trickster stories: “The tribal trickster is a liberator and healer in narrative, a comic sign, communal signification and a discourse with imagination.” See Gerald Vizenor, “Trickster Discourse: Comic Holotropes and Language Games,” in Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures, ed. Gerald Vizenor (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 187.

  17. In addition to removing the stories from specific oral performance contexts and transcribing them into conventional European written genres, European North American authors would, for example, also change the gender of a female culture-hero or creator to male, rewrite the story to emphasize a male rather than a female character, or eliminate the more bawdy elements of trickster stories. Perhaps the most celebrated appropriation of Native American oral traditions is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1855). Longfellow took a cultural hero of the Iroquois and inscribed him into Anishinaabe oral traditions collected by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. The result, generally, is a very “European” story of magic, enchantment, and love. See also Vizenor's “Trickster Discourse,” in which he reviews and critiques some of the most influential work on tricksters by non-Natives.

  18. “Peter Gzowski Interviews Thomas King on Green Grass, Running Water,Canadian Literature 161/162 (1999): 67.

  19. Jane Flick explains, “The first words in Cherokee by the Lone Ranger are the ceremonial opening of storytelling in a Cherokee divining ceremony, divining for water and so in a sense for the future.” See Flick, “Reading Notes,” 144.

  20. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, “American Intellectualism and the New Indian Story,” Natives and Academics: Researching and Writing about American Indians, ed. Devon A. Mihesuah (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 111.

  21. King titles the sections, in Cherokee, with the four cardinal directions and their corresponding colors: East/red, South/white, West/black, and North/blue. Marlene Goldman offers one analysis of the significance of these designations. See “Mapping,” 36.

  22. The woman who falls from the sky appears in many Native American creation stories. The Turtle Island story that follows is of Iroquois origin.

  23. The Canadian and U.S. governments are particularly infamous for building dams that lead to the flooding of traditional homelands, burial and sacred sites, and reservation lands. See Peter Matthiessen, “Lost Eloheh Land,” in Indian Country (New York: Penguin, 1979), 103-26. For a study of Missouri River dams see Michael Lawson, Dammed Indians: The Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982).

  24. The institutional authority women had in the Iroquois Confederacy has particular relevance to King's story of First Woman, which is of Iroquois origin. See Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York: Vintage, 1969), 29. See also Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986; reprint, Boston: Beacon, 1992), especially the three essays in the first section, “The Ways of Our Grandmothers” (9-50). Some scholars critique Allen for totalizing Native American belief systems both prior to and following first contact with Europeans. For example, see Greg Sarris, Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 124-26.

  25. See Timothy Findley, Not Wanted on This Voyage (New York: Delacorte, 1984). Findley's novel, to which King refers directly in this passage, is a long narrative critique of the patriarchal system that the story of Noah in the Bible articulates. King's character is similar to Doctor Noah Noyes in Not Wanted; both are temperamental and authoritarian patriarchs who are very difficult to please.

  26. King, All My Relations, ix.

  27. In his interview with Peter Gzowski, King says, “Harry Robinson is a wonderful storyteller, and, as far as I'm concerned, Robinson really is a person who … set me going. … I was trying to recreate the sense of an oral storytelling voice in a written form. And I was having some success, but not much, to be honest. I was working on an anthology at the time and Wendy Wickwire, who worked with Robinson, sent me out some of Robinson's stories, and when I saw those things I was just blown away. I couldn't believe the power and skill with which Robinson could work up a story” (72). See Harry Robinson, Write It on Your Heart: The Epic World of an Okanagan Storyteller, ed. and comp. Wendy Wickwire (Vancouver: Talon Books, 1989). King dedicates his anthology All My Relations to Robinson and includes one of Robinson's stories, “An Okanagan Indian Becomes a Captive Circus Showpiece in England.”

  28. The correlation of Native Americans and, more precisely, the wilderness with madness is common in European American literatures. For example, see Leslie Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American (New York: Stein and Day, 1968). In particular, see the final chapter of this study.

  29. Dr. Hovaugh's garden is dying and he has apparently constructed his desk, which swells with energy or breath (82), from the Tree of Life. In King's novel the consequences of a Christian worldview manipulated to sanction colonial violence have infiltrated Eden. Blanca Chester explains how King also models Dr. Hovaugh on the influential literary critic Northrop Frye. See “Green Grass, Running Water: Theorizing the World of the Novel,” Canadian Literature 161/162 (1999): 44-61.

