Thomas King, Howard F. Mosher and Jim Lynch
3 Thomas King’s Truth & Bright Water (1999): Native De/Bordering
Canadian author Thomas King adopts a Native perspective in his writing. His subject position as a Native North American writer permeates the novel in terms of characters, plot, and setting. This parallax as compared to other contemporary fiction by non-Native writers, whether from the U.S. or Canada, is enriching for the reader’s understanding and cultural awareness regarding Native issues. Border readings of various texts inform the reading and understanding of borders in geopolitics, society and lived experience. Consequently, Native perspectives on land, colonialism and current socio-economic situations are exposed by King’s Truth & Bright Water. The Native voice complements the generally accepted truths of contemporary life and history in North America.
Theoretical constructs espoused in the previous chapter come to the fore in the analysis of King’s novel. The borderscape of the river dividing and uniting the ← 65 | 66 → Canada-U.S. border region and the Native and White worlds is featured prominently, also in the novel’s title. The subversion of the colonial legacy drives the plot and the actions of the protagonists such as trickster-like Monroe Swimmer. King’s literary designation of “associational” (“Godzilla”) literature is evident in his novel as the web of the Native community spins the narrative thread. Vizenor’s concept of “survivance” punctuates the stream of narration, whether in the actions of Tecumseh’s mother Helen or in the subversive art of Monroe.
King crosses, blurs, and subverts many borders in his life and works. He creates fiction and non-fiction, is a writer-professor16, and contributes to and theorizes Native fiction in a North American context (e.g. “Godzilla”). He reached a national audience through his 2003 CBC Massey Lectures published as The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative. His theoretical stance is critical of an exclusionary discourse. King states: “I don’t try to set up a wall between myself and my readers with what I know and what they don’t” (Gruber, “Storytelling” 268). His accessible fiction is nonetheless permeated by subtle theoretical convictions. Regarding King’s novel Robin Ridington posits: “The book reads history as story, and story as history. It shows the reader both sides of its mirrored images” (89). King suggests that story and history are two sides of the same coin and often undistinguishable (“How I spent” 313). He tells the story of Bella and links history, story, and the quest for authenticity: “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” (King, “How I spent” 313). The importance of the imagination transcending seemingly hard facts is evident in Truth & Bright Water, for instance in Native artist Monroe Swimmer’s trickster-infused “survivance” (Vizenor). King’s self-perception is encapsulated in the notion and practice of “storyteller” (Gruber, “Introduction” 4). Stories are at the heart of Native identity. Narratives are therefore avenues of understanding, and King stipulates: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (Stories 32).
The author cannot be classified and subsumed in only one category: “Part Native, part white, part American, part Canadian, risen from early poverty to reasonable material comfort in his later life, from flunking his first year of university to becoming a full professor, King defies any clichés about ‘authentic Indians,’ not only in his writing but as a person” (Gruber, “Introduction” 4). King complicates border binaries: “Conjoining in himself the two partly collapsed dichotomies of Native and non-Native, Canadian and U.S., King regularly portrays how racial ← 66 | 67 → and national dividing lines work – and do not work” (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 122). To encompass King’s fictional universe multiple perspectives are needed. Due to his heritage, interpretations of his work benefit from varied angles. Therefore, North American viewpoints, Native perspectives and Greek mythology inform the analysis of Truth & Bright Water.
King’s father is of Cherokee and his mother is of Greek descent. The writer did not grow up within a Native community, but his mother made sure that he learned about his Native heritage and visited family in Oklahoma (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 4). The father left the family when King was five years old. King, though being of mixed descent and being born in the United States, is usually considered a Native writer from Canada.17 However, at times, due to his birth in the United States, U.S. critics emphasize his American birthplace (Andrews and Walton 604). King’s Cherokee heritage, a tribe not “native” to Canada, does not allow for describing King as a Canadian Native writer:
As a writer born in the United States, but who considers himself Canadian and holds Canadian citizenship, he embodies two nationalities. On a cultural level, moreover, his status throws those demarcations into question, since as a Cherokee who moved to Canada, he can be read as a Canadian writer and a Native writer, but he cannot be a Canadian Native writer because Cherokees are not ‘native’ to Canada. (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 13)
He can only be a Canadian writer or a Native writer, yet he himself through his biography undermines those clear-cut delineations between Canadian, American, and Native. The borders are fluid and shifting. King and his fiction can be contextualized within the field of Native literature or Native studies. Conceptualizations of Native literatures in a North American context are multiple,18 as critical works in the field show. The term ‘Native literatures’19 includes Native ← 67 | 68 → American or American Indian literatures as well as First Nations’ or First Peoples’ literary productions. Other theoretical challenges are linked to classification and the role of Native and non-Native critics alike.
King’s novel Truth & Bright Water needs to be seen in the light of going beyond border binaries – i.e. the representation and literary transcendence and deconstruction of borders, the creation of borderlands, and the acts of and need for bordering and concomitant debordering in contemporary North American fiction. In this regard the use of irony, comic reversal, and trickster discourse are important, mainly deconstructing stereotypes, Western ideas, and preconceived notions about Natives and indigeneity.
This study illustrates how a critical analysis of Truth & Bright Water enriches the understanding of the use and prevalence of borders, borderlands, and in-between spaces. The analysis serves both literary and border studies with the new focus on border poetics. Scholars Jennifer Andrews and Priscilla L. Walton consider hemispheric studies as a continuation and further development of border studies as well as of purely inter-American studies in the sense of merely remodeling American studies (600). Transnational aspects are emphasized in such a hemispheric reading without dismissing the still needed national concepts, particularly in the case of Natives, as Andrews and Walton postulate: “Indeed, King’s writings – and in particular his attentiveness to the Canadian-US border-crossing experiences of his Native characters – demonstrate that the simultaneous need for and undermining of nation-state structures go hand-in-hand for indigenous peoples” (601). Native peoples require the nation-states to assert their sovereign rights and make land claims (601). King presents the tensions surrounding borders for Natives and the necessity to negotiate their identity and position within a bordered world mostly oblivious to Native sovereignty and sense of belonging. According to Arnold E. Davidson, Priscilla L. Walton, and Jennifer Andrews Native characters in King’s works feel alienated precisely “because they are continually negotiating the borders between their tribal reserves and the world beyond, which is typically dominated by Eurocentric values” (134). The scholars refer to “alterna(rra) tives” (134).
Truth & Bright Water20 is set on the Canada-U.S. border, in the U.S. town of Truth and the Canadian reserve of Bright Water in the Alberta-Montana ← 68 | 69 → borderlands. The border is the Shield River located between Truth and Bright Water. The plot revolves around two Native adolescent cousins, the first person narrator Tecumseh and Lum. As is the case for Lum, who is associated with “Geronimo’s tragic history” (Ridington 90), Tecumseh “is both himself and a character from Indian history” (Ridington 91). Tecumseh mirrors some of King’s own childhood experiences. King’s mother was a hairdresser as well and the beauty shop was part of their home in a warehouse (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 4). Tecumseh and King are both predominantly raised by their mothers and cross many borders. Davidson, Walton, and Andrews contend: “[…] King’s childhood involved a continual movement between communities and across various racial and cultural boundaries” (4). The novel is truly “associational” (King, “Godzilla” 245), focusing on the community and offering no definitive answers. The famous Native artist and returning “lost son” Monroe Swimmer functions as a focal point of the narration and repatriates stolen Native bones. This fictional character is also akin to King, since both move back and forth across the Canada-U.S. border (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 10).
Border binaries are established, blurred, and transcended. Humor, irony and comic subversion, in addition to a multi-layered plot and an intriguing set of characters, are King’s means to hold the narrative together. On the one hand King emphasizes the arbitrariness of the border and on the other hand he stresses the distinctiveness of certain Native experiences such as the colonial past, the oftentimes disadvantaged situation in the present and an uncertain future. Lived experience and fiction mirror each other highlighting Native practices and processes of de/bordering. The novel addresses gender roles, family relations, intergenerational dialogue, and social justice issues in the fictional Native and non-Native worlds. King does not shy away from contested issues such as western anthropology and the role of art and museums. He portrays the problems regarding “Orientalism” (Said) and essentialism and ironically and humorously subverts them.
King experiences borders, tries to subvert them in his writing and holds a strong interest in the spaces between various borders: “Yet he is also extremely interested in the spaces ‘in-between’ those borders, whether they are literal or figurative” (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 4). Davidson, Walton, and Andrews address ← 69 | 70 → the need for “cross-border readings” (27). They “demonstrate the ways in which the power of narration has the ability to contest and undermine dominant borders and boundaries” (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 28). New spaces emerge and “nation is predicated upon narration” (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 28) echoing Homi K. Bhabha.
In the novel’s title, Truth & Bright Water, the ampersand symbolically represents the border river uniting and dividing Truth and Bright Water as well as the United States and Canada. The ampersand signals the pervasive presence of borders, borderlands, and de/bordering at all levels in this novel. Spatial understandings include ambiguous in-between spaces, in the form of geographical borderlands or regarding identity construction: “For Native peoples, the space between the borders of the nation-state and the lands that were historically occupied by a tribe generate gaps in meaning that allow writers, like King, to explore oppositional definitions of identity and community” (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 17). Davidson, Walton, and Andrews go beyond discussing border binaries and underscore that borders “[…] have political and physical consequences, consequences to which King’s fictions consistently draw attention” (17).
King starts his novel with a vivid and detailed description of the Shield River, representing the boundary between Canada and the United States, and the transformation the river displays in its course. It is a river that “begins in ice” and then “the water warms and deepens, and splits the land in two” (1).22 This shifting and fluid binary epitomized by the river is evident throughout the novel and the river acquires a high symbolic value in the plot. Playing on the ice connection, the name of the river in Truth & Bright Water, the Shield, is meaningful, too, as it refers to “the Canadian Shield” and additionally to “Plains Indians shields” (Ridington 90). This is significant as “[s]hields 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” (Ridington 90). The shields fulfill interpreting roles bridging gaps of understanding. In the same vein the river Shield bridges the chasm between ← 70 | 71 → two countries and two worldviews by representing a liminal space of opportunity. For Monroe the land along the river between Truth and Bright Water is the “centre of the universe” (251). It is his homeland and sacred.
The border river dichotomy, though, is overcome since it is simultaneously a liminal space of opportunity, negotiation, and transformation. Furthermore, the fluvial border is blurred by floods and crossed by ferries and by people being immersed and submerged in the water as in the case of Monroe Swimmer or Lum. The river between Truth and Bright Water is not only a dividing line between the United States and Canada, but also between the white world and indigenous ways of life on the reserve and ultimately between the modern and more traditional ways: “One side is Indian, the other white, but the characters cross often, if not easily, from one side to the other” (Ridington 89). The towns may be oppositional, but the characters in the novel cross frequently, and the dichotomy becomes fuzzy despite one town being situated in the United States and the other in Canada as King writes: “Truth and Bright Water sit on opposite sides of the river, the railroad town on the American side, the reserve in Canada” (1). The dualism of the place names Truth and Bright Water, corresponding to “Sweet Grass, Montana and Coutts, Alberta” and against all odds “[t]he harsh one [being] Canadian” (Ridington 89) is reflected explicitly in the novel’s title. Using the main settings as the title is proof of the decisive function geography has in terms of narration. Place names like Bright Water are self-explanatory and serve as an immediate link to the water trope. King transcends border binaries in his writing: “His texts, by writing and transgressing the border that divides Canada from the United States, show the forty-ninth parallel to be precisely that: a figment of someone else’s imagination” (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 13).
The river Shield is completely crossed by the old and tiny ferry. The passengers need to pull the chord themselves. It is the closest connection between Truth and Bright Water, because the bridge was never completed. The residents of Truth do not often use the ferry, as the only reason to go to the reserve would be during Indian Days. Moreover, everyone except Tecumseh and his mother owns a car (42) and can use alternative routes. Going by car is the easiest way, but a time-taking detour. However, when walking the bridge, people, in particular children or teenagers, can get stuck on the bridge. The fire department in Truth then has to help out the Native kids from Bright Water trapped on the bridge, a task they dislike because it requires an extra effort. The children shall simply stay “on their side of the river” (41). The fluid border is porous, at times dangerous, and some locals even embrace the dividing and segregating function of the Shield. The border river is thus a chasm that must be bridged, which is done by “Charlie ← 71 | 72 → Ron’s ferry” (42), a “landmark” (51) in Helen’s opinion. Due to the lack of a car, Tecumseh and his mother have to cross the river in the ferry when they want to visit for example Tecumseh’s grandmother in Bright Water. In contrast to Tecumseh, his mother nostalgically enjoys the ferry and sees the crossing as a journey giving her time to reflect on the perpetual nature of the river (51–52). Helen highlights the river’s presence and with it the continuation of Native worldviews dating back to time immemorial (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 143). Davidson, Walton, and Andrews stress King’s focus on the mutability and fluidity of borders and Native concepts overriding and subverting Western notions of borders, states, and nation-states (143–44). In contrast to Greek mythology, where Charon transports the dead in a ferry across the river Styx, in King’s novel there is no ferryman. Instead Helen, the Native mother shares with her son Tecumseh the Native mythology precisely in this liminal space between life and death. The ferry’s movement is compared to “[pitch] and [roll] like a log in a flood” (51). King describes the special moment in the middle of the river: “[B]y the time we get to the middle, the river is gone and it feels as though we’re floating above the clouds and that if we were to fall, we’d fall for years before we’d find the water” (51). The beyond and at the same time the in-between transcend the binary restrictions to mental and physical mobilities. This resembles again Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic understandings: “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (Deleuze and Guattari 115). The middle ground is celebrated:
The middle is by no means an average; on the contrary, it is where things pick up speed. Between things does not designate a localizable relation going from one thing to the other and back again, but a perpendicular direction, a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle. (116)
The Shield, border and Stygian river, resembles such a Deleuzian and Guattarian stream. Helen “stops pulling for a moment and looks over the edge of the bucket” (52). She reflects on the river’s perpetual presence “since the beginning of time” (52). By pausing in the middle of the river before resuming the crossing the importance of the border is stressed. Then Tecumseh pulls them over the river and Helen starts singing a song from “The Desert Song” Tecumseh dislikes (52).
