3.3 Green Grass, Running Water: A Trip Down The Rabbit Hole

In the beginning, there was nothing. Just the water.” (King 1)


What a wonderful beginning. The opening pages to Green Grass, Running Water hold many of the clues that assist us further on in the text. Because the structure of the novel circles (or, rather spirals) back on itself, King’s opening becomes richer and richer on further readings, and, magically, seems to tell different stories with each revisiting.

“In the beginning” signals a Creation story, the likes of which people have been telling to one another for as long as stories have existed. My Judeo-Christian-indoctrinated mind immediately made a connection to Genesis, but also to the stories my mother told me about the beginning of the world, which were decidedly less patriarchal. The truth is that Creation stories are one of the most essential tools for identifying with community and teaching lessons about our place in the world. I have mentioned the importance of Creation stories before with reference to Leanne Simpson’s theory that the Creation stories we pass on to one another contain the seeds for everything we need to know about life and community.

King continues with the creation story, revealing that there was nothing, except the water – and Coyote. This is an important point, because it indicates that Coyote had no creator – s/he simply existed and has existed forever, as long as water and nothingness. Coyote was asleep, however, perhaps indicating that the potential for Coyote was there, but lying dormant. Coyote’s dream, self-important and reckless and a sort of perversion of Coyote energy, runs rampant with no conscious Coyote to keep it in check, and stands in for the Christian god. This sets up the first of many instances in the novel of subverting familiar Christian doctrine to reveal an alternate perspective, questioning and mocking the presumed authority of male figures from Western narratives.

Shortly, the reader encounters the reflexivity of the narrative when the narrator, “I”, engages in conversation directly with Coyote, breaking the fourth wall and indicating that these figures are able to transgress beyond the ordinary bounds of literary convention. There is some question as to whether the “I” is the Creator figure in the text. I am of the opinion that they are – simply because they are telling the story, and the telling is an act of creation. Whether or not there is any definitive god figure is up for debate, and I am personally of the opinion that everything in the text is an expression of god; the narrator figure is simply performing a necessary role, but everything in this world is an aspect and representation of the Creator.

Page 4 greets us with (what looked to my untrained eye) beautiful but foreign writing. When I first read the book several years ago, it registered simply as a series of attractive black squiggles on a cream page. Isn’t that what all writing is, after all, until we learn to decipher the symbols? It reminded me of being a small child, gazing in wonder at the mysterious squiggles on pages that held the key to worlds of adventure and information. This displacement, and the defamiliarisation that the writing provokes, reminds me that I am not in the world I am used to: I am a visitor on someone else’s territory. I think this strangeness and potential discomfort is important for settlers like myself to experience because it de-centres the privileged group from the conversation to make room for narratives that are being gifted to us from another culture.
These title headings are, of course, references to the Medicine Wheel, which represent the seasons, the four cardinal directions, and four aspects of human experience, among many other things.


The first part is East. East represents Spring, new life, and calls for the recognitions of the interconnectedness between all beings and things, and also recognising the importance of all human senses in knowing (Chisila 183). This part of the wheel is about spiritual experience, childhood, and new beginnings. In her “Reading Notes for Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water,” Jane Flick quotes Peter Powell’s Sweet Medicine: The Continuing Role of the Sacred Arrows, the Sun Dance and the Sacred Buffalo Hat in Northern Cheyenne History to describe the qualities of each direction, noting that “the East represents the new generation, still green, and just beginning to grow” (Powell, qtd in Flick 143). This gives us some clues into the nature of the following section: we’re setting up beginnings, telling the stories about how we got to where we are today, and setting the ball rolling to embark on this adventure. These stories are just beginning, and King uses the qualities of the Medicine Wheel to frame the storytelling.

It is natural, then, that we begin with Lionel trying not to fall asleep at the wheel as his Aunt Norma asks his opinion about carpet colours. He is straddling the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness, being and not-being, the place of being born, which is arguably the place of spirit.

The most interesting part of this mini-segment, to me, is the last two lines:
“Everybody makes mistakes, auntie.”
“Best not to make one with carpet.” (King 8).
Because this is right at the end of the introduction to the first realist characters we meet, I find those two statements reverberating in my mind: clearly they are important. In such a simple gesture, King sets up a theme of mistakes and differing value systems which he later weaves masterfully into his narrative. Those two sentences are dynamic and revealing without telling too much. Here, too, he manages to touch on the importance of orality, as they are almost audible. I can almost hear the words in my mind when I read them.

Lone Ranger 1956-1Next, we turn to the Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye to carry us further into the story. This is the Lone Ranger’s take on the events, and s/he clearly has some trouble rallying her compatriots and settling the scene. In the brief dialogue between the four of them, many hints are revealed about the end of the novel, including “the jacket” which turns up later in the John Wayne film and as a birthday gift to Lionel, which is also the appropriated property of George Morningstar; “turn[ing] on the light,” a reference to Genesis, and “the apology” that Coyote must perform (King 9). Right here at the beginning, King establishes the circular structure of the story – although we won’t know that until the end.

The Lone Ranger begins “Once upon a time…” and is reprimanded by their compatriots for getting the beginning wrong (King 11). This is a recognisable beginning of many Western fairy stories, but the other character’s rejection of this beginning indicates that we are in different territory, telling the story of a different culture. It also establishes the importance of beginnings, which brings us back to the vital task of telling Creation stories, and telling them right.

“Best not to make [a mistake] with carpet,” Norma says, but King might as well say that it’s best not to make a mistake with beginnings, because they form a foundation for the rest of the story (King 8).

Works Cited:

Chilisa, Bagele. Indigenous Research Methodologies. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, 2012. Print.

Favorite, Mary R. “Medicine Wheel.” Anishinaabemodaa – Ojibwe Language Website. June 27, 2011. Web. July 28 2014.

Flick, Jane. Reading Notes for Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water.” Canadian Literature 161-162 (1999): 140-172. Web. 17 July 2014.

“Genesis 1.” Bible Gateway. Web. 28 July 2014.