  30. See Ridington, “Coyote's Cannon,” 346.

  31. Ibid., 360.

  32. For example, in Typee Melville clearly critiques the violence of European imperialism and the application of the word “savage” to extra-European populations. See Herman Melville, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846; reprint, New York: Penguin, 1996), 125. “The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating,” a chapter from The Confidence-Man (1857), is Melville's indictment of the misrepresentation of Native Americans as vicious and bloodthirsty and the consequences of the dissemination of that misrepresentation: a culturally sanctioned hatred of Native Americans that justifies violence against them.

  33. Said, Culture and Imperialism, 288.

  34. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale (1851; reprint, New York: Macmillan, 1985), 723; subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text. See Jeremiah 31:15; Rachel is Jacob's wife and the mother of Joseph; she mourns the exile of her descendants from Israel.

  35. Louise Erdrich (who belongs to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and is also of German descent) and Louis Owens (who is of Choctaw-Cherokee-Irish descent) also provide commentary on Moby-Dick in the novels Love Medicine (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 122-25; and The Sharpest Sight (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 90-91, respectively. Moby-Dick also influenced Momaday's House Made of Dawn. In N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), Matthias Schubnell cites a letter Momaday wrote during his work on House Made of Dawn to his Harper and Row editor. Of the albino man killed by Abel, Momaday explains: “He is a white man, or rather ‘white man’ in quotes, in appearance, but in fact he is neither white nor a man in the usual sense of those words. He is an embodiment of evil like Moby Dick, an intelligent malignity” (97). Momaday's comments suggest possible comparisons between Ahab and Abel, and between Moby Dick and the albino man in House Made of Dawn, though their attacks on evil emerge from different cultural and historical contexts. Melville writes, “What is it that in the Albino man so peculiarly repels and often shocks the eye, as that sometimes he is loathed by his own kith and kin! It is that whiteness which invests him, a thing expressed by the name he bears. The Albino is as well made as other men—has no substantive deformity—and yet this mere aspect of all-pervading whiteness makes him more strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion.” See Melville, Moby-Dick, 258.

  36. For William Bradford's reflections on the Pequot War see Bradford's History: Of Plimouth Plantation (1856; reprint, Bowie MD: Heritage, 1990), 425-26. The most recent study of this conflict is Alfred A. Cave's The Pequot War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996). The Mashantucket Pequots, who own the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut, are not extinct.

  37. Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building (1980; reprint, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 44.

  38. Lucy Maddox explains Ahab's Puritan “heritage” in Removals: Nineteenth Century American Literature and the Politics of Indian Affairs (New York: Oxford, 1991). Maddox writes: “Ahab may see himself as the antitype of the good Christian and the good American, but Melville knows that he is in fact one type of the American self, so pure a type as to seem a kind of grotesque anachronism; he believes as deeply as any New England Puritan divine ever did that the opaque other, the savage, is demonic and must be exterminated, that the savage and the civilized man cannot inhabit the same space for long—especially not the same self” (61). Maddox also analyzes Ahab's connection to Cotton Mather (62). The chapter on Melville in Removals contains an exploration of many of Melville's other allusions to Native Americans.

  39. For a description of the events that preceded Lord Dunsmore's War see Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1995), 24. Logan was particularly well-known for a passionate speech he made after these events. For Logan's speech see Wayne Moquin and Charles Van Doren, eds., Great Documents in American Indian History (1973; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1995), 126. Though the authorship of the speech was in question, Ray H. Sandefur concludes Logan was the source of the words. See “Logan's Oration—How Authentic?” in The Quarterly Journal of Speech 46.3 (October 1960): 289-96.

  40. Maddox, Removals, 12-13.

  41. William Butler Yeats, Selected Poems and Three Plays of William Butler Yeats, ed. M. L. Rosenthal (New York: Macmillan, 1986), 89. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe takes the italicized phrase from Yeats's poem for his novel Things Fall Apart (1958), which focuses on the arrival of a colonial presence to an Ibo village.

  42. The collapse of the Grand Baleen Dam as a result of Coyote's dancing and singing appears to be a continuation of the plot of Jeanette Armstrong's “This Is a Story.” Thomas King includes Armstrong's story in his anthology. See Armstrong, “This Is a Story,” in King, All My Relations, 129-35.

  43. Stratton writes that Clifton was responsible for “recruiting tens of thousands of settlers from Britain, the United States, and central Europe” and “was in charge of negotiations for Treaty 8, which involved the ceding of a huge tract of land: all of central and northern Alberta, part of northern Saskatchewan and British Columbia, the western portion of the North West Territories, and the eastern part of the Yukon.” See Stratton, “Cartographic,” 94. Flick explains in “Reading Notes” that Eli's name suggests Elijah Harper, “who blocked the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord in 1990 by being the standout vote in the Manitoba legislature” (150). Elijah is also the name of the prophet in Moby-Dick who hints at the Pequod's doom to Ishmael and Queequeg. In biblical text Elijah prophecies the death of Ahab and Jezebel in I Kings 21:19-23.