Water flows and floods geographic borders. The river is the fluid border that divides Truth and Bright Water, but that can also transgress the riverbed. Hence, the boundary is blurred and the two sides connected, bridging the binary opposition by overflowing into both countries. The Shield washes away garbage from the Bright Water landfill or items are taken to the river by the prairie wind, ← 72 | 73 → but many things are also dumped into the river deliberately (8). The river is “figured as both boundary and bin” (Bates 146). In the river Shield toxic waste is illegally dumped, but also Native remains are buried there, taken from museums by Monroe. The ethical dimension is further enlarged by Lum’s suicide; he is going over the edge and drowning. The river Shield covers and hides some illegal activities, but cannot shield and protect Lum from despair and domestic violence. The Shield, imbued with multiple border meanings, is a symbolic space of negotiation and symbolizes the flux of life and the fluid nature of human beings. It is an ever-changing in-between space. The river swallows up everything, indiscriminately, for instance “the skull found in the river among the other waste function[ing] as a disturbing disruption between body and waste, past and present” (Bates 147) or a presumably decomposing dead body. The police find Lum’s remains in the river along with garbage and the yellow barrels (259). Therefore, the river is reminiscent of the mythological river Styx, a border and concomitant connection between the realms of the living and the dead, a threshold and liminal space between life and afterlife.
The Styx is also the river that lends Achilles his powers except for his heel which is not dipped into the magical waters since his mother holds the child at his heel. King’s character Lum does not have a mother to prevent his death by going over the edge on the bridge. On the contrary, Lum’s mother’s song sirenlike leads to his death, to the metaphorical river Styx, the Shield. Longing for his beloved late mother, nothing shields Lum from the lure of the underworld. She has preceded him on the way to that other realm, the afterlife. For Lum choosing death over life is ostensibly more life-affirming and active than the passive suffering as an object of violence at his home. His loyal companion, his dog Soldier, is with him in the transition from the here to yonder. Lum flings himself into the void, the fluvial and Stygian abyss of the border river. His extraordinary dog acquires human-like qualities and soldiers on with Lum in the battle that is called life. Unlike mythology, where the “hound of Hades” Kerberos / Cerberus exudes an air of malevolence, the dog Soldier is a friend to Lum and source of consolation. He presumably accompanies Lum to the gates of Hades. The dogs called the Cousins in the novel resemble more the image that “the hound of Hades” conjures up in people’s minds. As is the case in Greek myth, the Cousins fulfill a gatekeeping function: “Lum figured the missionaries brought the dogs with them to keep the Indians in line” (38). They are menacing and it is the dogs’ eyes that create this sense of trepidation: “They never barked, which made them seem friendly, but if you got up close and looked into their eyes, the only thing you would see was your own reflection” (39). As Tecumseh’s grandmother explains ← 73 | 74 → “dogs helped to guard the camp” against ghosts in former times (39). Analogous, in the underworld the mythical dog also keeps the ghosts of the deceased at bay.
Greek mythology complements the critical analysis of Truth & Bright Water. At the same time the inclusion of Western foundational myths constitutes a border crossing between Western mythologies and Native worldviews and cosmologies. King as a crosser and transgressor of many borders literally embodies both Native worldviews and Greek mythology thanks to his mixed cultural and ethnic heritage, precisely hailing from Native and Greek cultures. Ridington explains that “[s]ome characters in the author’s story bring together family and myth” (98). She suggests that the name of Tecumseh’s mother, Helen, “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” (Ridington 98).
The traditional narratives of border rivers include the crossing of the Jordan and the crossing of the Rubicon, in this latter case the river symbolizing a point of no return. In the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery the Jordan is described as “a boundary of the Promised Land” (460) and the notion of crossing occurs frequently. In King’s novel the question remains open what the Promised Land signifies. Since the bridge over the border river is not completed, economic opportunities do not materialize. The reserve is neither the Promised Land nor the “land of milk and honey;” it is rather a “Paradise Lost” (Milton). Upon the arrival of the European settlers in North America and with the impositions of colonial borders in addition to the decimation of the buffalo, the original state dating back to time immemorial is gone on Turtle Island.
Reflecting the ampersand “&” of the novel’s title Truth & Bright Water, the steel bridge looms large over the river. Therefore, the partly built bridge is a symbol of incomplete unity and concomitant visual division. The unfinished bridge is ambiguously, at one and the same time signifying unity and disunity. The title of the novel, Truth & Bright Water, features the ampersand as a visual border marker of simultaneous unity and disunity. This graphic sign is indicative of the function of borders at which converging and diverging forces are at play. King’s spelling highlights the simultaneous connection and division between the two places, the two countries, and the non-Native and Native worlds. The ampersand “&” visually divides and creates a binary as does the Canada-U.S. border, while at the same time uniting opposites on a semantic level. Moreover, the American location is mentioned first and the Canadian reserve second, signaling hierarchies ← 74 | 75 → entrenched in the public subconscious. Davidson, Walton, and Andrews attribute this phenomenon to “long-standing Canadian fears of Manifest Destiny” (141). Though military incursions into Canadian territory are unlikely, American cultural imperialism is ongoing as is U.S. economic dominance in Canada. This in turn strongly influences “constructions of Canadian national identity” (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 141).
The bridge in King’s novel “serves as a central trope” (Goldman 284) and represents a “wasted state” (Bates 145), synonymous with a wasted opportunity to connect the cross-border community. Catherine Bates describes the promise the bridge apparently holds as “an illusory image of a smooth border crossing that never takes place” and juxtaposes the bridge’s seeming potential with its abysmal threat, “the fatal, failed border crossing that constitutes the novel’s tragic climax” (Bates 145) alluding to Lum’s death by jumping off the bridge. A shortage of jobs ensued because the construction of the bridge remains incomplete (36). Three years earlier in the narrated time a new highway was supposed to “pass through Truth and cross into Canada at Bright Water”. People were excited about visitors stopping by on their way to Waterton, Banff, Glacier or Yellowstone, but when the bridge was halfway constructed, work stopped. The construction workers left, not before barring both ends of the bridge with chain-link fencing (38). An unfinished bridge now stands in the river between Truth and Bright Water. This fictional setting of the in-between space, of the not-anymore and not-yet, symbolized in that barred unfinished bridge is a reflection of Native-White relations. Bates posits that King opens up possibilities for rethinking seemingly stable conditions due to this unfinished bridge: “But this wasting away, while signifying neglect, also provides permeability […]. It is this precarious possibility offered up by the rusting webs of iron mesh – of experiencing the wasting while recognizing what it allows us to see – that brings to light for us the potentially productive messiness of King’s border confusions” (Bates 146). The bridge represents “a monument to and metonymic symbol of the border” and thus “signifies both an irrevocable problem with the border and a potential reimagining of it” (Bates 146).
In the prologue the mood created by the bridge is one of gloom foreshadowing the tragic role of the bridge in the ending of the novel: “But beneath the bridge, trapped between the pale supports that rise out of the earth like dead trees and the tangle of rebar and wire that hangs from the girders like a web, the air is sharp, and the only thing that moves in the shadows is the wind” (2). Words like “trapped,” “pale,” “dead trees,” “web,” “sharp,” and “shadows” forebode the tragedy. The bridge is dangerous and the fence supposed to block the ← 75 | 76 → entrance onto the bridge no longer fulfills its function. Ambiguity persists as the fence is “more a hazard than a barrier” (255). Stepping on the wire of the fence Tecumseh discovers that the fence “sways under [his] feet, alive and dangerous” (255). Tecumseh describes the bridge as “a skeleton, the carcass of an enormous animal, picked to the bone” (256). The bridge has anthropomorphous qualities. Lum comments that the bridge smells like “rotting” (256). The reference to the animal carcass conjures up images of buffalo carcasses, connecting the dashed hope for an improved economic situation for Natives due to the unfinished bridge to the destroyed Native livelihood of the buffalo. The bridge is described as having “dead openings between the ribs” (256) and the wind personifies danger. The wind is an antagonist for someone on this high bridge in the fog rising above the river: “There’s nothing to hold on to out here and the wind knows it. It grabs my arms and legs” (256). Lum’s death is revealing: He needs to escape the confines and violence of his earthly life. He yearns for death as he imagines his late mother beckoning him with other-worldly songs to visit her yonder.
The novel’s title Truth & Bright Water does not only refer to the two main settings, but alludes to two different worlds and worldviews. King addresses the White and Native as well as the American and Canadian societies and depicts life in a small town versus life on the reserve. Border binaries become apparent by and by. Tecumseh and his mother live in the U.S. town of Truth and moved there from the Canadian reserve of Bright Water, presumably motivated by Tecumseh’s father living in Truth (14). The notion of “truth” plays a crucial role in the development and structure of the novel. Within the fictional community, competing stories are told about other people and events. Here truth is relative and things might not be as told. The better told story succeeds, regardless of the truth. King deliberately delays information and lets the reader discover the fictional world through the eyes of the adolescent first-person narrator Tecumseh. When Tecumseh mistakes a kite for a bird, then later discovers, the “truth,” the reader makes the discovery along with him. Therefore, it is shown that appearances can be deceptive, which is a stark contrast to the novel’s title apparently claiming the “truth,” although as a place name. Davidson, Walton, and Andrews observe that the dual geographic positioning visible in the title makes sure that truth is south of the forty-ninth parallel and hence alludes to “colonial perceptions that still circulate in Canada regarding American superiority” (141). It is a hegemonic U.S. truth indicative of a hierarchy in public opinion and perception in terms of Canada-U.S. relations. The truth was claimed by the colonizers and ← 76 | 77 → they displaced the Natives in the name of the truth masking the underlying motives of land, greed, and power. Therefore, Truth is the name of the American town, not the reserve.
King is concerned with the notion of truth and the blurred border between the real and the imaginary. Evoking the term and the notion of truth is prevalent in King’s work, since aside from the novel discussed, King published The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative. Helen Hoy titled an essay on her partner and husband Thomas King “The Truth about Thomas” (Hoy 289). King experienced that attitudes towards him were characterized by stereotypical ideas about how Natives are supposed to be. Someone told him “You’re not the Indian I had in mind,” an incident King relates in a chapter bearing this phrase as the title (King, Stories 31–60). The shaping influence of imaginary concepts of what it means to be Native, whether noble, savage, or vanishing, strongly influences him and he writes back. He does not angrily admonish, but instead reverses stereotypes and employs humor and irony to raise awareness about stereotypical thinking and false assumptions.
The streets of Truth are organized in a big grid following the railway tracks. Geographical boundaries have symbolic effects and an identity dimension apart from their physicality. They unite and divide, symbolically and geographically. This binary opposition is evident in the railroad tracks: “The railroad tracks run east and west, and cut Truth in half. If you’re in a car, you can only get from one side of town to the other at the level crossings, but if you’re on foot, you can cross anywhere you can scale the fence or find a hole in the wire” (70). Truth is divided into two parts. On a metaphoric level this is what kind of truth is revealed in the narration, namely partial truths. Other partial truths include the incomplete bridge across the border river. The notion of truth, like the U.S. town of Truth, is shown to be socially constructed, particularly regarding the geopolitical nature of borders, binaries, and other geographic divisions. In transforming the epistemological notion of truth into a place name, King ironically comments on and questions established notions of truth, whether religious, historical, or geopolitical.
A major street in Truth is called Division Street. There are technically two by this name, thus “Division Street” embodies a binary. Division Street is likened to the river. Both street and river share a rough direction:
For the most part, Division Street runs east and west through Truth, but like the river, it doesn’t run straight. It comes into town from the south, turns west, and follows the tracks to the level crossing. Then it heads north for half a mile, turns east, and runs straight until it dead-ends in front of the fire hall. (30) ← 77 | 78 →
This seemingly arbitrary or unpredictable pattern, in fact presented as a verbal map by King, can confuse first-time visitors as “there are two Division Streets, one that is north of the tracks and one that is south of the tracks” (30). This is an apparent dichotomy. Altogether, there are three physical division markers, the tracks, the Division Streets, and the river. The only natural boundary is the river. The other two dividers are human-made in the American town of Truth. These geographical divisions are mirrored in community divisions or borders. Tecumseh’s parents, who have separated, own shops on opposite sides of the railroad tracks. Elvin has his shop on the south side, whereas Helen has her shop on Division Street North (30). The father works as a carpenter and is very ingenious in his profession. Occasionally he “does a little smuggling” (31).