King, Thomas. Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto: HarperCollins P, 1993. Print.

Marlow, Jess. “Double, Double, Binary Trouble.” ENGL 470A: Our Home On Native Land. UBC Blogs. 25 June 2014. Web. 27 July 2014.

3:2 “Forget the book, we’ve got a story to tell”

Question #3: Examining narrative decolonisation in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water.

Throughout the novel, King cleverly picks apart and reinterprets a variety of narratives that are familiar to anyone who has been indoctrinated with Christian narratives (i.e., most people in North America at one point or another) to highlight the patriarchal, heteronormative, and strictly rule-oriented themes that characterise European cultural discourse. The two stories that I want to focus on are Changing Woman’s encounter with the Moby Dick story and Old Woman’s conversation with “Young Man Walking On Water”.

From the moment Changing Woman arrives on the Pequod, her frankness and unapologetic Indigenous – not to mention feminine – identity interrupts the expectations of the other characters on board, to the point that they are unable to recognise her for who she is. Instead, they cast her in the roles that they are comfortable with, renaming her Queequeg with blatant disregard to the truth of her identity and experience.

Changing Woman is unable to understand the motivation behind killing whales, and Ahab assures her that in a Christian world, “we only kill things that are useful or things we don’t like,” which, according to Margery Fee and Jane Flick, “covers just about everything” (King 196, Fee and Flick 135). This goes some way to making sense of the relationship that white settlers/explorers have towards Indigenous peoples; Indigenous survival relies upon walking an impossibly thin line of approval that revolves around the whims of an invading group of people. This kind of petulant intolerance reminds me of a child’s temper tantrum, or of the terrifyingly volatile Queen of Hearts from Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, whose favourite expression is “Off with their heads!

Coyote recalls the traditional story of “Moby Dick, the great white whale who destroys the Pequod,” but the narrator’s reminder that “it’s English colonists who destroy the Pequots” creates a useful parallel from which to discuss recurring themes of violence and subjugation towards Indigenous populations. This play on Pequod/Pequots “reminds Coyote that he may have been reading part of the Western canon, but he ought to have been reading Native history: Moby-Dick covers over a white society that killed its foes, sold all the survivors into slavery, and abolished the use of any Pequot names, effectively wiping out any record of them.” (Fee and Flick 136).

Moby Dick positions nature as a destructive force with humans (read: white men) as its victims, while King’s re-envisioning highlights the violence and cruelty with which white men treat the natural world. European narratives are consistently anthropocentric, imagining humans to be separate from and at odds with the natural world, while Indigenous narratives tend to place humans as part of a natural system.

King’s efforts at decolonising the Moby Dick narrative also involves highlighting the invisibility of blackness, femaleness, and queerness in European patriarchal society. As Margery Fee and Jane Flick note, what we have here is “an attack on lesbians and the refusal to recognize black-ness,” as Ahab throws overboard anyone who sees Moby Jane for what she is (black, female, lesbian) and insists on the whale’s whiteness and maleness (135). Changing Woman is instructed to pick up a harpoon, but instead jumps overboard and joins Moby Jane for an erotic ride through the ocean, “swimming and rolling and diving and sliding and spraying” (King 224). The great adventure about men and male domination becomes a story about female relationships and eroticism that is completely independent from male influence. “This inability to see blacks, females, lesbians as people explains why no one [except Babo] has noticed that the four old Indians are women; because they act like men, they have been mapped on to male mixed-race pairs of Western literature that operate on the hierarchical model of the Lone Ranger” (Fee and Flick 135).

Another element of Indigenous narratives that has been layered onto this European story is the cyclical nature of events. Moby Jane remarks to Changing Woman that she and Ahab have the same battle every year. “He’ll be back,” she says, “He always comes back,” and when she leaves Changing Woman in Florida it is because she has a duty to go back to sink the ship again (King 197). There is a quality of long-suffering patience to Moby Jane’s attitude, as if she were a mother indulging a small child’s request to read the same story again and again. Clearly, she performs this service for Ahab’s benefit, not for her own. Instead of considering this a cyclical narrative that loops back on itself pointlessly without progression, I consider it a spiral, as each turn of the wheel brings new insights and development. We can trust that the whale will repeat the cycle as many times as necessary for Ahab to learn the necessary lessons.

When Old Woman encounters Young Man Walking On Water, it is clear to anyone who has had any exposure to Christian doctrine that the man she meets is Jesus, but King defamiliarises his identity by renaming him – denying him his chosen name just as Indigenous figures have been denied their own names. Contrary to Biblical teachings, Young Man Walking On Water is characterised as forceful, proud, masculine, and determined to be self-sufficient. As in all the stories that the four mythical women encounter, there is an emphasis on Christian rules that consistently privilege white maleness and ignore feminine autonomy and wisdom. Jesus attempts to save the men in the boat by ordering the waves to submit to his will, but Old Woman rebukes him for his domineering attitude: “You are acting as if you have no relations,” she says, highlighting the importance of respect for one’s elders, and also a sense of familial connection to the natural world (King 351). Instead of forcefully working against nature, Old Woman works with the waves, singing a song to soothe them so the men in the boat can be rescued. While the men in the boat are grateful for being rescued, they are unable to recognise that a woman could have exercised the power to save them, and so they default to masculine authority and credit Jesus for their rescue (King 352).

Another notable aspect of this story is that the narrator dismisses the authority of textual narratives. Coyote repeatedly proposes story elements taken from the Bible; “Forget the book,” the narrator says, “We’ve got a story to tell,” indicating that this narrative transcends the written word, and that oral stories can carry more validity than text.

Telling these familiar European stories of masculine conquest with an Indigenous twist defamiliarises them and sheds light on the strangeness of the rules that govern Christian doctrine, highlighting in particular the way European narratives present a disconnection between humans and the natural world. The mythical women who fall from the sky repeatedly encounter other characters and situations that diminish or ignore the wisdom of women and Indigenous people. King’s narrator acknowledges that the stories that the four old Indians are telling are all the same: they are spiralling around themselves, telling the same story from different perspectives, looping back around time and again, just like Moby Jane, for as long as it takes for us to learn the lesson.