  44. Stratton, “Cartographic,” 93.

  45. Ibid., 93-94. See also Boyce Richardson, Strangers Devour the Land: A Chronicle of the Assault upon the Last Coherent Hunting Culture in North America, the Cree Indians of Northern Quebec, and Their Vast Primeval Homelands (New York: Knopf, 1975), a chronicle of the struggle of the Crees and Inuits against the province of Quebec.

  46. In “Coyote Pedagogy” Fee and Flick discuss this scene in terms of scatological humor (133).

  47. King, All My Relations, xii.

  48. Alberta Frank is a Blackfoot and professor of History. She appears to have been impregnated by a heavy rain brought by Coyote's dancing. See Fee and Flick, “Coyote Pedagogy,” 136.

I would like to thank with great sincerity Domino R. Perez, Fran Kaye, Sherry Harris, and Malea Powell for their invaluable guidance. An additional thank you to Daniel Justice.

Jennifer Andrews (review date spring 2001)

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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, at the same time, less interested in overturning the foundations of white, Western culture. Truth & Bright Water is a quieter text. Yet King retains elements of the cross-border humour evident in his earlier works. For example, the title refers to the two towns that are at the centre of the narrative: Truth, located on the American side of the border, and Bright Water, situated in Canada. With this framework in place, King explores questions of identity, history, and memory from a distinctly Native perspective.

Truth & Bright Water is narrated by a young boy, aptly named Tecumseh, who spends his summer working for Monroe Swimmer, a locally born Native artist who comes back to the Prairies after gaining an international reputation for his ability to restore paintings. At the same time, Tecumseh is trying to solve a mystery that he and his friend Lum have witnessed at the river that divides Canada from the United States. One night, they watch a woman plunge over a cliff into the waters below, only to disappear from view and, shortly after, they discover a skull that they presume was hers. Meanwhile, Tecumseh aids Monroe in his attempts to restore a lost Native past by literally painting a Methodist church in Truth out of existence and by scattering iron buffalo sculptures across the Prairies. His efforts become part of the puzzle that the boys try to solve, a mystery that involves racial and sexual crossings as well as the symbolic return of the bones of Native children to the reserve—children whose skeletons have been relegated to obscurity in museum drawers by white anthropologists. This conflict with white cultural values is explicitly framed by the day-to-day activities of the Native community, and the narrative unfolds without the “ubiquitous climaxes and resolutions that are so valued in non-Native literature.” Although the mystery that opens the story is solved, many other questions posed by Tecumseh remain unanswered. For example, the concluding scene is notably open-ended. Tecumseh finds his mother trimming a vase of flowers from a mysterious admirer, and when he asks her about the source of the flowers, she remains silent; Tecumseh never learns the admirer's identity.

Even King's intertextual references to the Hollywood icon, Marilyn Monroe, are placed within a Native context and read through Native eyes. Lucy Rabbit, a fixture in the local community, is obsessed with Monroe and dyes her dark hair blond, a gesture that leaves her with flaming orange locks. Tecumseh and Lum assume that Lucy is trying to pass as white but, as they soon find out, their presumptions are wrong. Lucy tells them that rather than bleaching her hair to look white, she thinks that Marilyn Monroe was Native and feared the discovery of this secret by the press and the public. Thus, Lucy explains, she dyes her own locks to show the dead movie star “that bleaching your hair doesn't change a thing.” This performative aspect of King's text is mirrored and reconfigured through Monroe Swimmer's own use of blonde wigs and other disguises, which comically contests the presumption that Natives—on both sides of the border—really just want to be white.

Further Reading

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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 Canadian Native Authors. Saskatoon: Fifth House Publishers, 1991, 276 p.

Lutz presents a series of interviews with a selection of Canadian Native authors, including King.

Matchie, Thomas. “Writing about Native Americans: The Native and the Non-Native Critic/Author.” Midwest Quarterly 42, no. 3 (spring 2001): 320-33.

Matchie examines how Native Americans have been portrayed in literature, particularly in the work of Thomas King.

Ridington, Robin. “Coyote's Cannon: Sharing Stories with Thomas King.” American Indian Quarterly 22, no. 3 (summer 1998): 343-62.

Ridington explores the role of the Coyote in Green Grass, Running Water.

Additional coverage of King's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 144; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 95; Contemporary Canadian Authors, Vol. 1; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 89; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 175; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; Literature Resource Center; Native North American Literature; and Something about the Author, Vol. 96.


King, Thomas (Vol. 89)