Bright Water is also related to the notion of truth, because the metaphorical water is not muddy, but bright instead. Truth and bright water, as in the novel’s title, complement one another. Water is the source of all natural life. Bright water is also reminiscent of the collocation bright future. The question arises whether or not the Native reserve holds a bright future for the community. During Indian Days it certainly seems to be thriving, however the unfinished bridge and the barrels in the river are a constant reminder of inequalities, the affluent, and the poor. Societal borders become evident, particularly between the Native and the White worlds. Income disparities create a rift between Natives and Whites: “Indian Days are the only time we make any money without having to fill in a form” (22). Some residents hope for lots of German and Japanese tourists for that particular reason. The reserve needs to create jobs, but the landfill project is not approved because of environmental reasons. The garbage is beginning to slide into the river (22). Skee, the owner of the Railman’s, tells Tecumseh that the railroad only gives Indians temporary employment in the summer because Whites do not want to do that kind of work or as Skee puts it “they can’t find a bunch of whites dumb enough to do the work” (36).
Several characters perform borders and their crossing, in so doing showing the varieties of border performance and also the art of enforcing said borders by the nation-state. Money is to be made with illegally depositing waste: “Landfill economics” (152). Lum elaborates on his observation by cynically linking waste to buffaloes as a way to make money and a livelihood: “‘Garbage,’ he says, his voice hissing into the wind. ‘The new buffalo’” (153).
Tecumseh and his father Elvin cross the border on their way to Blossom. Elvin wants to smuggle barrels that contain “bio-hazardous waste” from Truth ← 78 | 79 → to Bright Water. The hospital waste needs to disappear and for that Elvin is paid. Cigarette smuggling is no longer profitable, since Canada dropped the taxes on tobacco (82). The father relates to his son that the border guards do not allow dogs across the border and adds wryly: “Used to be the same for Indians” (83). Tecumseh and Elvin drive to Canada in the father’s truck and before crossing Elvin disposes of “seed” and “booze” and informs his son about prisons from a comparative perspective (85). Elvin tells Tecumseh that “Canadian jails are worse than Mexican ones” for one reason, namely that “Mexican jails are full of Mexicans” whereas “Canadian jails are full of Indians” (85). Natives are not described as Canadians in this instance.
The father sees the world very realistically with a sense of indifference, sarcasm, and irony. Elvin is familiar with the stereotypes. He uses them to his advantage, whether at the border or in his woodshop making souvenirs for tourists. As a marketing strategy Elvin signs and numbers his artifacts to make them more authentic and to receive a higher price for them (80). Father and son pass the American border and come to the Canadian border station where the border guards ask about alcohol and tobacco and check the back of the truck. They do not find anything and one of the guards says “Welcome to Canada” (86). Elvin knows which action triggers what kind of reaction and plays along: “As we clear the border, my father looks at me. ‘They love that dumb Indian routine. You see how friendly those assholes were’” (86). Eva Gruber contends that King makes the Native strategy of fooling the border guards explicit and thus creates identification and self-recognition with the readers (Humor 74). Elvin sees the irony that the Prairie View dump does not want the garbage: “They don’t mind making the mess, but they don’t want the job of cleaning it up” (141). He would like to do business with his own people despite the landfill being closed and counts on ways around it: “There’s closed, and there’s closed” (141). Differing legal understandings are linked to this border crossing performance of Elvin and Tecumseh: “The scene shows the border as an opportunity to make money through illegal activities, yet implicitly also raises the question of just what is legal or illegal in face of a colonial border” (Sarkowsky 217). Native and non-Native definitions represent contrasting interpretations of Western laws and the general notion of law as practiced by present-day nation-states.
Not only geopolitical boundaries can be part of border performances by crossing, blurring, or transgressing them, but also metaphorical and symbolic borders. Stereotypes are undermined repeatedly when Tecumseh’s father points out that the “entertainment barn” in Blossom is owned by a Native, because the previous white owner went bankrupt. He comments on this unusual fact ← 79 | 80 → regarding the reversal of the economic roles: “Not many times you see that happen” (87). They go inside the electronics store and Tecumseh is reminded of a “map of North America” when looking at the stacked television sets using his “imagination” (87). Tecumseh automatically sees a map of North America as a whole, neither a map of Canada nor of the United States. The geopolitical boundary between the two nation-states is erased on this imaginary map consisting of stacked television sets in contrast to television weather maps stopping at the national (as in nation-state) borders (Fraser). However, TV signals transcend borders. In border regions TV and radio programs from the neighboring country are received. This is a common complaint on the part of nationalistic and patriotic Canadians, because they fear cultural domination by the United States visible in American media content in Canada.
The conversation between Elvin and Tecumseh in a café owned by a Native woman humorously reveals national differences between the United States and Canada regarding indigenous people: “‘I went to school with her,’ my father tells me. ‘Probably the only town in America where two Indians own anything.’ ‘We’re in Canada.’ ‘Hell,’ he says. ‘I guess that explains it, all right’” (87). Concomitantly, the nation-state boundary is not evident to Elvin, illustrating the arbitrary nature of the international border while also suggesting that Native people might be faring better economically in Canada. Additional examples of economic hardship and lack of opportunity for Natives form part of King’s plot. When looking for day jobs, “Wally Preston over at the job gate” (17) “while [he] is nice enough, he always hires the white guys before he hires Indians” (40–41). Lingering racism becomes obvious in the employment sector.
In his fiction King shows the arbitrariness of the border dividing Native lands and separating Canada and the United States. Monroe, one of the main characters, voices the oddity of the border: “Monroe walks to the lip of the coulee and looks out across the river. ‘There’s Canada,’ he says. Then he turns and spreads his arms. ‘And this is the United States.’ He spins around in a full circle, stumbles, and goes down in a heap. ‘Ridiculous, isn’t it’” (131). The nation-states of Canada and the U.S. literally resemble a stumbling block for Monroe Swimmer. The Native character cannot comprehend the artificial and baffling fact that an international boundary exists here.
Other geographical border settings are recalled by reminiscing about the family holiday at Waterton Lake. Tecumseh’s family camps in the vicinity and the weather turns bad. Tecumseh observes the contrasts between the mountains and the prairies: “The mountains were different from Truth and Bright Water. In the mountains, everything was bowed in and close. On the prairies, you could see ← 80 | 81 → forever. In the mountains, the air felt heavy and dark. On the prairies, the air was light and gold” (77). The setting impacts on the mood of the characters as well as the atmosphere of the book. The prairies are open and free whereas in the mountains the characters feel enclosed, caged in, and bordered. Nonetheless, during one hike the United States is visible (78).
Tecumseh and his mother take a boat tour on Waterton Lake after his father has left. He finds out that the Canada-U.S. border bisects the lake: “The cruise around the lake was interesting, and if I hadn’t gone, I would never have known that the Canadian/United States border ran right through the middle of the lake” (78). In his imagination Tecumseh envisions a marked and militaristic border: “I expected to see a floating fence or inner tubes with barbed wire and lights, something to keep people from straying from one country into the other” (78). The border is anticlimactic to his preconceived notion of how a boundary is supposed to look like, because the border only resembles “a cutline in the trees along with border posts on opposite sides of the shore, and a small border station to mark the line” (78). People wave after the boat has approached the border station and someone has rung a bell. Nature itself does not mark the presumed differences between the two nation-states of Canada and the United States. In this encounter the arbitrary and constructed nature of the border is obvious. Moreover, the boundary is presented as friendly and merely a tourist attraction. It is not a threatening deterrence to illegal aliens who want to cross. King uses this special setting to underline his novel’s message of unity and border arbitrariness. The border is shown as a meeting place for inhabitants of or visitors from either of the two countries23.
King’s narrative technique is at times very similar to the quilt of Tecumseh’s mother Helen in the novel. He weaves different storylines together and jumps back and forth between the various subplots. For instance, once Tecumseh’s father leaves the family and moves from Bright Water to Truth, Tecumseh’s mother requests information material on Canadian cities. Mother and son receive many tourist brochures and then pretend to decide to move elsewhere. This geographic dream merges with Helen’s dream of acting and the wish to live in a big city with a lively theater scene. In a playful way Helen and Tecumseh spell out their dreams and discuss their hopes for the future: “My mother would smile when I said this, and no matter what city we settled on, you could see that moving out of ← 81 | 82 → Bright Water, away from the reserve, and becoming a real actress was one of her dreams” (138). They transcend the borders of lived experience and fiction with the help of their imaginations, and some props (the tourist brochures) and eventually turn these scenes into part of a theater play. Later on, Helen will indeed star in the community’s theater production.
Native-White relations often resemble a dioramic museum display ossifying and reifying colonial positions. The Native presence is undermined by historical accounts and dominant perceptions of how being and living as a Native person must look like. Bordering and thinking in neat categories contribute to the maintenance of such an illusory and misleading representation and conceptualization of indigenous ways of life. Thinking outside the box requires transcending and at times transgressing bordered categories. In geopolitics, borders have fulfilled the role of mirroring and replicating the official power paradigm. Socially constructed, officially sanctioned and commissioned geographical boundaries, deliberately perceived as static when suiting the dominant goals, were used as colonial instruments of power throughout history and represented in maps and reified in discourse.
Strategies subverting and deconstructing borders are at the heart of King’s storytelling technique. He employs a number of different narrative devices, such as symbolism, tropes, naming, irony and humor. In so doing he continues a Native tradition based on oral storytelling and the high value Native cultures place on humor (Gruber, Humor 8–12). Renaming is one strategy. As Lane puts it: “Renaming was clearly a powerful colonial tool designed to challenge the cultural and political autonomy of Canada’s First Peoples” (6). However, in writing back, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis are renaming and reclaiming in their own right. A culturally sensitive way to belong and root oneself is to reclaim one’s name and with it one’s own culture, ethnicity, and identity. Examples become increasingly numerous ranging from the creation of Nunavut to replacing the name of the Princess Charlotte Islands with the indigenous designation “Haida Gwaii” or the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca with “Salish Sea.” This official act of renaming is equivalent to reclaiming Native identity, sovereignty, and autonomy.
Tecumseh’s father characterizes the key differences between Natives and Whites and sees the world’s problems linked to Whites (86–87). The father asks the question: “‘You know what’s wrong with the world?’ ” (86). At the same time he gets a bottle of iced tea with the label “Wiser’s” from under the car seat. That is a humorous and ironic hint of King, in particular pertinent in this father-son ← 82 | 83 → dialogue that culminates with an emphasis on the importance of humor. To make it in the world humor is needed. The answer to the father’s question regarding the malaise of the world is “Whites” (86). Tecumseh in an attempted reply to his father’s rhetorical question “What’s wrong in the world?” anticipates the usual lingering colonial repercussions. King thus overtly addresses the ongoing debate on colonialism versus postcolonialism, on whether indigenous peoples have achieved a postcolonial status yet. Another passage underscores Canada’s position as a settler colony or dominion and at the same time colonizing First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. He implies continuing colonial effects and doubts that Canada is postcolonial in the truest sense of the term. King does not approve of the recourse to the phase of colonialism to label a literature that is genuinely Native.
Tecumseh tries to guess the answer by recurring to stereotypes and common grievances held against Whites and going back to colonialism: “‘That’s because they took our land, right?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘Because they broke the treaties?’ ‘Double nope.’ ‘Because they’re prejudiced … ?’ ‘That what they teach you in school?’ My father takes the bottle and has another drink. ‘Listen up. It’s because they got no sense of humour’” (86–87). Tecumseh objects, citing Skee Gardipeau, who runs the pub Railman’s (33), as an example of the opposite, but Tecumseh’s father corrects him and insists on the difference between “telling a joke and having a sense of humour” (87).
Certain set phrases are mentioned as a recurrent theme, a leitmotif. The contrasts in perception, but even more so the connections between the different characters are underscored. King shows how the characters influence each other and how every single one of them has regrets concerning the past and longs for either a new life or to have the old life back. Times change as do the characters’ outlook on life. Often the evasive and pensive answer “‘Another life […]’. ‘Another time’” (245) is given. The first time this phrase comes up in the book is when grandmother mentions Mia (54). Auntie Cassie resembles Tecumseh’s mother, though auntie Cassie has a tattoo on her hand (55). This tattoo says AIM (King 56) or MIA read in reverse. There are three possible readings for the three letters, namely AIM as in American Indian Movement, MIA as in missing in action, and MIA as the probable name of Cassie’s mysterious daughter. When Tecumseh sees a baby picture he erroneously assumes it must be him, “only the hair doesn’t look quite right” ( 120), and he can only see three signs at the back of the photo: “All I can make out is a ‘J’ and an ‘L’ and the number one” (120). Based on that, Ridington assumes: “[…] 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” (Ridington 97). ← 83 | 84 →
Symbolically speaking, Canada’s national holiday, referring to the settler state, has a variety of diverging connotations depending on the background of a person. Ridington also reports that the date of “Indian Days” in Bright Water is July 1 (98), another ironic twist King uses to rewrite the colonial past. The girl most likely born on Canada Day is not present and seems to be linked to a traumatic past event. The mystery revolving around the tattoo and the regretful pondering alludes to a form of loss and grief on Cassie’s part. Elvin, Tecumseh’s father, uses the same phrases, yet in the opposite order: “‘Another time […]’. ‘Another life’” (188). This is echoed by Helen, the mother, who uses exactly the same words in Elvin’s order: “‘Another time […]’. ‘Another life’” (207). Helen, Elvin and Helen’s sister Cassie share that past and different life of those days as evident in their similar choice of words. There are connections the reader and the critic is left to puzzle over.