Works Cited:

Fee, Margery and Jane Flick. “Coyote Pedagogy: Knowing Where the Borders Are in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water.” Canadian Literature 161-162 (1999): 131-139. Web. 14 July 2014.

Gingerich, Jon. “The Spiraling Narrative.” LitReactor. 26 April 2012. Web. 15 July 2014.

King, Thomas. Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto: HarperCollins P, 1993. Print.

“Off With Their Heads! — Allen (1985).” 30 September 2012. Youtube. Web. 16 July 2014.


3:1 Robinson Makes a Deal with the King of Stories

Question #5: A comparison of Harry Robinson and Thomas King’s narrative styles.

I was so glad that I had read some of Robinson’s words before picking up Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water again. This is the second time I’ve read King’s novel, and I’m happy to report that it only improves on multiple visitations. I have never read any of King’s work that precedes his exposure to Robinson, and so I have little to go on in terms of comparison, but after having read some of Robinson’s work, the tonal resemblance in the narrative voices is clear. King’s narrator positively drips with Robinson’s influence, and it’s interesting to note the genealogy of storytelling styles. Both narrators use colloquial yet authoritative language, and one of the things that stuck out to me the most is that the stories are told in the present tense, giving them a sense of perpetuity, as if they continue to occur over the years, or as if they exist outside of time.

The narrators also frequently break the fourth wall, referring to the reader or audience. This is most notable in King’s work when the narrator makes a reference to Old Woman and the story they had been telling, and Coyote retorts that he remembers all of it. “I wasn’t talking to you,” says the narrator. “Who else is here?” says Coyote (GGRW 391). This demonstrates that the narrator is aware that they are telling the story for more than just Coyote’s benefit, that the invisible reader/audience is present in their mind. King pokes fun at the very act of storytelling too, as Coyote starts to wonder about the imagery in the story. “That’s the way it happens in oral stories,” the narrator says, calling attention to the artifice of metaphor (352).

My favourite character, Coyote, leapt off the page once again. This time, however, with the benefit of an acquaintance with Robinson’s Coyote, my understanding of his character changed. Before, I had interpreted him as a kind of loose cannon – a trickster/teacher who taught valuable lessons by interrupting and subverting all the human characters’ plans. It is through the act of remedying Coyote’s meddling that they learn the big lessons. Coyote is necessary precisely because of his mistakes and accidents, and so while he is the cause of some frustration, he is absolutely essential to each character’s growth and development. While I understood him to be a necessary (if not totally welcome) force, I always thought of him as acting by accident or with abandon, without any sense of purpose and certainly independent from authority. Coyote seemed to be a kind of Lucifer figure, if you will, outside of the Creator’s power or jurisdiction.

This was the trickster I knew – echoed in Loki, Puck, Lear’s Fool, and other clowns and tricksters from various disciplines and traditions. When I encountered Coyote in Robinson’s “Coyote Makes a Deal with the King of England,” I was surprised to note how obediently he followed God’s orders, acting as an extension of God rather than as an adversary.

Robinson characterises God as an indisputable singular authority, omniscient and all-powerful. Robinson’s Coyote may be elusive and troublesome (as indicated by his imprisonment on the boat), but he is unquestioningly obedient to God’s requests, and acts as an advocate for the Indigenous nations in North America.
King’s GOD is an ironic and amusing subversion of the Christian God, emerging from one of Coyote’s dreams as an unruly and power-hungry entity. He is a perversion of Coyote’s energy. GOD is really a ‘dog’ that got itself backwards and confused, and demanded more power and importance. The reader can see that his claim to power is childish and inappropriate, and that there is no singular supreme power in the story. King’s Coyote is elusive, unreliable, and unpredictable. It is necessary that Coyote is present for the important events in the story (as evidenced by the old Indians waiting for Coyote’s return before they do anything, and by the narrator’s insistence on Coyote’s attention) because they need to keep an eye on him to make sure he doesn’t disrupt the work they are trying to do.

After encountering Robinson’s Coyote, I began to put the pieces together: Coyote is the do-er, the actor on God’s behalf, and sometimes this takes the form of appearing to disrupt and destroy things, getting in the way, so that the characters themselves are empowered to make things right by taking control of their own lives. Coyote is not separate from God, rather, he is God in disguise. His presence is essential not because he is like an unruly child with his fingers in all the pies, but because he wields the ultimate creative energy. Even though his influence is messy and unpredictable, bringing chaos into an otherwise orderly world, it is this force itself that furthers the development of the story.


Works Cited:

“Karmic Trickster.” TV Tropes. n.d. Web. 9 July 2014.

King, Thomas. Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto: HarperCollins P, 1993. Print.

McCoy, Dan. “Loki.” Norse Mythology for Smart People: The Ultimate Online Resource for Norse Mythology and Religion. n.d. Web. 11 July 2014.

Robinson, Harry. Living By Stories: A Journey of Landscape and Memory. Ed. Wendy Wickwire. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2005. Print.


2.3 “What did you say?”: The Transformative Power of Oral Storytelling

Question #1: Orality confounding the written word in Robinson’s text.

Stories change in the telling. Somehow, when words leap off the page in the shifting tones of speech, the narrative takes on new meanings and finds new emphasis. I have always been a great lover of the spoken word, and the difference it makes when words are spoken aloud as opposed to being kept inside one’s head never fails to astonish me. My relationship to spoken word vs. written word requires a bit of backstory, so bear with me.

When I was a much smaller creature, my parents read to myself and my siblings almost every night. My dad has the most delicious voice, deep and warm with a soft English accent, cultured from years of actor training. I cherished those storytelling sessions, in which he encouraged audience participation and never failed to do all the voices. Favourites included Roald Dahl’s The BFG, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories, and a charming translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, among many other shorter books that he indulgently read to us over and over and over. There’s something special about the repetition and retelling of beloved stories: they contain gems that only reveal themselves upon repeated readings.

