The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (Indigenous Americas) by Thomas King. University of Minnesota Press (2008), Paperback, 184 pages.
A series of important and engaging lectures by a Native American scholar telling stories and discussing their truths.
Thomas King has been a professor of literature at colleges in Canada, the head of the Native American Studies program at the University of Minnesota, and the author of wonderful novels featuring Native Americans and the fluid stories that they tell. This book is from the series of lectures which he gave as Massey Lectures in Canada. For King truth is not a bunch of collected facts, but something intrinsic to the stories we tell to ourselves and each others. Rather than reasoning with us logically in his lectures, he tells stories.
Above all else, King considers himself a Storyteller. He believes that stories are essential for each of us. They shape who are and what choices we see ourselves as having. His lectures are clusters of stories with bits of commentary to focus his readers. For him, stories are lifesaving or destructive. He chooses to tell stories that make him laugh, “saving stories…stories that keep me alive.” He also tells “Stories we make up to set the world straight.” Themes and even stories are repeated in different variations in different lectures/chapters. He ends each lecture by formally giving his stories to us to do with as we will. In the future, he points out we can never deny that we have heard them.
Some of King’s stories are about himself growing up in community after his father deserted the family. He tells of spending time as a young man in New Zealand and Australia. Although he never met Indigenous people in Australia, he was told that they were lazy, dumb and dying out, just as he had been told about his own ethnic group and knew to be untrue. King also describes his phase of needing to “look Indian” since everyone assumed they knew just what an Indian looked like. “People do not even ask whether are not a person is Indian. They don’t have to. They are content simply looking at you. If you don’t look Indian, you aren’t. If you don’t look White, you’re not.”
King also rejects the notion that Indians are somehow exotic beings, not to be dealt with as real people but as exotic mythic figures from the past, “performers in an Aboriginal minstrel show for White North America.” He repeatedly stresses that Indians are more than the sad, proud, but dying men in feathers staring out of the past in Edward Curtis’s photographs. Instead, Indians are varied and very much alive today. They are fluid and adapting to the needs of the situations in which they find themselves. Their traits are not “primitive” ones that the rest of us have moved beyond, but key survival mechanisms that we all need. King points out those modern Native American writers, starting with Momaday’s House Made of Dawn in 1968, focus on Indians dealing with the near present. Native authors tell contemporary stories in which individuals may draw on the past in unrecognized ways. Their stories contain
a delightful, inventiveness of tone, a strength of purpose that avoids the hazards of lament and allows the characters the pleasure of laughing at themselves and their plight. The omnipresent choruses of sadness and humour, tragedy and sarcasm become, in the end, an honour song
Exactly what I could have said in my review about King’s Grass Growing if I was as gifted with words as King is.
For all his emphasis on the present, King does retell and reshape the story of the past for Native Americans and Canadian First Peoples. His account is a fine brief version of the history of Indian/European conflict in North America. He does not directly contradict what is told by conventional historians, but he shifts the meanings and counts the costs of the attempts to rid the continent of native peoples through war and ssimilation. He discusses the pain of children forced into reservation schools. He describes governmental attempts to legislate Indians out of legal existence. He claims that the widespread stories of the destruction of North American Indians are not only wrong, but that they falsely “insisted that our past was all we had.” Noting the irrefutable evidence that they are not dead, he says that he and other Native writers began “to use the Native present to reconstruct a Native past and a Native future. To create, as it were, a Native universe.”
Part of the “Native universe” that native authors are creating is the rejection of dualism of Anglo thinking and the imperatives for violence which they impose. He notes that ritual ceremonies are a less destructive way of dealing with evil than massive wars. “Native writers aren’t arguing that evil isn’t evil. They’re suggesting that trying to destroy it is misguided, even foolish. That the attempt risks disaster.” As examples of the danger, he mentions Captain Ahab and the white whale and the USA trying “to bomb the rest of the world into goodness and supply-side capitalism.”
In addition, King considers “racism” and acknowledges that in North America Indians have not suffered like blacks in South Africa or the American South. “It’s a kinder racism” intermixed with sympathy and even sometimes admiration for native arts and culture. Yet, it is “a racism infused with a suffocating paternalism that can gently strangle the life out of a people.” Beyond racism, King sees a sense that Anglos believe simply that his people don’t deserve what few resources they have. “You don’t think we earned them.” Yet Native people can still sing and dance and tell their stories with humor and love.
I strongly urge others to read this book, especially those who want to listen to what Indigenous people can tell us. He provides an excellent introduction on the past and present of Native Americans in North America. I think this is also an important contribution to the question of how Indigenous people use their traditions in their writing.
I also strongly urge others to read the fiction by native American authors whom King and I recommend. To get you started here are what I consider some of the best Native American riters. I haven’t read all their writings, but I have liked what I have read and confidently recommend any of their writings that you can find.
Thomas King (my rev of Grass Growing>)
For vivid descriptions of the Indigenous roots of Chicanos in the United States, see Borderlands, by Gloria Anzaldua. (my rev.) and Leslie Silko’s epic, Almanac of the Dead.
A Native Narrative
by Thomas King
This is another one of those books that I’m not sure how to talk about because I want to find the right way to tell you to go read it, right now, because it is worth your time.
This is a nonfiction book — the content was originally delivered for the Massey lectures in 2003 — but it is all about stories. King is a storyteller, and in this book he demonstrates the way in which stories shape our perceptions of the world.
From creation stories (he offers a retelling of both the Native story of the woman who fell to earth and story of Genesis from the King James version of the bible) to stories about duck feathers, basketball games, treaties, and the legal disappearing of Indians, King illustrates how stories create a framework for understanding the world around us. When he talks about evil coming into the world as a story in Silko’s Ceremony, he warns us: “you have to be careful with the stories you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories that you are told.”
King interrogates methods while offering them up for display. He is sarcastic, comforting, and humorous. He notices that you, his imagined audience, “have already leaned over to a friend and whispered, Platitude. Platitude, platitude, platitude. Thomas King the duck-billed platitude.” He is bringing you along, lulling you with the repetition, with the world being carried on the back of a turtle and being “turtles all the way down.” Oral traditions, written words, public and private: they all count, he tells us, they all go into making us who we are. He is building a case, anecdote by anecdote, of how stories are all we have.
In doing so, he plants the seeds of responsibility. For we are responsible not only for the stories we tell and the stories we listen to, but for the stories we choose to believe. He builds up, with his fierce and funny mind, to not letting anyone off the hook, when he explains why he doesn’t tell a certain story out loud, because he winds up weeping:
…for the world I’ve helped to create. A world in which I allow my intelligence and goodwill to be constantly subverted by my pursuit of comfort and pleasure. And because knowing all of this, it is doubtful that given a second chance to make amends for my despicable behaviour, I would do anything different, for I find it easier to tell myself the story of my failure as a friend, as a human being, than to have to live the story of making the sustained effort to help.
Then he really lets the hammer drop, repeating the refrain we’ve now heard for the fifth time: “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.”
King is brilliant. I can imagine myself buying a stack of these books and giving them away to people I care about, because I have yet to come across a better explanation of the power of stories, and a better inducement to pay attention to that power. Highly recommended. Go buy two. You’ve heard it now.