“You know what’s wrong with this world?” (226) is a question frequently asked by different characters in King’s novel. This thread gives the reader interesting insights into the mindset of the people asking this rhetorical question because of the different answers given. Lum answers his rhetorical question by saying: “There aren’t enough bullets” (226). Elvin asks the exact same question: “You know what’s wrong with this world” (169)? “Just needs a little love” (169). Love is the answer, though later on Elvin elaborates and states: “‘The trouble with the world,’ he says […] ‘is women’” (170). This is the third time Elvin reflects on the problems of the world blaming first Whites, then Natives, and eventually women. Whites are the root for what is not going well in the world because of their lack of humor (86–87). Elvin offers the same answer with regard to Natives: “What’s wrong with this world is Indians” (105). Monroe asks the same rhetorical question but replies slightly differently: “Nobody has a sense of humour” (199). Lucy Rabbit echoes the question and shares some words of wisdom: “‘Everybody’s related,’ Lucy told us. ‘The trouble with this world is that you wouldn’t know it from the way we behave’” (202). For her the issue is human behavior and community.
In his novel, King employs the history of the Cherokees as a pan-tribal illustration of the continuing repercussions of colonialism for all Native peoples and tribal nations. While the tribal affiliations of Tecumseh, Lum, Monroe and the other Native characters are not disclosed, the setting in the Alberta-Montana borderlands as well as King’s biography and works suggest the Blackfoot tribe. The colonial past haunts Native characters in Truth & Bright Water and evokes ← 84 | 85 → the Trail of Tears in particular. By overcoming the past, a brighter future and a happier trail beckon.
Striking pan-tribal links in Truth & Bright Water include the giveaway (243), a traditional custom echoing the Pacific Northwest potlatch tradition. A Northwest Coast mask (243) is part of Monroe’s interior, indicative of the notion of masking. The bentwood box is usually associated with the Northwestern tribes and plays a crucial part on account of its role as the place where the bones of the Indian children are stored. Other pan-tribal links comprise allusions to Blackfoot scholar Adolf Hungry Wolf and to the Cherokees’ camping at Happy Trails, in fact a reversal of and direct allusion to the forced removal of Cherokees to Oklahoma on the “Trail of Tears”. For King, pan-tribal issues form the core of Native identity:
King himself asserts that he is most interested in a pan-Indian, urban or rural (as opposed to reservation) view of contemporary Native identity, and he creates characters and communities that are either not tribally ascribed or are associated with the Blackfoot people of Alberta and Montana with whom King became familiar during his years at the University of Lethbridge. (Hulan and Warley 125)
Hulan and Warley also discuss the flipside of this pan-tribalism: “For a new generation of Native literary critics, the pan-Indian view can be troubling” (125). They refer to Jesse Rae Archibald-Barber and point out that there is a disconnect between aesthetics and ethics regarding pan-tribalism in Truth & Bright Water: “[…] the lack of tribal specificity in King’s novel […], as well as his recourse to magic realism, might work aesthetically but not necessarily ethically, as these aspects of his writing obscure, rather than reinforce, particular tribal contexts and traditions” (Hulan and Warley 125). Hulan and Warley contend that for Indigenous authors tribal specificity is crucial, yet “for non-Native readers, on the other hand, King’s sometimes rather generic Indian characters and stories can be very appealing” as this literary work is more accessible and requires less specific contextual knowledge (126). The historical allusions in the text abound and once disclosed open a deeper and essential understanding of King’s metafictional aim. Without contextual knowledge the full potential of King’s fiction as a subversive text is stymied.
Intertextuality is a decisive part of King’s fiction: “A considerable number of King’s texts are thus marked by the overt and/or covert presence of various intertexts – written as well as oral, Native as well as Western” (Ulm and Kuester 149). Ulm and Kuester contend that “[o]ne of the most important literary techniques that King employs in this deconstruction of Eurocentric and/or colonial positions is the use of intertextual references that can be traced back to a spectrum ← 85 | 86 → of semiotic systems ranging from religion, literature, and the arts to popular culture” (149). Historical allusions interspersed in the novel are manifold, for instance a Native person watches a western movie glorifying the good cowboys of the frontier and westward expansion, at the time when Natives were pushed back and felt the full blow of colonialism. Native livelihoods were destroyed by the killing and radical decimation of the buffaloes. The narrative strand or leitmotif of Native resistance to forced removal and colonial repercussions is supported by telling examples, such as the main protagonist’s name. Tecumseh’s name is connected to the historical Shawnee chief (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 144), reminding readers of Tecumseh’s War, the car Cherokee, and the Cherokees at the camping ground Happy Trails, a poignant reminder and ironic reversal in name of the historic event known as the “Trail of Tears.”
Lum is sarcastic and self-derogatory and tells Tecumseh that there are “skins” at Happy Trails (72), Cherokees from Georgia. He discloses that they are on their way to Oklahoma. Tecumseh mentions that they are not headed in the right direction, but Lum mockingly replies: “Maybe they’re taking the scenic route” (14). He also suggests that there is this unusual girl. For this reason Tecumseh should meet her, since he is equally strange (14) according to Lum. Rebecca Neuguin (102) assumes a unique role. In a magical realist vein, she has ghost-like qualities. The Cherokee girl wears a red ribbon in her hair (101), probably similar to the ones Monroe uses for the skulls (252). Rebecca resembles a bird (101), wears a long dress, and looks for her duck (101). She relates a creation story with regard to her missing duck and likes to be in the shade, which seems to be her natural surrounding: “In the shade she looks fine, but in the light, she looks strange, pale and transparent” (102). Going back into the shadow is like crossing the border between light and darkness, the shadows being the in-between stage: “The girl steps back into the shadows as if there is a line drawn in the ground past which she is not willing to go” (102). This indeterminate position within the realm of the visible and less visible, between the light and the shade makes her a ghost-like figure and a twilight presence. Marlene Goldman investigates the ghostly presence in Truth & Bright Water. She claims that “[i]n this novel, King continues to instigate profound shifts in perspective as he invokes the spirit of Coyote and ghosts to trace the impact of the dispossession of North American Native peoples” (Goldman 283). She postulates that King “infuses his tale of cultural haunting with a tragicomic trickster sensibility” (Goldman 283). Goldman likens the vanishing of Natives to “an optical illusion” not conforming to the stereotypical notion of the “doomed Indian”: “Instead, Truth & Bright Water suggests that they have actually vanished – a process less akin to a death and more ← 86 | 87 → like an optical illusion that has been perpetrated by the settler society, which continually needs to displace and erase Native people’s presence in order to feel at home in the new world” (283).
Early on, Rebecca scares Soldier by her presence. Though she does not find the duck, she keeps looking for it. She gives her hair band, a red ribbon, to Tecumseh and King uses the floating metaphor: “The ribbon floats in the breeze” (197). Rebecca is linked to a floating stage: “In her long dress, in the long prairie grass, she looks as if she is floating” (198). King hints at the colonial legacy in North America and the Trail of Tears (Davidson, Walton and Andrews): “She looks tired, as if she’s walked a long ways [sic] today and still has a long ways [sic] to go” (197). Rebecca bonds with Tecumseh’s dog Soldier “as if the two of them have a secret that they’re not going to share with anyone else” (197), despite Soldier first being afraid of her. Rebecca has a tendency to show up out of nowhere and then suddenly disappear again (148). When Rebecca and Tecumseh meet she asks about Soldier and says that dogs in general dislike her, which later on is proved. Again she is the link between light and darkness: “Rebecca stands up and walks to the edge of the tent where the shadows end and the sun begins” (147). In conversation between them Rebecca reveals that she wears a dress made by her mother done without scissors because her mother is not allowed to have any. This will change once they live in Oklahoma. There are allusions to the killing of the buffaloes and the tourist attraction of a buffalo hunt in corrals (148). Rebecca leaves without giving Tecumseh a chance to say goodbye (265). She becomes a ghost-like vanishing Indian.
The notion of authenticity is blurred in Truth & Bright Water. King deliberately reverses preconceived notions and turns stereotypes upside down. Western and Native clichés echo each other and the characters wear masks or costumes concealing their identity while pretending to reveal typical Native or Western practices and perspectives. The reader along with the novel’s Native protagonists can screen the screened stereotypes shown at the movie theater “Frontier”. The Hollywood movies in the Western genre create illusions and perpetuate stock characters, particularly revealing once the living equivalents to these stock characters direct their gaze at the dream factory’s production.
King’s use of comedy and the central significance of comedy in Native communities and stories is widely recognized (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 3, 15; Gruber Humor). King’s humor and subversive irony is directed against Whites ← 87 | 88 → and Natives alike, though Whites are shown as putting on a superior air marked by pity in disguise. The image of Natives might still be tainted by romanticized and essentialist notions of Native identity and culture. An advertisement for Washington State apples uses the image of a Native to promote the apples grown there: “There’s a large picture of an Indian eating an apple and a caption reads ‘Red and Delicious’” (187). There are more instances of puns and derisive humor on account of Natives. Miles Deardorf, who sold the church to Monroe, makes a joke about Natives being “reserved” or having some “reservations” (28) due to Monroe’s failure of socially interacting with the community upon his move to the abandoned church. Skee admonishes him and describes his joke as stupid.
King ironically comments on white conceptions of or the white gaze on Native cultures and identities and hence Native expressions in crafts and art. Elvin carves coyotes, trickster figures out of wood because there is a high demand for traditional Native art. Economic necessity is pitted against artistic expression (32). Elvin is about business and does not want to be compared to an artist like Monroe (34). Trickster-like, Monroe pretends to be a tourist at Indian Days. He shows up wearing a Hawaiian shirt, cowboy hat, and sunglasses. He has a camera with him and takes pictures. His outfit and the activity of taking pictures is what a stereotypical tourist looks like and how he behaves in Monroe’s imagination and experience. Additionally, he is aware of commercialization and marketing opportunities. Before he leaves the festival he tells Tecumseh to take a picture of him to sell posthumously. This underlines that Elvin and Monroe seem to be not that different in terms of seizing economic opportunities, though Monroe’s behavior is infused with irony and comedy. He suggests a caption alluding to his art and Native identity (218). The realistic approach is to make a living and use the current trends and tastes in the market. King makes fun of tourists and uses stereotypes to depict them, whether his pet German tourists or his Canadian compatriots. Authenticity becomes a masquerade as Elvin and Lucy Rabbit demonstrate.
Self-identification as a Native is not a given. Lucy Rabbit dyes her hair blonde in order to resemble more closely her idol Marilyn Monroe, whereas Elvin, Tecumseh’s father wants to be like Elvis Presley. Passing as someone else, renouncing Native ethnicity and only claiming Native authenticity to sell products as does Elvin during Indian Days becomes an intriguing backdrop for the ironic depiction of such Westerners as the Germans. Lucy Rabbit helps Tecumseh’s father Elvin at Indian Days. Elvin, dressed up as Elvis Presley, just for fun sings a duet with Lucy. In line with King’s focus on illusions Tecumseh mistakes his father for a tourist. Mistaken identities are another strategy in subverting and reversing the status quo. King uses the character of Lucy Rabbit to blur the ← 88 | 89 → boundaries between reality and fiction. Lucy is convinced that Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley are of Native descent and that they could even be siblings (200–01). The early death of Marilyn of drugs is indicative of her Native connections, as Lucy puts it sarcastically: “She died young, of drugs. Sounds like an Indian to me” (200). Pretending to be someone else is a way of obscuring the boundary between the real and the imagined. The desire for blonde hair speaks of not embracing Native identity, of longing to belong elsewhere. The same holds true for mind traveling or wishing to live elsewhere. Tecumseh and his mother Helen both daydream and let the mind wander. The local imagined community (Benedict Anderson) does not suffice. Looking at the tourist brochures, he has ordered, takes Tecumseh and Helen to other sites and sightseeing, symbolizing a mental border crossing.
The movie theater is called the Frontier (30) and one can “catch an old John Wayne western at the Frontier” (41). This intermedial reference to the Western genre is compelling as a Native perspective on this non-Native genre is revealed. Movie theaters tap into the imagination by creating illusions and telling audio-visual stories. The movie theater’s name “Frontier” echoing Turner’s Frontier Thesis is used in ironic juxtaposition with the movie shown there. The comic and ironic subversion lies in the crossing of multiple borders between fact and fiction, between Native and non-Native, and between the differing perspectives on the frontier experience and the myth of the West perpetuated through westerns. An illusion is ironically produced by screening a John Wayne western in the movie theater “Frontier” with a Native audience. Natives are westernized in such a western movie. In contrast, when Tecumseh’s mother Helen plays a role in Grimm’s fairy tale, the Western European ideas are indigenized in a Native setting. The borders between the Native and Non-Native worlds as well as between tradition and modernity are blurred and actively challenged and subverted.