He would improvise stories for us, too. “Tell us a story out of your head,” we’d say. “OK, give me some ingredients,” he would say, before weaving a narrative out of the bizarre assortment of ‘ingredients’ we would provide for him.

Upon rereading The Hobbit recently, I experienced a strange meeting of familiarity and alienation. Here was the story I knew and loved, prompting déjà vu and a several conversations with my father recalling that time together, but it was different. Somehow, in its text form, I was able to gather more information, but less of the feeling of the work. I had a greater understanding of the psychology of Bilbo’s adventure, but somehow less of the sweep of the adventure itself. This is especially apparent in “Riddles in the Dark,” the chapter in which Bilbo meets Gollum. I found a recording of Tolkien himself reading the chapter, and what a difference it makes to hear it aloud, instead of in the lonely confines of one’s own head!

My father, among other things, is an actor and a performer of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. More than any other poetry I’ve ever encountered, this work begs to be heard aloud. As he has the vast majority of Hopkins’ work memorised, my father and I would go for long walks in the fields near our house in England and pick them apart line by line, discovering new meanings and connections every time. There’s something in the sweep and sound of the words in the air that brings the poetry to life. On the page, the poetry is difficult, dense, and somewhat inaccessible, but as soon as it is heard aloud, it touches something deeper than its literal meaning can ever achieve. (And yes, that’s my Dad reading the poem)
As I have continued to fall deeper in love with literature and performance, my dad and I continue to read and discuss poetry together. I took a course on Milton’s Paradise Lost last year and we read it aloud to each other over Skype, and we have plans to do the same for Dante’s Inferno.

All this brings me (finally) to Thomas King, Harry Robinson, and Coyote.


The first thing that struck me upon looking at “Coyote Makes a Deal with the King of England,” was that it has been arranged on the page like poetry, in short lines with plenty of enjambment. Immediately, I took this as a cue to slow down as I read it, to treat it as poetry wherein every word matters, every punctuation mark and every turn of phrase is significant.

As I read, however, I found myself tripping up on the unconventional use of language, the colloquial phrases and ever-shifting pronouns that sometimes make it hard to determine the subject. I had a hard time following the story, and my brain kept trying to keep track of the narrative’s inconsistent timeline and the tiny details of the story.

As soon as I read it out loud, however, and even more so when I had a friend read it to me, the words took on a new quality. All of a sudden the minute details didn’t matter so much, and the shape of the story – how it dips, loops back on itself, and develops – became clearer. Its layout on the page changes the way it is read aloud in a way that would not normally be such a significant part of textual stories, forcing more pauses and different emphasis. As Thomas King mentions in his article “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial,” “the patterns, metaphors, structures as well as the themes and characters” in Robinson’s text “come primarily from oral literature,” which explains why it is so much more accessible in oral form (186).

The intersection between written and spoken stories is complicated further, of course, by the story’s content. Here we are, confronted with an oral voice in text form, and, what’s more, “an oral syntax that defeats readers’ efforts to read the stories silently to themselves, a syntax that encourages readers to read the stories out loud,” telling a story that speaks of the validity of textual documents (King 186). It’s confounding to encounter a story that has orality at its core but champions the authority of the written word. The law, the “Black and White,” is official precisely because it is written in books and preserved for centuries not through words and stories passed from one generation to another in oral form, but in writing that remains unchanged and constant.

Furthermore, the unconventional use of pronouns – shifting from “he” and “they” for example – challenges the mind of a reader like myself so used to European literature and form. Perhaps, the use of “they” in reference to Coyote, the King, the Queen, God, and others, reminds us that there really is no one subject, no protagonist, and no separation between them either. The subject becomes a little more vague, but this allows a greater flexibility in which the reader can learn to understand the subject as simply a part of the whole. Coyote is God, is the Angel, is the Queen, etc. Perhaps we’re not as separate as we like to believe, perhaps the European settlers and the Indigenous people really are twins. When I encountered this in written form, it confused me. When I heard it read aloud, it took on a new meaning and I understood a new facet of the story world.

This is just one small example of the possibilities inherent in the tension between written and spoken words. One is not more affecting than the other, but they have different qualities. The written word has the power to preserve stories that would otherwise be lost, an endeavour that was extremely important to the aging Harry Robinson who “perceived his death as a blow to the process of storytelling” and who worked hard to record and translate the stories so that they were accessible to a wide audience (Robinson 29). Oral tellings, on the other hand, keep the stories fresh and current, as each telling situates them within a contemporary context, and helps to maintain the connections between past and present. Robinson’s text provides a fascinating view of the intersections between the two forms, and the practice of presenting written stories out loud and oral stories on the page opens up opportunities for finding more common ground between cultures.

Works Cited:

“Gerard Manley Hopkins.” The Poetry Foundation. Web. 26 June 2014.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “The Windhover.” Bartleby. Web. 27 June 2014.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “”The Windhover” read by Richard Austin.” Victorian Web. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/hopkins/windhover3.html. Web. 27 June 2014.

“J. R. R. Tolkien reads “Riddles in the Dark” (Whole – 29:52).” Online video clip. Youtube. YouTube, 5 Feb 2013. Web. 26 June 2014.

King, Thomas. “Godzilla Vs. Post-Colonial.” Unhomely States: Theorizing English-Canadian Postcolonialism. Mississauga, ON: Broadview, 2004. 183-190. Print.

Robinson, Harry. Living By Stories: A Journey of Landscape and Memory. Ed. Wendy Wickwire. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2005. Print.


