Native Writer Thomas King (Cherokee)
As chair of American Indian Studies at the University of
Minnesota and a native person himself, Thomas King has more
than a passing interest in native issues. His fiction explores
what it means to be native in a predominantly white culture.
However, his writing does not simply separate native elements
from a corrupt white influence or mythologize native life, strategies that tend to create dehumanizing
stereotypes of indigenous peoples as members of a "vanishing race" or as "noble savages."
Rather, King sees the native experience as hybrid. King himself is of mixed European and native background, and he
appears to understand ethnicity as an inherently unstable set of self-created fictions, to be treated ironically
rather than merely accepted. His writing is playfully satiric; with broad humor he debunks both white and native
misconceptions of native life. Storytelling transgresses the racial or social limits that all human beings place
upon themselves and injects a welcome complexity into narrow-minded understandings of human experience.
The native person in King's work often acts as a detached observer, pointing with amazement and disbelief to the
self-interested behavior within North American culture. Lionel James, one of many storytellers who inhabit
King's Medicine River, is mystified by what he calls this "crazy world." He can't understand why people want to
fly him to Japan to recite, and he worries about his audiences "living in the past like that," listening to other
people's "old" stories instead of making up their own.
In a tall tale from One Good Story, That One, native people are depicted literally as aliens who end up being
carted off in flying saucers by blue coyotes. King's native people, particularly the elders, are outsiders in a
technocratic world gone amuck; they offer fragments of bewildered commentary on the absurdity of the standards
and ideals to which most "modern" North Americans conform.
However, native people are not exempted from the pressures of that crazy world. Often, King's characters
embrace what many might see as nontraditional roles. Will, the narrator of Medicine River, is a photographer who
plays in the all-native basketball league. Lionel, in Green Grass, Running Water, is a TV salesman. King wants to
subvert narrow preconceptions of who an "Indian" ought to be.
In "A Seat in the Garden," two white farmers—having visions of an "Indian" spirit who stands in their garden
chanting a parody of the refrain from W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, "If you build it, he will come"—seek the
advice of three native men they assume are mystical, only to be tricked into building them a bench. The taciturn,
all-knowing "Indian," King suggests, is a false stereotype and reflects little of actual native life, which is as
"normal" as that of whites.
King's native person plays a dual role, at once participant and critic, a member of mainstream society and social
misfit. King's satire hinges on this duality, with its troubling, comic contradictions.
Coyote, the shape-shifting trickster, becomes particularly important in King's later fiction. In Green Grass,
Running Water, Coyote plays the double roles of creator and subversive, ardent listener and avid story-wrecker,
slipping between the novel's surreal narrative framework (where the "mythical" aspects of the text unfold) and
the mundane. In A Coyote Columbus Story, Coyote's recklessness makes her both a friend to native people and
agent of their demise as King rewrites the history of the "discovery" of the New World.
In "One Good Story, That One," an old speaker is asked to tell a "good Indian story" to some anthropologists,
thereby feeding them back a version of the biblical creation myth with added coyotes and TV sets. Nothing is pure
or simple when Coyote is around. King's Coyote stories are metanarratives, tales about telling tales, and their
circularity is tied directly to the duplicitous nature of Coyote, who is constantly undoing and rewriting whatever
human beings might take for granted.
All of King's texts are about the act of narration. Often, King constructs stories within stories or interweaves
one tale with another. The narrative of Medicine River is constructed through juxtapositions of Will's memories
of childhood and Toronto with his current situation; King builds parallels between past events and present life to
suggest how we give shape to our lives by telling stories about our experiences.
In Green Grass, Running Water, several narrative threads are interlaced as King explores the complex
interdependence of fiction and fact, story and truth. Key figures in every one of his fictions are always
storytellers, young and old, mythical and real, who fabricate a world of words. Storytelling is the means by which
we, as readers and participants in King's work, learn to appreciate our place in all the worlds of our own making.
Evertsen, S. (2004). Native American Literatures: An Introduction.
Gruber, E. (2012). Thomas King.
Schorcht, B. (2003). Storied Voices in Native American Texts: Harry Robinson, Thomas King, James
Welch and Leslie Marmon Silko.
Trout, L. Native American Literature: An Anthology. 1998.