As a frame of reference the reader’s imagination visualizes these westerns with the stereotypical depiction of the Native experience, of Native characters being either noble, villain, or vanishing. The stereotypical “Indian” in the imagination of people alludes to these preconceived notions. The western genre is featured again when Tecumseh and Soldier watch TV. The reader experiences a reversed perspective, a Native watching a western, where a white man wants to be an Indian (111). Tecumseh does not like the western much. The Native gaze on a non-Native and stereotypical movie is an important episode in the adolescent world of Tecumseh, who needs to reconcile his Native experience with Western and White constructions of identity and culture. He needs to negotiate between the Native and White worlds. ← 89 | 90 →
Stereotypes and their subversion are a predominant theme in King’s novel. Both Natives and Whites are prone to stereotypes or want to pass as the other for select reasons, whether related to business strategies, identity formation or to mock the Other’s stereotypes of one’s own group. The latter is a strategy Monroe engages in subverting trickster-like the tourist clichés and stereotypical behavior. The bordered thinking in form of stereotypes is required to market the Native products to wealthier non-Native tourists. Gruber describes the mixed blessing of tourists in their interaction with Natives and Native communities: “Tourism, on the one hand, is a welcome and indispensable source of income to many Native nations. On the other hand, it frequently reifies Native people and Native cultures as the exotic Other to be consumed” (Humor 152). Native writers employ fictional characters who use these preconceived notions to their advantage and subvert them through humor. Gruber posits that “[t]he most pointed and at the same time most comical subversions of tourist stereotypes are provided by Thomas King in his novels Green Grass, Running Water and Truth and Bright Water” (Humor 152).
There are several instances of stereotypes that are subverted, mocked and used to Native advantage during the Indian Days festival at the Bright Water reserve. Native woman Edna caters to German tourists’ “desire for authenticity” and subsequently turns into “a sly business woman” (Gruber, Humor 154) selling her food at a much higher price. Gruber points out that frybread is not a traditional foodstuff for Natives (Humor 155). She uses terms such as “illusion,” (Gruber, Humor 154) and “fabrication” (Gruber, Humor 155) to show the constructedness and superficial nature of these Western tourists’ notions of Natives. She claims that “[t]he text blurs cultural boundaries and levels hierarchies when these Natives-dressed-as-Western-cultural-icons encounter the Germans who bought Edna’s recipe” (Gruber, Humor 155). This blurring of cultural and hierarchical borders is central to my analysis of King’s novel. King uses a number of strategies and methods in the guise of humor, irony, naming, comic reversal, and historical allusion.
The notions of truth, of what is real and authentic, are blurred in people’s minds. Non-Native perspectives on Native peoples thrive on stereotypes, consequently perpetuating false assumptions and preconceived notions. King “writes back” by ironically and humorously reversing stereotypes. His Native characters play with tourists’ notions of Nativeness and use their expectations to economic advantage. A very ingenious example is paradigmatic of King’s sense of humor. Native character Monroe Swimmer is said to have dressed up as a Native German with the full regalia of lederhosen and tuba during Indian Days. This surprises ← 90 | 91 → the Western reader as there seem to be different rules of behavior for Natives and Westerners. As Gruber maintains when Westerners pretend to be Natives that is not considered ridiculous, but can pass as “perfectly normal” (Humor 156). For Gruber, through this ploy-acting in his plot, King achieves the dual purpose of shifting perspectives on cultural stereotypes of Natives and the misappropriation of Native symbols (Humor 156). Very succinctly put, Gruber posits that “[s]tereotyping discounts Native presence today” and links this phenomenon to Baudrillard’s “simulacra” (Gruber, Humor 156). Native fiction exhibiting blurred boundaries can be read as border texts showing agency in the realm of debordering practices. This leads to new conceptualizations of Native presence.
Monroe in a German-inspired costume with the tuba as a prop is an ironic and comic comment on German tourists dressed up as Natives and playing Indian during the Native festival in the novel. King seems to single out German tourists and pay particular attention to their behavior as he is aware of German writer Karl May’s lingering popularity in Germany. King mocks Germans’ infatuation, “German indianthusiasm” (Lutz) with everything Native as is underscored even more with the German couple’s last name of May (155), clearly alluding to Karl May. Helmut May and his wife Eva rent a car in Missoula, cross the border at Prairie View and head for Banff. He is a fashion photographer while his wife is a schoolteacher. Both professions are involved in passing on a perspective, either by capturing the artificial glamour world of fashion or in the process of teaching, when several philosophies aside from the subject matter are espoused and shared. Helmut May’s profession forms a link to the ideational concept of representation. Photography is a medium that seemingly captures a so-called reality, while it depicts only a particular perspective or frame. The photograph is a shot taken by an individual person. Illusions are created and only subjective realities are represented. Mocking the stereotypes, King depicts the older German couple staying in their car according to the rules with the seatbelt fastened despite dying from exposure: “When the RCMP finally found the jeep, the Mays were sitting in the front seat with their seat belts fastened. The windows were rolled up, the doors were locked, and there were no signs that they had ever gotten out” (155). This caricatures the notion that Germans follow rules relentlessly until death. In the Prairies sharing in the fate of Natives, they die of exposure in their “Cherokee” car. The blurred photographs on film rolls found in the dead Mays’ car can be linked to the criticism of master narratives and concomitant stereotypes perpetuated “by non-Natives such as Karl May, for these depictions eventually say more about the myopic vision of the person who produces them […] than about the depicted object, which inadvertently becomes distorted” (Ulm and Kuester ← 91 | 92 → 161). “Exposure” as in photography and exposure as in being exposed to extreme heat and extreme climatic conditions is the key word here: “[…] having [Karl May] die of exposure in Native country (155) becomes an apt metaphor for the deconstruction of the ideological underpinning found in the narratives King includes as intertexts in his fiction” (Ulm and Kuester 161).
King uses another example regarding German tourists’ predilection for pretending to be Native. Laura Peters highlights the indigenous myth in Canada by referring to Margaret Atwood’s essay “Grey Owl Syndrome” (197)24. This concept is enlightening also with regard to what is called “Karl May syndrome” (Georgi-Findlay 98) in Germany. King picks up on both phenomena in Truth & Bright Water. In a conversation between Lucy and Helen, Lucy declares “that now everyone want[s] to be an Indian” and brings up Adolf Hungry Wolf25, a German, now Canadian, who speaks Blackfoot and lives the Native way (202). King continues his German stereotyping in portraying Germans in Native clothes as tourists during Indian Days. This cultural festival has a strong tourist dimension: “The tourists who show up for Indian Days can get almost anything they want” (209). The vendors label the souvenirs and crafts as “authentic” and “traditional” (209). This ties in with the overall concern with truth in this novel. There are even vendors from the other side of the border such as from Browning, Missoula, and Flathead Lake (209). Indian Days offer economic opportunity and also interaction between people from various backgrounds. The locals hope for German tourists to make some money: “‘Lucille and Teresa are praying for Germans’” (72). Germans and Japanese are much desired visitors during Indian Days for economic reasons (22). Tecumseh enjoys the presence of outsiders, though tourists behave embarrassingly, they add respect for the locals and support ethnic pride: “People from Germany and France and Japan would wander around, smiling, asking the kinds of questions that made you feel embarrassed and important all at the same time” (101).
Three German tourists sporting Native garb visit during Indian Days. King describes them wearing “buckskin shirts and fringed leather pants” and one displaying a “bone breastplate” (210). They have painted faces and Elvin assumes ← 92 | 93 → these Germans must be members of an “Indian club” in Germany (210). For Elvin those tourists are a “[b]unch of wannabes” (210). The German with the bone breastplate negotiates with Edna in order to learn “the secret of authentic frybread” (211). Edna wants to get fifty instead of twenty-five dollars and is determined to get the price she asks for. She “has her Indian face on now” (211), gestures a lot and sings a round dance. Afterwards the German tourist is eager to pay the money. Later on the three Germans also visit Elvin’s booth and Elvin, who wants to sell his wooden coyotes, tells them a lot about coyotes, tricksters and the necessity of having them for a medicine bag (231). Even to the narrator and Native Tecumseh some of the information Elvin tells the tourists is new. King’s sense of humor is obvious once again in a short dialogue between father and son when Elvin ironically and wryly comments on the Native outfit of the three Germans (231). In the novel King reverses these stereotypes. Monroe Swimmer, described as “Big-time Indian artist” (24), has a strong sense of humor and turns cultural stereotypes upside down. One community member remembers how Monroe dressed up as a German, technically as a traditional Bavarian, or rather the “Bright Water German Club” for Indian Days complete with lederhosen and tuba. He does so as Germans eagerly dress up as Indians (25).
There are also tourists from Kingston, Ontario in addition to the Germans and some others. These Canadian tourists have decided to forego their usual summer vacation destination Prince Edward Island and to go west in search of “real Indians” (King 234). The mother of that Canadian family confirms the stereotype about jailed Natives: “All the ones we hear about […] are in the penitentiary” (234). Earlier on in the novel another essentialist incident is related when a woman from Sweden visiting Tecumseh’s grandmother with auntie Cassie “wanted to see the Red Indians” (54). Tecumseh wryly replies: “Here we are” (54). He pretends to fulfill the visitor’s essentialist desire and presents himself in an ironic fashion as a prototypical Native person.
Lum and Tecumseh are cousins, their fathers being brothers, though they differ in appearance as Tecumseh relates: “Lum’s father and my father are brothers, but you would never know it to look at them. My father is tall with small hands and long hair. Prairie clay and willow. Franklin is shorter, all chest and shoulders, with a crewcut. River rock and fast water” (5). Comparisons to the natural world underline the importance of nature and the land in Tecumseh’s imagination and in his daily life in the Prairies and Plains. Lum dreams of winning the Indian Days long-distance running event and claims that he could win a running ← 93 | 94 → scholarship at a university if he wants to (4–5). Through Tecumseh, the violent nature of Lum’s father is revealed in the novel: “Franklin doesn’t drink, and he doesn’t joke around like my father, so it’s hard to tell if he’s angry or in a good mood. Lum tells me that you have to watch his eyes, that you’re okay until they stop moving” (6). Tecumseh contrasts his father who drinks occasionally and then either gets sad or violent with Lum’s father who does not drink, but is even more violent. King’s comic irony becomes evident in Tecumseh’s off-the-cuff remarks regarding his father: “Sometimes he gets angry and swings at things. But he doesn’t really mean it, and he always gives us plenty of time to get out of the way” (6).
In a casual tone the reader learns about domestic violence in Lum’s life: “His eye isn’t black anymore. It’s purple now, and yellow, and doesn’t look as if it hurts too much” (3). Next, the reader finds out that Lum smokes despite his ambitions as a runner and carries a gun he found at a landfill. The two adolescent boys, Lum and Tecumseh, use the gun to play games. King foreshadows the tragic ending by foreboding details. The gun is first described as being “lots of fun” (4), but then a gloomier sense is evoked by the following description: “The gun is heavy and cold” (4). The ambivalence of the gun is captured by juxtaposing the fun and the danger in using the gun. King ties the gun back to the bridge: “But the best game of all was climbing up into the girders of the bridge and skipping bullets off the concrete and steel” (5).
The Cousins, wild dogs and tricksters (128), are anthropomorphous as is Tecumseh’s dog Soldier, which suggests “limitrophy” (Derrida 397–99). The dogs’ names indicate their human qualities and in the case of the Cousins their ambiguous human-trickster-animal existences. There is a further connection between the names, place names as well as characters’ names, and the tropes and symbols King uses in his novel. The animal character of Soldier is indicative. Soldier’s name is linked to possible violence and weapons, but as Ridington posits: “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” (99). The dog Soldier, in contrast to the wild dogs Cousins, also fulfils the valiant duties of a soldier as he is loyal, alert, and defends his master. His allegiance lies with Lum who in one instance returns to the reserve by way of the bridge despite the dangers and the barred entrance of the bridge. Soldier reacts with fear (15) for Lum’s and his own safety, but later Soldier loyally runs along with him. Lum shows special talent in crossing the dangerous bridge: “But Lum moves gracefully, effortlessly along the girders, like a dancer, until the curve of the bridge begins its descent into Bright ← 94 | 95 → Water, and he vanishes over the edge” (15). In this excerpt Lum is described as a border-transcending “line dancer” (Mayer, “Line Dancing”), performing a border “choreography” (van Houtum, “Remapping” 414). Quite literally Lum becomes the embodiment of the stereotypical “vanishing Indian”. Edges are the limits between entities, hence this word indicates that Lum crosses a boundary when he “vanishes over the edge,” the river being the border between Canada and the United States.
Tecumseh and Lum are in the straw car where they try to find some leftover fruit and Lum pretends to wash a boxcar: “In the cool dark of the car, I watch Lum play the hose into the corners and along the floor, and I imagine the water exploding under the straw and breaking against the metal walls like waves trying to come ashore” (71). The water imagery that King employs is indeed striking. The ocean signifies both freedom and menace but it is the freedom the two adolescents long for. They want to explore the world, live their lives and pursue opportunities beyond the confines of a boxcar. The boxcar is a bordered cage-like compartment; a symbol for their lives as Natives whether on or off the reserve. Putting a yearning for freedom into practice is also evident in Lum’s desire to run. Already the first chapter starts off with the sentence “Soldier and I relax on the side of the coulee and watch Lum lengthen his stride as he comes to high ground” (3). The action of running or striding towards a goal, real or imagined, is of importance in the novel from beginning to end. Lum dies running towards simultaneous death and freedom and away from the violence committed against him by his father. Throughout the novel, running is interspersed. Lum races the train and “leads the train across the bridge” (73). Soldier tries to keep up with Lum who is in danger, but does not seem to care: “One thing is for sure. If he slips on the gravel or stumbles on a tie, he’s dead” (74). Lum continues running resembling a bird: “Against the arch of a cloudless sky, he looks like a dark bird gliding low across the land” (74). Lum is a captured bird yearning to be free and fly away from all hardship, domestic violence, and loneliness towards a true home.