2.2 Double, Double, Binary Trouble

Question #1: Dichotomies in Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories

The prevailing organisation of King’s arguments in The Truth About Stories is in a binary structure, and this perspective always bothered me. Surely, I thought, Thomas King of all people must know better than to present such complex ideas in dichotomies. Surely he must understand that ‘us-versus-them’ structures are more often destructive and limiting than enlightening or progressive. As a feminist, I am suspicious of binary representations of complex ideas, as experience has shown me that there are always more than just two sides to any story. Just as the idea that gender and sexuality are binaries denies the experiences of LGBTQ folk and excludes their voices from the cultural conversation, so too does arranging an understanding of where we come from around a binary structure exclude and deny the very real experiences of those who identify as neither one nor the other. This is an especially important consideration in the context of colonialism. It is tempting to want to separate and preserve distinct cultures in an attempt to better understand them, but more and more, we discover that there is no “us vs. them,” and what’s more, there never really has been. Now, more than ever, with the complex systems of cultural exchange and the harmful effects of residential schools (to name one of many colonial horrors), cultures and heritages are so blended that there is no way to separate one from another. It is surprising, therefore, to encounter this very approach to these ideas espoused by such a well-educated and respected authority on the subject of Indigenous hiStories.

Leanne Simpson writes in her book Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence that creation stories are important because “everything we need to know is encoded in the structure, content and context of these stories and the relationships, ethics and responsibilities required to be our own Creation Story” (33). In this light, creation stories are especially vital because they act like DNA codes, containing the seeds for everything we need to know, and informing our cultural identity.

King presents two opposing creation stories: “one about how Charm falls from the sky pregnant with twins and creates the world out of a bit of mud with the help of all the water animals, and another about God creating heaven and earth with his words, and then Adam and Eve and the Garden” (Paterson Lesson 2:2). He intentionally presents the Biblical creation story with an authoritative voice, and the “Earth Diver” story with a much more conversational storyteller’s voice, and analyses the two stories to demonstrate that the “Earth Diver” story celebrates community and collaboration, and the Genesis story prefers the authority of a single creative will and imposed hierarchal order.

The message seems to be that there is only one story or the other. You can only believe in the validity of cooperation OR competition, equality OR hierarchy, a worldview based on oppositions and dichotomies.
As I mentioned earlier, it seems strange that King would present these stories and worldviews in such a simplistic way, considering the oft-toted problematic nature of binary systems.

Perhaps it is a simplification that allows us to better understand one another. But it seems unlikely that King would want to pander to his readership by assuming that they are incapable of understanding complexity and hybridity.

Perhaps he seeks to demonstrate the basis of different cultural worldviews in order to more clearly demonstrate the complexity of issues that arise when these different cultures intersect. But that is assuming that there were only ever two parties to begin with: Indigenous peoples in Canada, far from being one homogenised group, are composed of hundreds of different nations, all with different ceremonies, creation stories, traditions, and languages, and there were as many different perceptions of settlers as there were individuals. Settlers themselves had many different intentions in what they called the “new world,” and very different attitudes towards the people that inhabited the land before them.

It is much easier to set up an argument by identifying an opposing view, but what happens when there are more than two sides to the conversation? What happens when there are as many sides as there are individual experiences? Life is much more complex than what fits into a convenient argument.

I don’t have an answer as to why King chose to present his argument in this way. I think perhaps he seeks to establish a basic understanding of two different perspectives to set the stage for a new appreciation of the complexities of their meeting. I also think that King is clever enough to know that many of his readers will be puzzled by this overly-simplistic, two-dimensional notion of us-versus-them, and be encouraged to look further into the various stories that flesh out the realities of “first contact,” challenging them to do their own work in order to take their understanding into a more three-dimensional vision of Indigenous/settler relations.


Works Cited:

King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories. Toronto: House of Anansi P, 2003. Print.

Paterson, Erika. “Lesson 2:2, First Stories.” ENGL 470A Canadian Studies Canadian Literary Genre 98A May 2014. UBC Blogs. n.d. Web. 20 June 2014.

Simpson, Leanne. “Theorizing Resurgence From Within Nishnaabeg Thought.” Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring P, 2011. Print.

“Understanding Gender.” Gender Spectrum. n.p. n.d. Web. 23 June 2014.

2:1 Come Home With Me

Home. What a subject to ponder.

Our class has some beautiful, heartwarming, heartwrenching stories about what ‘home’ means, and it’s been such a privilege to read stories of childhood, of displacement, of longing, of confusion, of safety, of comfort, and everything in between.

I took the liberty of reading many of the blogs submitted for the last assignment, but four in particular stood out to me. As a traveller and a settler myself, with no real sense of one particular place as home, I really resonated with Bára’s craving for the “space in between,” and the sense of belonging and not-belonging all at once. Home is found as much in language as it is in space or memory, and there is something about one’s “mother tongue” that holds a certain quality of home.

I was born in Vancouver and then spent seven years in the UK, before moving back to Canada and settling on the Sunshine Coast for five years, and then back to Vancouver for university. People frequently ask me where I consider “home” to be, and I have never had a definitive answer.

In many ways, Vancouver is home because it is the first place I have made home for myself on my own terms. It’s the place where I first called an electrician, dealt with landlords, and hosted family and friends in my own space, and so for that reason the city feels ‘mine’ in that I have a personal, individual relationship to it distinct from the influence of my family. That said, I have always felt like I don’t quite fit in the city – there’s a part of me that would love to run away and live on an organic farm for the rest of my life. The rolling hills of the English countryside that were such a haven during my early adolescence, the magnificent forests and mountains of Canada’s west coast, the south bank of the river Thames, the inside of an airplane, my family’s cabin on the Winnipeg River that has been the only constant ‘home’ throughout my life – these are all homes for me.


I build homes in my community, and in the people I hold dear to me. Home is in my yoga practice, in great works of literature, in a steaming cup of fine tea, in great conversation. Laura, too, “never learned to define home as a space” as a result of being a settler from a country that no longer exists, and she also touches on the politics of sexual expression as an alienating force. I have immense privilege in that I know my own queerness would not prevent me from finding safe spaces in either England or Canada, but I resonate with the sense of otherness and alienation from mainstream community that queerness creates. As Gloria Anzaldúa notes: “as a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races;” there is togetherness in otherness. This, too, is an important part of finding home.

Home is contained in memory, in the places we leave behind, in our imaginations. Rob writes about his childhood adventures in backyards and forests and the kind of home that is located in silence and aloneness. He touches on the idea that perhaps home is something we necessarily take for granted, and we never really know home until we leave.

