The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative
Reviewed: October 4, 2006
By: Thomas King
Publisher: House of Anansi Press
172 pages, $18.95
In one of the stories about creation,
the world is described as floating in space on the back of a turtle. The story
is told in slightly different ways depending on who is telling it and who
the audience might be. There may be changes in the order of events and in
the details. What stays the same is the turtle. It is always there and it
never swims away.
Sometimes when people hear the story
they ask what is underneath the turtle. The storyteller will say that it’s
another turtle ... and another ... and another. In fact no one knows how deep
this goes but, as Tom King writes in the introductory paragraphs of each of
the lectures in this book, “it’s turtles all the way down.”
The other thing that King writes is
a truth that it is so important to remember during this period of political
contests and party slogans.
“The truth about stories is that that’s
all we are.”
King’s particular target in during
his 2003 Massey Lectures was the stories that have been told about first nations
people and the stories they have told themselves about themselves, but the
statement has the force of an epigram, and if it hasn’t already made its way
into someone’s book of wise sayings, then it should.
In the first of the five lectures King
compares the story of the Turtle with the story of Adam and Eve, and Genesis
comes out second best for reasons which will be clear when you read it. His
point is that the stories around which we base our actions and philosophies
are our entry points to reality, and much of what we do with our lives has
to do with where we start. I may not buy his theology, but I accept that.
Most of the remaining lectures are
about different kinds of Indians. King grew up in California and uses the
word freely in his writing, so I’m not going to be overly politically correct
in this essay. “You’re not the Indian I had in Mind” deals in part with his
travels as a young man, but also with the images of the Native - the Noble
Savage, the Literary Indian, the Hollywood Indian, the Dying Indian - which
have coloured much of the thinking about Indians by those of European descent
since the two races encountered each other.
Real Natives bear scant resemblance
to any of those stereotypes, he writes, and yet the myths persist.
“Let me entertain you” recounts King’s
career as a professional Indian, decked out in all the trappings that were
expected of a person rediscovering his roots, when he was a young man, how
he realized that he was in danger of becoming nothing more than window dressing,
bunting on the great stage of liberal guilt, and how he got away from all
“A Million Porcupines Crying in the
dark” examine the Indian race as it has been portrayed in much classic literature
through the years. He disposes of a number of stereotypes along the way and
then muses on the fact that contemporary native writers “have shown little
interest in using the past as a setting, preferring instead to place their
fictions in the present.”
That might not be entirely true. The
stories he describes are set in the modern era, right enough, but they often
deal with people who are trying to come to terms with who they are in the
context of both their past and their present, with results that are often
tragic in true to life ways.
“What is it about us that you don’t
like” examines just exactly that question, with the lens focussed on the kinds
of legislation that have been developed over the years in the USA and Canada
to “deal with the Indian problem”. This is brilliantly illustrated by one
of the Coyote stories that King loves to tell and has, in fact, made into
a children’s book that I have reviewed here. Comparing the story to history
reveals that the main impact of the legislation, some of it with the cooperation
of the native people themselves, has been to slowly define them out of existence.
The last essay in the book is an extra,
not part of the lecture series and one that King says he will never deliver
orally. It’s about fetal alcohol syndrome and its effect on a family of his
acquaintance. It’s a sad story, and while it has food for thought in it, the
meat is bitter.
Stories, King says, can make a difference
in our lives. He concludes each essay with an admonition that we use his stories
to do this, that there is no longer an excuse because he has given them to
us for just this purpose.
“Don’t say in the years to come that
you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story.
“You’ve heard it now.”