Helen’s quilt serves both as an illustration of a palimpsest and a map, a Native tool of storytelling and empowerment resisting some and sheltering others. King dedicates a complete chapter, albeit a short one, to Helen’s quilting. Tecumseh contends that this particular quilt done by his mother “is not the easy kind of quilt you can get at the Mennonite colony near Blossom or one of the fancy machinestitched quilts you could get in Prairie View” (61). This quilt is an ongoing project and Helen includes different, often unusual, objects apart from fabric: ← 95 | 96 →
Along with the squares and triangles and circles of cloth that have been sewn together, patterns with names like Harvest Star, and Sunshine and Shadow, and Sunburst, my mother has also fastened unexpected things to the quilt, such as the heavy metal washers that run along the outside edges and the clusters of needles that she has worked into the stitching just below the fish hooks and the chickens’ feathers. (61)
The quilt has turned into an obsession or a “problem” as Tecumseh’s father puts it. Helen has begun work on the quilt shortly after Tecumseh’s birth. Over time the patterns changed from geometric to freehand reminiscent of the natural world, the flora and fauna as well as people and quickly “you could see Truth in one corner of the quilt and Bright Water in the other with the Shield flowing through the fabrics in tiny diamonds and fancy stitching” (61). The quilt thus becomes a palimpsestical map, a geographic as well as personal map of Helen’s imagination always adapted and altered to her current lived experience. There is a strong autobiographical link to her life: instead of ‘life writing,’ however, the quilt is a record of her life, her ‘life quilting.’ Quilting is similar to a graphic novel in this way. Like a palimpsest, the quilt changes over time, grows, gets more detailed, more nuanced, and inscribed with meaning, though not immediately obvious for the beholder. Hence, like the rings of a tree, a personal diary, a blog or the wrinkles in a human’s face, every added detail, piece of fabric and object is infused with a special meaning. It breathes life and exudes an aura of experience and wisdom with regard to life’s mysteries.
Dvořák’s contrastive analysis of Elvin’s car and Helen’s quilt is very insightful as she highlights King’s focus on undermining reader’s expectations by showcasing the car as an immobile vehicle and the quilt accordingly as a symbol of empowerment and not domesticity (Dvorák 27). In this regard quilting history is illuminating. Quilting used to be a powerful tool of self-expression and a voice for the voiceless within the bounds of society in former times, whether women or non-White people. Helen is likened to mythical Penelope, yet “[i]n a reversal of Odysseus’s Penelope, the young woman has been creating and decreating for years” (Dvorák 27). According to Dvorák the quilt symbolizes Helen’s “resistance to victimization” (27). The question arises why Helen should feel victimized. Depite being a single mother after the separation from her husband, she owns a business and has close family ties. The reader can only speculate that she might not have been as strong as she is presented in the unfolding narration.
The quilt is a map of the past, present, and even the future, a mosaic forming a holistic whole. It establishes a link to traditional ways and a means of trying to bridge past and present. Soothing and relaxing best characterize the process and effect of quilting for Helen. Tecumseh’s father confirms the obsessive nature and therapeutic value of the quilt (61–62). Helen continues to use further less likely ← 96 | 97 → objects for her quilt such as chicken feet, hair, porcupine quills, earrings, needles, fish hooks, and razor blades (61–62). Tecumseh mentions that the dangerous objects are on the outside of the quilt. His father Elvin is particularly concerned about the razor blades that Helen did not remove. The first-person narrator likes the needles the most, because “they would tinkle like little bells and flash in the light like knives” (62). Tecumseh relates that when his father moved from Bright Water to Truth, his mother turned to quilting: “She stayed in the house and worked on the quilt” (65). The quilt is like a good companion, always there and at hand in times of need and longing for comfort.
The quilt’s unusual nature is focused upon as it includes “unexpected, potentially problematic objects, some of which could cause danger, such as razor blades, fish hooks and porcupine quills” (Bates 147). Bates proposes that the quilt is a special trope and functions in “[r]efusing the [s]mooth [b]order [c]rossing, [r]e-[f] using the [s]tory” (Bates 153). The analysis of the quilt is more diverse than at first sight: “However, tempting as it might be to read the quilt as a fixed symbol – as a physical manifestation of the way Tecumseh’s mother deals with her problems and as a potential metaphor for the difficulties of border crossing – this reading does not account for the way Tecumseh and his family interact with the quilt” (Bates 154). As the dangerous objects are on the outside of the quilt it is safe underneath the quilt. Bates posits that “King suggests that those who get underneath the quilt already occupy a place within Tecumseh’s mother’s affections” (Bates 154).
However, the quilt is not a passive shelter for those seeking refuge in the folds of its inside, but a protective layer ready to also physically defend the sheltered person by the sharp objects on the outside. The quilt, as the border river Shield, is at once a border, but also a soothing presence for someone to rest embraced in the folds of the fabric or submerged in the water of the river. Danger and comfort are represented by both the quilt and the river depending on the perspective. Monroe’s work on the museum landscape paintings from the 19th century is likened to Helen’s quilt. When Monroe describes these landscape paintings Tecumseh relates that his mother’s quilt looks similar (129). The difference between both forms of art is that the indigenous presence is obfuscated in the Western idealized landscape paintings until the Natives “bleed through” (130) most likely thanks to Monroe’s “restoration” (129), whereas the quilt was done by a Native woman, Helen, and also features Native settings and unusual, Native infused objects. Helen’s quilt, the same quilt throughout the novel, resists the ordinary and newly connects surprising items with more traditional patterns and patches, she “refuses” expected ways of behavior and “the quilt re-fuses the objects by placing them somewhere new” (Bates 155). ← 97 | 98 →
Patterns are not only obvious in the streets, but also partially on Helen’s quilt. such as a “Sunburst” pattern (61). The quilt also prominently features Truth and Bright Water. It is a patchwork map, soothing to Helen, and representing her version of her world including binaries, grids, and patterns. Additionally she includes borders that have arisen for instance between her husband and herself. This is represented by the needles and razor blades (61–62). The quilt is an important symbol standing for protection and connection with the past, although in a creative and transforming way. The past and traditional crafts are not merely copied, but are appropriated to fit the needs of the present. The quilt and quilting acquire therapeutic value for Helen (112) reminding her of belonging, and of overcoming obstacles as well as fear. Auntie Cassie takes refuge in the quilt in the night of the sisters’ reminiscing about old times. Then again, at the giveaway, Helen first uses the quilt herself and then later on “opens the quilt and wraps it around her sister’s shoulders” exposing a sisterly and affectionate bond between the two women (246).
Another person finds comfort thanks to the quilt. Lum wears the quilt briefly in a domestic scene while having breakfast at Tecumseh’s home (65). Tecumseh reminds him to put his mother’s quilt away. Lum eventually does so, but not until dancing in the quilt: “Lum stands up and spins around in a tight circle so that the feathers lift away from the quilt like tiny wings and the ribbons tremble like tongues” (65). In this scene the adolescent boy subconsciously taps into the traditional reservoir of Native culture by engaging in his own ceremonial dance. Lum feels at home, comforted, and like a child again though his mother passed away and his father is violent. After all, Tecumseh’s mother is his aunt. In his imagination Lum equates the woman who jumped off the Horns with his late mother. Tecumseh discloses that “[s]ometimes Lum remembers that his mother is dead, and sometimes he forgets” (14). He further mentions that his own mother, Lum’s aunt, is convinced that “it’s probably the best to leave it alone, that in the end, Lum will work it out for himself” (14). So he does, as the reader learns at the end of the novel, though in a different way than was hoped for.
Monroe Swimmer, a trickster figure in the novel, is a catalyst for the plot. He is the mysterious person, mistaken for a presumably suicidal woman, who empties a suitcase and jumps off the cliffs into the river dividing the American town of Truth from the Canadian reserve of Bright Water. Davidson, Walton, and Andrews argue that King’s “[…] creative work reflects his desire to explore the complexities of the ‘in-between space, within and without borders” (9). They explain ← 98 | 99 → that in King’s novel Monroe Swimmer personifies mobility and thus shatters the image of the seemingly “static” Native either stuck on the reserve or once they leave unable to return to their home (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 9–10). The scholars claim that Monroe Swimmer hailing from a “tribal community” after moving to Europe, the U.S. and then Toronto exhibits “cross-border flexibility and his ability to adapt to and survive within a variety of social and political contexts” (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 10). Vizenor’s promulgation of the practice of “survivance” comes to mind as it is not about merely subsisting or passively surviving, but rather of acting and thriving.
When the woman at the Horns jumps, King links her to the sea or the ocean, a borderless and all-encompassing equalizer where there is only unity:
The woman begins walking back across the rocks, slowly at first, but as she goes, she gathers speed, the music and the lights pushing her forward, sweeping her along like foam on a current. She doesn’t slow down and she doesn’t look back, […] she is picked up as if on the crest of a wave and washed over the edge of the cliff. (9–10)
The maritime terminology such as “foam on a current” or “as if on the crest of a wave and washed over the edge” once again highlights the fluidity of binaries, perceptions and ultimately even of identities. The woman turns out to be Monroe wearing a wig while repatriating Native bones. While continuing the water imagery, the idea of a bird or floating in the air is introduced: “[T]he woman appears to float on the air, her body stretched out and arched, as if she’s decided to ride the warm currents that rise off the river and sail all the way to Bright Water” (10). The woman at the Horns is likened to a bird: “The woman seems to float in the lights. She turns and weaves her way across the hard ground, her hair streaming, her arms spread wide as if she were a bird trying to catch the wind” (7). This is another example of a comparison with the natural world and, more importantly, the term “floating” signaling a liminal stance, “betwixt and between” (Turner).
Monroe jumps and swims in the border river separating Canada and the United States, thus subverting the geopolitical division. The Native perspective is neither Canadian nor American, but genuinely Native. Monroe Swimmer, as his name indicates, is closely connected to the fluidity of water and the active mobility of swimming. By subversively swimming in the Shield, literally and metaphorically the border between Truth and Bright Water is blurred. The prairie setting has also maritime qualities as the prairies can be deceptive and resemble the ocean: “The prairies can fool you. They look flat, when in fact they really roll along like an ocean” (237). In trickster fashion Monroe also swims in the prairie grass. This echoes Deleuze’s and Guattari’s notion of the rhizome. Niall ← 99 | 100 → Lucy likens the “rhizomatic” approach to grass instead of trees as “Trees settle; grass roams” (Lucy 14). This becomes obvious in Monroe Swimmer’s approach to teach grass about green. Moreover, grass is depicted as a sea with roaming fake buffaloes in its midst.
Swimming indicates that Monroe can adjust to circumstances and moves with the flow, but not as a helpless victim. This character has the ability to use the existing conditions for his own ends and achieves what he has set out to do. He controls his moves, also in metaphorical terms. King presents the different perspectives of community members on Monroe, who functions as a trickster in the novel and is a genuine shape shifter. He is described as very daring, assertive, and a skilled painter. However, people come to different conclusions regarding the reasons for his stay in Toronto (26) before returning to Truth and Bright Water. Monroe and the community do not meet immediately after his move. There is a division and invisible boundary between the community and Monroe.
Monroe is interested in “restoration,” particularly nineteenth century landscape paintings, and helps to reintroduce the Native presence in these paintings. The “images that weren’t in the original painting were beginning to bleed through” (130). These images are Natives in this particular painting. The word “bleed” signals the wound inflicted upon Natives in history by colonialism, forced removal, and the destruction of Native livelihoods. The painting bears the name “Sunrise on Little Turtle Lake” (133). The use of turtle in Little Turtle Lake reminds the reader of the Native concept of “Turtle Island,” which indicates a new morning, a renaissance of Native traditions. Monroe helps to usher in this new era by resurrecting the Native presence in that painting. The act of painting is a way of resisting the victimization, to end the bleeding and suffering of the Natives seemingly unable to change their circumstances.
The notion of presence and absence is at the heart of Gerald Vizenor’s position regarding indigeneity. He coins the term “survivance” as follows: “Native survivance is an active sense of presence over absence, deracination, and oblivion; survivance is the continuance of stories, not a mere reaction, however pertinent” (Vizenor 1). Vizenor also proclaims: “The character of survivance creates a sense of native presence over absence, nihility, and victimry” (1) or as “[s]urvivance is an active resistance and repudiation of dominance, obtrusive themes of tragedy, nihilism, and victimry” (11). He further postulates that “[t]he practices of survivance create an active presence, more than the instincts of survival, function, or subsistence” (11). For Vizenor Native storytelling is inextricably linked to the practice of survivance (11). Survivance is seen in contrast to monotheism. He pits the two against each other: “Survivance stories create a sense of ← 100 | 101 → presence and situational sentiments of chance. Monotheism takes the risk out of nature and natural reason and promotes absence, dominance, sacrifice, and victimry” (Vizenor 11). Survivance is connected to the notions of survival and resistance and stresses the resurfacing of the French designation for survival which is “survivance” (Vizenor 19). Native presence and by extension the active embracing of Native agency and identity is shown as a negotiation process and in Native novels is highlighted by acts of defiance, subversion, and resistance. Socio-cultural borders and the segregation of Natives on reserves or poor urban areas are transcended. The Native presence is reaffirmed and becomes visible. In the novel, Monroe turns the tide and is an active practioner of “survivance.” Gruber posits: “Contemporary Native writers’ deconstruction of stereotypes and representation of a more complex Nativeness thus exceeds purely aesthetic or entertaining intentions. It humanizes contemporary nonvanishing Indians and makes readers reimagine Nativeness in terms that allow for growth and development” (Humor 156). Natives are present and resist marginalization and stereotyping by creating alternative imaginaries.