Kayi‘s post about the multiplicity of homes raises an interesting point: that “it is a sense of invisibility that really gives a person a sense of home […] an invisibility that allows me to blend into the crowd, to walk down the street without being scrutinized.” Part of feeling ‘at home’ is a sense of comfortability and belonging, and this “invisibility” creates a certain amount of liberty. There is comfort in anonymity just as there is comfort in being recognised.

Other blogs touched on home being located in childhood, in familiar places, in the heartbeat of a loved one, in food, in laughter, in inside jokes, and, interestingly, in the “in-betweens” – the liminal spaces that are both pregnant and empty, a space of nothingness that contains limitless potential, like the space between breaths.


(Also thanks to Laura and Kayi – I must read more of Anzaldúa’s work when I have a chance!)


Works Cited:

Anzaldúa, Gloria. “Towards a New Consciousness.”Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books. 1987. 99-113. Print.

Hladíková, Bára. “HOME: Bohemia, Kootenai, and in between.” Canadian Literature. UBC Blogs. 12 June 2014. Web. 15 June 2014.

Mars, Laura. “Assignment 2:1.” Our Home On Native Land – English 470A. UBC Blogs. 11 June 2014. Web. 14 June 2014.

Rose, Rob. “2.1 – Home.” Here Is Somewhere Else. UBC Blogs. 11 June 2014. Web. 15 June 2014.

Wong, Kayi. “2.1: Home(s).” ENGL 47oA Canadian Studies. UBC Blogs. 11 June 2014. Web. 16 June 2014.

2:1 To Build A Home

Where the doors are moaning all day long,
Where the stairs are leaning dusk ’til dawn,
Where the windows are breathing in the light,
Where the rooms are a collection of our lives

“That Home” – The Cinematic Orchestra

It’s that old house on the corner – the one with the peeling paint and the whispers clinging to the edges of the windows.
Go ahead, just up that staircase around the back of the house. It seems rickety, but it’ll hold. It gets narrower and steeper at the top, until it feels more like a ladder than a staircase, and all of a sudden you’re clinging to the side of the building, blending in with the vertical carpet of ivy that embraces the walls.
Once you find your way to the little door at the top, go ahead and let yourself in; you’re expected.
The door might need a little extra push – don’t worry, you won’t bring the walls down. That’s it.

Welcome to the attic, the haven. It’s filled from top to bottom with the most glorious light.

You’re right at the top of the house now, so the walls do double-duty and act as ceiling too, meeting in the middle to form an A-frame. On the east side the wall is sloped right down to the floor at a 45 degree angle, and features two generous skylights that look out on the terracotta roofs and function like drum skins for rain-fingers and filters for sunbeams. On the west side, about two-thirds of the wall slopes down from the centre point of the ceiling to meet the floor, and the other third of the wall comes right down vertically from the apex of the ceiling, making the room much narrower on this end.
This one vertical wall houses a glass door that leads out onto a south-facing balcony overrun by a tangled hallelujah of plants, where flowers, culinary herbs, vegetables, and vines clamour for attention.
This is the best place for thunderstorms. You can watch the lighting rip the sky open, feel the air tremble with the force of the rumbling; tip your head back in the pouring rain and wash yourself clean of everything that came before.

Come back inside for a moment, though. The kettle whistles on the gas stove, fogging up the window with all its enthusiasm. There’s a fresh pot of tea on the scrubbed wooden table, and wildflowers in a mason jar. Strung from the ceiling are rows and rows of drying herbs, and the walls are lined with jars of various teas, herbs to soothe any ailment, homemade jam, and bottles of sweet blackberry wine.

The space is small, but lived-in and comfortable. It has the quality of nestling around you in your aloneness, giving you space to breathe your solitude and delight in the sweet softness of quiet mornings, but it can also open up to house the hearts of dozens of dear ones, the rafters ringing with laughter, poetry, song, and the art of friendship.
Scraps of paper congregate on the fridge, holding snippets of poetry waiting to grow up, while scores of well-loved books and partly-finished art projects line the walls. There’s a hammock under one of the skylights for reading with a little table for your teacup, generous space on the worn hardwood for yoga, for dancing, for rolling around in fits of giggles, and a fireplace against the far wall where the stories gather.

A slender ladder leads up to a sleeping loft, built on a platform that holds a nest of feathers and pillows. Sleeping there, right under the skylight, is pretty close to sleeping under the stars – but also a lot warmer and drier for when it rains, and the pattering of water hitting glass soothes the throb of the city from the fibres of your muscles.

Welcome home. Make yourself comfortable. Rest, revive, re-inspire, replenish. This is a sacred place. A place for nourishment, for dirty jokes, for howling at the moon, for wild discoveries, for bittersweet remembrance, for community, for aloneness.

The woman who lives here might be a witch. No one seems to know for certain just how old she is, but there’s something in her patient gaze that makes you feel like she sees right down to the bottom of who you are, and loves you fiercely all the way through.
Home has always been a tricky concept for her. She moved around a lot as she grew up, crossing oceans, packing boxes; she was used to being the new kid. When her parents separated and her family broke apart, the tenuous concept of ‘home’ as a specific place dissolved entirely.
So she learned to build it herself, but not in the way you might expect. She has never settled in one place for long, and instead she builds home in people, in communities, in her own habits and patterns of being. She finds home on the yoga mat, in the stretching and strengthening of muscle and sinew, in the shower, in the forest, in the company of loved ones, in cups of tea.

She carries home with her wherever she goes. This little attic space is a distillation of all the homes in her heart, and, precious though it may be, don’t think for a moment that she wouldn’t just get up one day and leave it all behind. It is never lost, you see. The memories may be anchored in space and time but they’re safeguarded in shared experience and in art, and they work their ways into the essence of her being and come to rest like fine wrinkles on her skin, writing the map of her life across her body for anyone who takes the time to read it.


Works Cited:

The Cinematic Orchestra. That Home – Cinematic Orchestra (Extended Full Version).” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 8 May 2011. Web. 8 June 2014.

The Wine Pages. “Blackberry Wine Recipe and Tips – Homemade Homebrew Blackberry Wine.” The Wine Pages. n.d. Web. 9 June 2014.

Let Me Tell You How The Wind Was Born

“Have you ever seen how all the crows     congregate in Burnaby every evening around dusk?” my partner asked me one night. “It’s a bit sinister, but pretty majestic to see all these black shapes gathering towards the same spot.”

“It’s an old game,” I told her, “one that the crows have been playing since the beginning of imagination.”

“Is that so?” Indulgent as always, and recognising the twinkle in my eyes and the tone of my voice, she put down her teacup and settled her head into my lap to listen to the story.


“The crows have been doing that for as long as anyone can remember. Long before Burnaby was Burnaby and when it was simply impenetrable forest and mountain and wildness. Have you noticed the way they look at you as they perch on telephone wires and the sides of roads? They remember the loss of the forests, and they’re still suspicious of concrete and metal and the electrical wires that strangle the air.”

My partner, who does not have much patience for anthropomorphism, raised an eyebrow.

“You can tell by their voices,” I insisted, “they used to have voices like silk and honey.”

“What happened?”

“The trouble started with the stories.”


“Let me back up. As I mentioned, the crows have been meeting in that spot every day for centuries. The very first time they met there, back before wind moved across the world, it was for a kind of game, a competition to see who could come up with a way to capture all the forces of imagination. That’s what magic is made of, and they wanted to harness it so they had all that power at their disposal.
They still meet there, trying to catch hold of the forces of imagination, hoping to work some magic to return some wildness to the corners of the world that need it most. But, I digress.

“The first time they did this,” I continued, “the crows did all kinds of curious magical things. They turned themselves inside out, they threw off all of their feathers and paraded around naked, they worked together to create huge formations in the sky, they sang songs with their honey voices, and they brought shiny things from the farthest reaches of the world to create giant glittering sculptures. This conference went on for days and days. Finally, after all the other crows had done their bit, they realised that there was still one crow who had not spoken.
‘What about you?’ they asked, peering at the last crow intently, ‘don’t you have anything to contribute? Don’t you have any tricks for capturing imagination?’

And then the last crow opened her mouth and told a story.”

“That’s it?” my listener asked, “all that hype for just a story?”

“Not just any story – the most thrilling story you’ve ever heard. It twisted and turned, stretched to the farthest limits of understanding and swooped back around in a way that made all the other crows second-guess the beaks on their faces.
By the time the crow had finished telling her story, the others were silent for the first time in days.

They decided unanimously that she had won the competition. No sooner had they said so, that they felt a shimmering in the air, a kind of rushing and whistling.”

“The wind?”

“Ah, so you were paying attention.”

“I always pay attention!”

“Yes, of course. This all happened, as I said before, in the time before the wind. And now, all of a sudden, a breeze sprang up, and started to ruffle the birds’ glossy feathers.
‘That’s it,’ they said, ‘you win. But maybe now you could take it back? We’re not sure we like what you’ve unleashed, we don’t know what —‘
But their words were snatched away by the wind. Some of the crows lifted themselves up into the sky, but they were buffeted by the air that had, until that point, always been calm and still.
They shouted and cried through the shifting currents of air, begging the last crow to take her story back, to get rid of all this wind. They shouted so much that their voices became hoarse and raspy, and lost forever their silk and honey tones.”

“But what about the story? Did the crow undo what she had done and make the wind calm down?” my partner wanted to know.

“Of course not. Don’t you know? Once a story is loose in the world, it cannot be taken back. It’s there for good.

And that’s how the wind was born.”



Crows are one of my favourite subjects: they are tricksters and magic-makers, and just unpredictable enough to keep you guessing. I am a storyteller at heart, and this kind of creative work is just what I like to do. There’s something special about weaving a story as you tell it – I like to leave a little bit up to improvisation, and let my words be affected by the reception I get from my audience. That way, the story changes a little with each telling, shifting to suit a particular audience, while still retaining its essence.

The interesting thing, though, is to take a story that has only ever been heard aloud and change it into a written form. I tried my best not to let the story alter when I wrote it down, but inevitably it did. There’s no way to account for the multi-dimensional quality of oral storytelling – tone, body language, gesture, and expression – so the words themselves must take on a new responsibility when they are written. It feels strange to let these words go out into the world without being able to control the way they are received – ultimately, it’s up to the reader to shape the way they sound in their head.

I’ve been hooked on King’s writing ever since I read The Inconvenient Indian and a few other works. The Truth About Stories was no different. One of the marvellous thing about King’s work is his conversational style; it feels like you’re really in the room with him. Somehow he manages to convey a certain level of eye-twinkling and sardonic humour that is rarely found in written text.
I couldn’t stop reading the book at the end of the first chapter – King’s words are simply too delicious to part with, and it felt disingenuous to put it down when we were in the middle of a conversation.



Works Cited:

Donaldson, Emily. “The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account Of Native People In North America.” Quill & Quire. n.d. Web. 29 May 2014.

King, Thomas. “The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative” Toronto: House of Anansi P., 2003. Print.

Lazaruk, Susan. “Murder Mystery: The Reason Why 6,000 Crows Flock To Burnaby Every Night.” The Province. (Vancouver) 30 Oct, 2013. Web. 28 May 2014.



1:2 – Language and Story: “A Place Where Things Happen That Don’t”

Question 3: Words

In his inspiring book If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground, J. Edward Chamberlin grapples with the universal practice and ceremony of storytelling, and seeks to “find common ground” between cultures as a way of breaking down and complicating our understanding of “Them and Us” in order to establish universal acceptance and respect for all peoples across culture, language, and tradition (8).