Within the Native realm King uses a couple of characters that exhibit trickster characteristics, though the main trickster is Monroe Swimmer. Subversion and particularly comic subversion are typical of King’s novel. He plays with stereotypes and prejudice and reverses them. Monroe best exemplifies this type of narrative and subversive strategy. In order to fully comprehend Monroe’s trick-sterism, theoretical background in trickster criticism and the trickster trope is necessary. Deanna Reder in her preface to Troubling Tricksters: Revisioning Critical Conversations maintains: “Trickster criticism emerged as one of the first critical approaches for Indigenous literature in Canada, an approach that at one point became so popular that in recent years it has become somewhat of a cliché” (vii-viii). There has been a shift to a new kind of indigenous criticism: “Twenty-first-century trickster criticism is influenced by the recent work of nationalist critics who have called for ethical literary studies that are responsible to Indigenous people and communities” (viii). Kristina Fagan points out that the following changes since the more generalizing trickster criticism: “In an effort to describe the cultural, historical, and political grounding of Indigenous peoples as well as the complex interrelations between them, a number of Indigenous scholars have adopted an approach to literature that is sometimes known as Indigenous (or American Indian) literary nationalism” (9). Niigonwedom James Sinclair postulates: “Indigenous literatures have specific spatial and historical ← 101 | 102 → relations, based in individual and collective Indigenous subjectivities, and these should not be separated in any criticism that purports to interpret, explore, and/ or describe them” (27–28).
Gail Jones sees a trickster beyond the notion of a “cultural hero” as “a shape-shifting character of contradictions: a figure both profane and sacred, foolish and clever, absurd and profound, marginal and, yet, central” (Jones 110). She further posits that “[t]he transforming, transcending trickster operates along boundaries, borders in flux” (Jones 110). Tricksters are consequently central to any discussion of borders and border literatures. In line with that Jones evokes interpreters, marginal yet central and transcending linguistic boundaries: “Because trickster challenges our boundaries, he has been and remains a popular figure for those negotiating ethnocentric barriers, including linguistic ones” (Jones 110). Aloys Fleischmann refers to Gerald Vizenor and Thomas King as “self-declared trickster-authors” (167). The trickster is established as “a poststructuralist, pan-Indian species of this culture hero as a dominant literary and critical trope” (Fleischmann 167). Reingard M. Nischik distinguishes “between ‘classical’ tricksters from Native mythology and human characters derived from the classical trickster figure, who perform similar (narrative) functions […]” (“Wide-Angle” 41). This distinction is a helpful analytical lens.
Applied to King’s novel Truth & Bright Water, Monroe Swimmer is one of the “human characters derived from the classical trickster figure” (Nischik, “Wide-Angle” 41) as defined above and analogous to the Native narrator. Gruber distinguishes “classical” and “contemporary” tricksters and trickster tales (Humor 96). She postulates: “In summary, contemporary trickster tales disrupt pretensions of White superiority and stereotypical representations of Nativeness, directly strengthen Native cultural identity, and mediate the (re-)negotiation of cultural values and representations” (Gruber, Humor 96–97). For Gruber, contemporary tricksters despite showing less explicit transgressive behavior “[…] may open up an imaginative liminal space where the monolithic ‘Indian’ chiseled by Hollywood and nineteenth-century literature can be shattered and where onedimensional readings of Native-White history can be transgressed” (Humor 96). Gruber also relates to Gerald Vizenor’s notion of “trickster discourse” (Gruber, Humor 103).
Ridington argues: “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” (92). She claims that Monroe Swimmer falls into the trickster category: “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 ← 102 | 103 → narrator’s family story and Indian history” (92). The first and last name of Monroe Swimmer is allusive, particularly regarding King’s Cherokee background and thus Cherokee history. On the one hand the last name Swimmer is positively connotated, i.e. “Swimmer was a Cherokee healer” (Ridington 92), but on the other hand the first name Monroe reminds the reader that “President James Monroe is a key figure in the shared American/Indian history of Cherokee removals” (Ridington 93). Consequently, the pairing of the two names creates a “tension” (93). Monroe Swimmer embodies and negotiates the positive and the negative, the Native and the colonial heritage. He paints back and reclaims colonial space through acts of Native survivance.
Monroe and Tecumseh hold an improvised honor ceremony partially singing an honor song and then the title song of the musical “Oklahoma” (132). Monroe ironically shows more respect, by taking his wig off, to the musical than to the honor song. Afterwards, they proceed to install the artificial iron buffaloes. The spikes to install the cut buffaloes are explicitly associated to laying track for the railroads, “[…] a long spike, the kind they use for laying track” (132). Goldman describes the artificial buffaloes “to be hammered into the prairies – a comic rejoinder to the settler invader’s ‘Last Spike’” (286). In King’s text it is worded as: “We make three trips back to the church, and it’s early evening before we’ve hammered in the last spike” (134). Using the very same terms the reappropriation of the Canadian settler society myth of the Last Spike is subversive. The railroad that linked Eastern and Western Canada was a decisive national project in uniting the country. The iconic image of the Last Spike obscures the Chinese immigrant labor force used for this national project26.
By installing the buffaloes in the prairies Monroe, the Native artist, links the indigenous present with the past and thus creates renewal for the future of Native communities. With the buffalo installation the colonial project of uniting the future nation-state of Canada by the railroad is reappropriated here by the Natives. Instead of laying track, the last spike is hammered in, hence installing and making reappear the vanishing Native hunting ground. The buffalo is not only symbolically reappearing, but also the Native presence – or using Vizenor’s concept “survivance” – is enacted. Monroe Swimmer resists the erasure of Native peoples through colonial impositions such as artificial borders and reverses the vanishing of the humans and beasts. The church with its steeple is associated ← 103 | 104 → with the underlying narrative of the Last Spike, since it looks like an oversized spike: “[…] this steeple is squat and flat with a set and angle that make it look as if a thick spike has been driven through the church itself and hammered into the prairies” (1). The church as a symbol of the colonial settler society eventually disappears thanks to Monroe’s efforts of repainting. The Natives, by paintings and buffalo project, reappear: “Rather than accept the stereotype of the vanishing Indian, Swimmer uses his art to efface traces of the settler invaders’ presence and thereby creates the illusion of ‘the old days’ prior to first contact” (Goldman 287). Here Goldman talks about “illusion.” However, King associates authenticity with a “cant” thereof in his article “‘How I spent My Summer Vacation’: History, Story, and the Cant of Authenticity.” Futile claims to authenticity are linked to transcending the blurred boundary between fiction and the authentic, as the circular nature and a holistic worldview are more appropriate to represent human experience.
It is also important to reflect the scholars’ roles. King, impersonated in his character Monroe Swimmer, is critical of the roles that museums and scholars such as anthropologists, archaeologists, and graduate students play (251). This critical stance is succinctly encapsulated in Theodor Adorno’s words: “Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are like family sepulchres of works of art” (175). Literally, Western anthropological museums are not only sepulchers of works of art, but of human, often Natives’, remains. Monroe engages in repatriating these remains and burying them according to indigenous customs honoring the ancestors. He uses the border river as the natural grave for the Native remains he took from the museums, so that the museum no longer serves as the Natives’ unwanted sepulcher. Bones and the crucial trope of the skull connect King’s plot:
In the distance, clouds are on the move, thick and white. But as they clear the bridge, they begin to separate and change, and by the time they reach the church, they look like long, slender bones. They settle for a moment in the afternoon sky before the current catches them, and they float over the horizon as if they were being carried along the river. (49)
King’s words foreshadow the importance of bones, while at the same time mentioning the bridge and continuing the water and river metaphors. The bone-like clouds create the impression in the eye of the beholder “as if they were being carried along the river” (49). This clearly alludes to the Shield, as the Stygian ← 104 | 105 → and liminal abyss, a new more honorable and respectful sepulcher for Native remains.
The most haunting and important incident in the adolescent world of the first-person narrator Tecumseh is to find the woman who seemingly jumped off the Horns (42). The story comes up again at the beginning of chapter nine, when Tecumseh takes a shower and thinks about his own explanation of the mysterious woman jumping off the Horns (63). He states that “[t]he skull is the problem” (69) in all of his three major theories explaining the woman’s behavior. Tecumseh is avoiding the obvious: “Maybe it’s not a child’s skull after all” (71). He thinks it could be a prehistoric skull or one from a burial place, but then he decides against it since the skull is clean: “Inside and out, it was clean. Almost spotless. As if someone had taken the time to wash and polish it before setting it in the grass for us to find” (74). This foreshadows the conclusion that the skull has been taken from a museum for repatriation, hence the cleanliness. For Westerners or the curators at the museum it is an exhibition piece in their mausoleum.
The revelation of the presumably female identity of the woman who jumped off the Horns as well as the disclosure of the skull’s mystery comes at the end of the novel. Tecumseh and Monroe go inside the church again, before they forget how to get there and carry the bentwood box outside to the truck. The box falls down and opens and out of the box falls Monroe’s wig and still another skull. Then Tecumseh knows: “I see what I should have seen before” (249). Monroe has taken the bones from western museums without permission, but the question remains how they got there in the first place. Monroe worked for restoration projects at museums, who invited him as the “[f]amous Indian artist” (251). He has stored the bones from Indian children (250) in the bentwood box to repatriate them. Finally, Monroe puts on a ceremony for repatriating the bones in the river (251).
The skull Tecumseh and Lum find has Shakespearean connotations. Lum puts the skull on “the barrel of the gun and holds it up like a wand or a flag” (14). This scene is reminiscent of Hamlet holding up the skull of his father27. Lum can be regarded as an indigenous Hamlet, since both Hamlet and Lum are haunted by the death of a parent and are conflicted individuals experiencing ghosts or ghost-like presences. However, in Truth & Bright Water the skull is also used to ← 105 | 106 → highlight Native themes and to honor the ancestors. The skull is a symbol of the past haunting the present, in so doing criticizing anthropology and the depositing of Native remains in museums.
Geopolitical boundaries represent a colonial legacy for Native peoples in North America, thus complicit with actions by the powerful elites, whether in the realms of organized religion, societal institutions, or the economy. Davidson, Walton, and Andrews underline the social and cultural construction of borders (15). They stress the differences between Native and non-Native viewpoints regarding the characteristics of borders:
From a European cultural perspective, borders mark differences; from a Native view, borders are and always were in flux, signifying territorial space that was mutable and open to change. The borders that presently exist ignore the Native peoples, who are often cut off from one another as a result of a line that has been drawn through their lands. (Davidson, Walton, and Andrews 16)
Monroe Swimmer is the central character of Truth & Bright Water in terms of bordering and postcolonial impact. As a postcolonial practitioner he crosses the border from the urban and non-Native space of Toronto back to the cross-border community of Truth and Bright Water reclaiming a Native identity by bordering acts. He subversively draws the line between the Native and White worlds by undoing the legacy of the White, Western, and colonial past. His bordering practices comprise painting the abandoned church to let it vanish, installing artificial buffaloes, repatriating stolen Native remains from Western museums, and painting back the Native presence in 19th-century landscapes. All his artistic endeavors “are concerned with trying to re-place and re-story – the Indians back into the picture, the buffalo back into the landscape, the skull back into the burial ground” (Bates 155). Newly positioning and simultaneously substituting, i.e. “replacing” and restoring while adding a hidden story to these objects and works of art is his way of “re-storying.” Monroe Swimmer thus combines bordering and postcolonial stances. Burying the Native remains in the very border river that was colonially imposed on Natives is a powerful symbolic and political act in a postcolonial way. The river, itself fluid, represents simultaneously a colonial order, yet also naturally floods and is therefore more akin to Native conceptualizations of the world. The fluidity of the river border underscores the transient nature of imposed, arbitrary, and artificial borders. By flooding and presumably meandering the fluidity of the river border transgresses the rigidity of lines on a map and political acts. ← 106 | 107 →
The water imagery and the notion of fluidity are essential tropes in King’s construction of the novel. This becomes evident in the setting, in metaphors and with regard to names such as “Monroe Swimmer”. The abandoned church, bought and repainted by Monroe, is compared to a ship and the prairie to the ocean: “But on days when the sky surges out of the mountains, [...] and the wind turns the grass into a tide, […] you might imagine that what you see is not a church gone to hell but a ship leaned at the keel, sparkling light, pitching over the horizon in search of a new world” (2). Seagulls are near the river hence completing the maritime feel of the setting. The tone is playful, describing a panoptic of different animals whose habitat is found in the river valley and the surrounding area.
The Horns on the American side are mentioned as they serve as the site of crucial developments in the plot. This geological formation is depicted as “twin stone pillars that rise up from the water and meet to form a shaggy rock crescent that hangs over the river like the hooked head of a buffalo” (2). The allusion to the buffaloes hints at both the buffaloes in the plot and as a metaphor. The character Monroe Swimmer is an artist who creates buffaloes as art installations in the prairie grass. Thus the ocean image comes full circle: Water, sky, the land and connection to the earth are paramount for indigenous ways of life and Native identity. There is a division reminiscent of Turner’s frontier thesis between the peopled areas and the prairie wilderness: “Behind the firehouse, the prairies begin in earnest, as if a line has been drawn between the town and the land” (42). It is a marked separation between these two worlds, the natural as opposed to the town.
The notion of postcolonialism is controversial and King explicitly addresses this issue. Postcolonial practices intended to subvert and blur colonial bordering and simultaneously drawing borders around Native identity are prevalent in Truth & Bright Water. Spatial notions of borders and borderlands and theoretical constructs of bordering and liminality need to be analyzed to fully comprehend King’s novel. As a Native artist, who returns home, Monroe is in the position to know and bridge the differences or borders between the Native and White worlds. He decides to reclaim his Native heritage and becomes an activist in the Western sense of the term to reposition Natives in their rightful place. However, his Western activism is implemented in a Native trickster fashion. He seemingly shifts shapes, genders, and roles, from woman on the Horns jumping off the cliffs and swimming fish-like in the border river to Native artist. He is humorous and exudes an air of magical realism. ← 107 | 108 →
Monroe Swimmer is an intriguing character as he is elusive, embodying the dimension of the beyond. Despite Native identity formation by employing the technique of blurring the border between the real and the imagined as in the case of the church or the buffaloes, invisible borders persist. The imaginary borders exist in people’s minds. In the community, Monroe Swimmer is not truly accepted initially. He is looked upon as an outsider. People are suspicious and want to maintain the social order, thus he is othered as not fully belonging to this community and place because of his long absence and aloof reputation as a famous artist from Toronto. The border is maintained between the returned Native “son” and the locals. However, in the end he organizes a giveaway, reminding of a potlatch. The whole community gathers and he seems integrated. The invisible yet maintained border between Monroe and the community fades.
Organized religion, faith, and churches are not depicted in a flattering light in King’s novel. The church people come and go and the denominations change all the time. The Sacred World Gospel people leave the church behind after the failed completion of the bridge and also the three dogs called “the Cousins.” In the community stories are told about the origins of the dogs. One story told by Charlie Ron, an elder of the community, explains how the Cousins turned from small and brown dogs to big and black ones, which he attributes to the dogs “hanging around the church and having to listen to all the lies that white people told every Sunday” (38). Lum favors the version that missionaries used those dogs to control the Indians since this is what happened to Natives in Mexico (38). Religion is associated with the church which is construed as a White colonial space; hence religion has negative connotations for the Natives as do Whites in certain cases. Native-White relations are still negotiated and controversial.
Monroe asks Tecumseh for help in finding the church he has finished painting. Tecumseh tries to find the church by scanning the horizon with his eyes: “I know where the church used to be. Across the river and on the bluff above Truth. But even from this distance, I can see that it isn’t there anymore. No roof, no steeple, no door. No church” (217). Tecumseh agrees to help Monroe find the church and to bring his dog Soldier along the following morning. Monroe regrets that he has not left the door to the church alone until the full completion of his project. The prior existence of the church is effaced: “It’s as if the church has never existed, and I can see now why Monroe is so famous” (237). Tecumseh admires Monroe’s art though it is inconvenient now that the church has seemingly gone. Eventually they discover the church. It is Monroe who has the intuition in contrast to Tecumseh who does not see anything (239). ← 108 | 109 →
The abandoned church that Monroe Swimmer paints to blend in with the surrounding prairie grass is an important example of blurring the boundaries between lived experience and fiction because it stands for the non-Native influence on Native traditions and cultures. Tecumseh does not comprehend the “trompe loeil” painting technique which Monroe uses: “I don’t know how Monroe has done it, but he’s painted this side so that it blends in with the prairies and the sky, and he’s done such a good job that it looks as if part of the church has been chewed off” (43). The church is pulled back into nature. Monroe undoes the legacy of colonial domination and cultural imperialism one brush stroke at a time. The Native person in the narrative uses his mastery of a Western technique to reverse a symbol of religious dominance and turn it back into the natural setting of the traditional land. Tecumseh tries to find the door of the church and finally he sees it, appearing as if out of nowhere:
I go around the church a couple of times before I notice it doesn’t have a door. The windows are there and the steeple is there, but the part of the church where you would expect to find a door has been painted away. […] I walk around the church one more time, [...] and when I come around the east end of the church, I find an open door hanging in space. (44)
The steps leading to the church cannot be seen either, highlighting once more the blurred boundaries between lived experience and fiction.
When restoring paintings Monroe has “painted back” in a postcolonial manner and inserted Native figures in those paintings. They “bleed” through. In that way the myth of the “vanishing Indian” is reversed. Jeanette C. Armstrong states: “Whatever the complexities of tensions between Indigenous Peoples and colonizing governments in different countries, there is no doubt that Indigenous peoples will continue to resist ‘fading’ into the picture” (113). This is quite literally the case in King’s character Monroe Swimmer painting back the Natives into the idyllic landscape paintings. This is an act of resistance and of survivance, namely of active presence in a proactive non-victimized manner. Stuart Christie comments on King’s “delight in co-temporaneity as a tool used to radically resituate the presentations of the present” (78). The “contingency of history” (78) is the outcome of that technique according to Christie, who contends that in Truth & Bright Water “a founding instance of the practice of representational co-temporaneity” (78) is found. This pioneering moment is encapsulated in the act of Monroe and the landscape paintings, “where every time Monroe Swimmer tried to paint over the Indigenous past (when ‘restoring’ Anglo-European canvasses) Indigenous figures found their way back in” (Christie 78). Christie thus postulates that “[t]he present, then, is not actually the present —but, rather, ← 109 | 110 → a momentary portal, trap door, conduit, or worm-hole through which all times (past, present, and future) must converge or transit” (78). This notion of conduit echoes the notion of borders and the simultaneous presence of the seemingly paradoxical function of barrier and transition zone.
The artistic iron buffaloes serve that same purpose: partially rewriting history, correcting the wrongs of the past and reimagining the past in the present through optical illusions. The colonial buffalo carcasses come to life in the form of the iron sculptures. Monroe’s wish to resurrect the past becomes apparent in a conversation with Tecumseh: “You can’t see the church, and you can’t see the bridge, and you can’t see Truth or Bright Water. ‘Look at that,’ says Monroe. ‘Just like the old days’” (134). Tecumseh cannot see much apart from the land, the sky and the river. He reminds himself of his mother’s advice to use his imaginative powers (135). Imagination is needed to comprehend Monroe’s plans and actions to revive the past by installing buffalo iron frames. Monroe’s idea is to have the buffaloes return: “‘Each day, the herd will grow larger and larger. […] Before we’re done, the buffalo will return’” (15). In the same conversation between Monroe and Tecumseh, the question of the real presence of the buffalo arises: “‘These buffalo aren’t really real, you know’” (135). Tecumseh retorts: “‘They sort of look real’” (135). Monroe concurs with a strong emotional reaction: “Monroe’s face explodes in smiles and tears. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Yes, that’s exactly right’” (135). The buffalo art project is a way of reclaiming the past for a better present and hope for the future. By reconnecting with the past and remembering Native traditions and the roots of Native cultures, Native identity resurfaces and empowers Native peoples. It turns out that Monroe hopes to use his artistic iron buffalo as a way to lure real buffaloes back to the area. He asks Tecumseh what he sees:
I don’t want to say that I see buffalo just in case I’m not supposed to see them. But I’ve run out of options. “Buffalo?”
Monroe smiles and shakes his head. “It would fool me, too,” he says.
“But you can’t tell anyone.”
“If they hear about it, it won’t work.” Monroe dips his head and puts his mouth to my ear.
“Real buffalo,” he whispers, “can spot a decoy a mile away.”
Monroe tries to right the wrongs of the past. Towards the end of the novel, after moving away from the church following the successful completion of the project, he considers buying and painting an old residential school (248). ← 110 | 111 →
In this chapter, Native de/bordering unfolds in a number of ways. Native peoples are presented as powerful characters. They refuse victimization and instead, by means of “survivance,” do not merely subsist or exist, but embrace life with the opportunities provided to the full. History is recalled and traditions are renewed, such as the giveaway. In so doing, Western expectations and stereotypes are subverted. Empowerment is a theme that underlies King’s novel. Helen’s quilt is a tool to voice her perspectives, one piece of cloth and one object stitched on the quilt at a time. Trickster character Monroe undoes the colonial legacy by his art. The power of imagination and artistic expression can overcome bordered thinking and right the wrongs of the past for a brighter future to come. Nonetheless, the two adolescents Tecumseh and Lum resolve their wish for belonging in different ways. Since Lum has lost his mother and is beaten by his father, he is emotionally more unstable and seeks refuge in the Stygian border river Shield, thus shielding himself from possibly further hardship. “Line dancer” Lum sees his ultimate freedom only in death. Narrator Tecumseh, on the other hand, remains behind and grieves over Lum and his dog Soldier. Like the unfinished bridge, the ending of this “associational” novel remains ambiguous.
Borders, borderlands and bordering are key themes in the novel. Truth and Bright Water are divided and united by the river and the broken promise of the bridge. Like the broken treaties, the building project of the bridge does not come to fruition in the end. The people on both sides of the border make the most of their economic situation and capitalize on Western stereotypes during the Indian Days festival. King addresses geographic location and stereotypical dislocation of Native culture as well as the haunting past by his allusions to Cherokee history and colonialism. At the same time, he shows how to overcome hardship by means of humor, irony, and creativity. Survivance and trickster qualities turn the tide of Native disillusionment, which however is a long process for Native people to find their place in North America. The Native author of mixed heritage crosses various borders in his writing and life. King is able to expose stereotypes as charades and opens up new ways of perceiving bordering and othering in fiction as well as in lived experience. His writing allows White and Native readers alike to reconsider and overcome stereotypes. Though covering a range of serious and tragic topics of Native and White relations on Turtle Island including colonialism, coming-of-age, and suicide, King retains an optimistic tone in his novel.
Helen’s quilt is both a map and a palimpsest. By adding new features and patterns and objects to the quilt, the map is constantly rewritten and redrawn, one artistic expression and ensuing interpretation transposed on the other. As Bates ← 111 | 112 → puts it, the quilt symbolizes “re-storying” (160). A form of restoration takes place in Monroe’s refurbishing museum landscape paintings. The Native presence is inscribed and becomes visible. The canvas, too, serves as a palimpsest. Different layers of paint represent different periods in time and varying angles on historiography. The Native viewpoint is the non-mainstream perspective and one of parallax. Palimpsests and parallax pertaining to masks and mirrors comprise the metaphor-related level of analysis. A mirror often reveals, whereas masks conceal. Mirroring and masking along with bordering and othering play a crucial role. The seeming truth is often concealed by confusing masks and distorting mirrors thereby creating illusions. Monroe exhibits trickster traits and is masked with his wig. On the one hand he appears to be the mysterious woman on the Horns, on the other hand he is the famous artist and lost son of the Native community. He creates illusions, mirages instead of revealing mirrors and in so doing studies the community and Native-White relations through his parallaxic stance of insider turned outsider and then returned insider. Part of the illusions are the church he paints to blend in indistinguishably with the surroundings, the seemingly real buffaloes made of iron forms, and the Natives bleeding through the paint in the restored museum paintings. Monroe Swimmer turns the tide and contributes to a living community by his acts of resistance and imagination culminating in the traditional community event of a giveaway. Indian Days is therefore complemented by traditional culture and genuine Native ceremony. Indigenous community replaces museum dioramas and Hollywood clichés of Natives with Native projections of indigenous life on Turtle Island. ← 112 | 113 →
17 Identity issues feature prominently as national canons are part of identity politics, linked to the nation-state, citizenship, sovereignty, regionalism, ethnicity, historiography, and metanarratives.
18 Native literatures’ oral roots and the appropriate rendering into writing need to be taken into account as well as Native conceptions of western literary forms such as the novel or short story and the impact of English as lingua franca instead of Native languages. Native literatures are heterogeneous and Native writers can be of mixed heritage and know their Native cultures only indirectly, yet still be described as Native writers. The nature and contours of established canons and academic disciplines dealing with indigenous content are challenged.
19 The classification of literary works as American, Canadian or Native literature is a contested issue.
20 To date, all five novels by Thomas King feature the word “water” or in one instance “river” in the titles. This underlines the importance of the notion of fluidity, the natural world, and water-related symbolism (Gruber, “Storytelling” 266).
21 Turtle Island is the indigenous concept and designation for North America, linked to creation stories.
22 Wherever the source in this chapter’s text refers to King and only states the page the citation is taken from Thomas King’s Truth & Bright Water, one of the three main primary sources of this study. In order to guarantee readability, the same approach for in-text citations is adopted for the chapters on Howard Frank Mosher and Jim Lynch regarding the analysis of the respective main primary sources by these writers.
24 Grey Owl was “the English impostor Archie Belaney, who in the 1930s became Grey Owl, an Apache half-breed […]” (Browder 133).
25 “Adolf Hungry Wolf is a prolific author of numerous books on railroading, history, nature and native cultures. With his family he has written over fifty books while homesteading in the Canadian Rockies. For thirty years he has studied the traditional ways of his wife’s tribe, the Blackfoot Confederacy, while home schooling four children.” <http://www.bcbooks.com/hungrywolf.html> 3 Jan. 2011.
26 The Last Spike was a symbolic act on Nov. 7, 1885. There is also the “Other” Last Spike, an image in which the workers and not the dignitaries pose after their long and hard labor. <http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/artide/the-other-last-spike-feature/>.
27 Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1, gravedigger scene, RSC mise-en-scène / director’s interpretation, actual skull like in King’s Truth & Bright Water. David Tennant used real human skull bequeathed to the Royal Shakespeare Company by a pianist in 1980, who died of cancer and whose greatest wish was to be featured in a Hamlet performance. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7749962.stm> “Bequeathed skull stars in Hamlet” 26 May 2012.