Chamberlin spends a great deal of time dissecting the use of words and language, recognising that humans have a tendency to draw a dividing line between “Us and Them,” between savagery and civility, between culture and anarchy, based on use of language. Language is often the dividing line between peoples, and when we are unable to understand another’s language, customs, and practices,they begin to seem more like “babblers and doodlers” than respectable human beings. “The categories of the barbaric and the civilised first take place along the lines of language with the dismissal of a different language as either barbaric or so basic that it could not possibly accommodate civilized thoughts and feelings,” and this conception of barbarism lends credence to the idea that those who speak differently are inferior (Chamberlin 13). If we characterise the ‘other’ as subhuman, incapable of ‘usefulness’ or productivity (as we understand it), and ill-suited to governance of themselves or of land, it becomes very easy to justify their subjugation. This is especially the case when they inhabit or possess things that we ourselves desire – land, for instance, or natural resources like gold or lumber. Greed or desire for resources skews perception in such a way that it is easier for us to think of the other as barbaric, and to justify the theft of homelands.

Chamberlin turns to story to help complicate this dualistic understanding of Us and Them. Communities from around the world all have in common the fact that they tell stories. The tales themselves differ, of course, but the ceremony of storytelling and the practice of believing in metaphor is universal. The very heart of language, as Chamberlin argues, relies on us learning to be comfortable with the paradox of believing and not believing at the same time. When we teach children to read, we teach them to recognise that “C-A-T” is at once a cat and also not a cat. Children take very easily to the world of metaphor and symbolism, they learn very quickly to believe and not believe at the same time, and this liminal space of acceptance/dismissal is essential for understanding stories as well.

Chamberlin writes that “often it is when we are most conscious of  their artifice that we surrender most completely to stories,” and this makes me think of the work of the German playwright and theorist Bertolt Brecht, who wrote a great deal about the dangers of believing too completely in the realism of the story presented on stage. To combat this, he created what he called Verfremdungseffekt, also known as the “V-Effect” or the “Alienation Effect”. He would intentionally disrupt the suspension of disbelief that traditional theatrical conventions require by doing things like exposing the back wall of the theatre, adding musical elements that clashed with the events on stage, and informing the audience of the plot in advance. He hoped that this would prevent them from becoming swept up in the emotional journey of the story and that they would be more able to consider the political implications of the piece. It’s a balancing act between making the audience care enough to think deeply about the issues, but distancing them just enough that they avoid leaving the story behind in the world of imagination without considering its political implications. Ultimately, Brecht was playing with the audience’s understanding of realism and artificiality, putting pressure on dis/belief.


Bertolt Brecht, looking very serious.

Cultures around the world draw on the ideas of riddles and charms to teach lessons, tell stories, entertain, enchant, and instruct. Chamberlin understands riddles and charms as devices that drive a wedge between reality and imagination. They create a situation that requires the disintegration of language itself, or of our conception of the way the world works. Under the pressure of understanding charms and riddles, either we must radically rewire our understanding of the world, or our sense of language itself must dissolve.

In the case of riddles, “it is the language that gives” under this pressure: our understanding of the way language works cannot exist alongside the rules of the world, so the trick and the delight of the riddle is in showing us the artifice of words and metaphor, and, indeed, it is language that solves the problem in the end (Chamberlin 161).

It works the other way with charms. Ceremonies, national anthems, well-known prayers, and creation stories all manage to work some magic on our experience of the world. The logic of language is pitted against that of the world, and “in a charm, it is the world that changes – if only for that moment” wherein we truly believe in an ideology or community that we may otherwise dismiss (Chamberlin 239).

“Riddles highlight the categories of language and life; charms collapse them. Neither does away with them” (Chamberlin 239). This, I think, is what Brecht was trying to achieve as well, trying to drive a wedge between realism and artificiality so that we may explore the liminal space of our instinct to categorise. Words “make us feel closer to the world we live in” because we inhabit a world of contradictions, and language requires us to become comfortable in the practice of believing and not believing at the same time (Chamberlin 1). It is only by achieving this balancing act of embracing contradiction that we are able to move forward into finding common ground.


Works Cited:

Chamberlin, J. Edward. If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground. Toronto: Vintage Canada 2004. Print.

National Theatre Discover. “An Introduction to Brechtian Theatre.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 26 July 2012. Web. 22 May 2014.

Thury, Eva. “Brecht on Alienation (the A-effect, or, from the German Verfremdung, V-effect), an Essential Element of Modern Drama.” Web. 23 May 2014.

Assignment 1:1 – Welcome!

Welcome! My name is Jess Borthwick (you may also encounter me as Jess Marlow, which is the name I use for social networking and creative work). I’m a fourth-year student at UBC, double-majoring in Theatre and English Literature. I’m a settler on this land, and I consider it a great privilege to live and study on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Musqueam Nation.

I’m a feminist, an actor, a clown, a storyteller, a student of yoga, an activist, and a lover of fine tea.

ENGL 470A is a course that considers the intersections between European and Indigenous traditions of literature and orature, and the importance of storytelling as a tool for cultural exchange, growth, and resurgence. Not only will we encounter stories in literature, but we will also consider the stories we tell about literature: the course provides a platform from which to analyze which narratives gain a place in the literary canon, and which are excluded. It is entirely conducted online, and one of the exciting features of its format is that it requires a high level of engagement with social media, blogging, and other online tools in order to create a community of learners working together to further discussion about the future of Canadian literature. Speaking as one who grew up reading books and climbing trees, I must admit that I’m feeling a little trepidatious about the technical side of things, but I’m keen to embrace it as part of the learning process.

The story of Turtle Island is an Anishinaabe/Ojibway creation story

A great deal of my studies both in and outside of school have been concerned with Indigenous peoples and cultures on Turtle Island, and, in particular, the practices and traditions of storytelling. It all began when I encountered Tomson Highway‘s intense play Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing in a Theatre class in my first year, which sparked a passion for learning about Indigenous stories and creating space for Indigenous voices on stages across Canada and the world. I have taken several different Canadian Literature classes since, including a fantastic course on Indigenous feminism and literature (ENGL 476, taught by the wonderful Dory Nason), and I keep finding myself coming back for more. As an actor and performer, stories are the most important part of my craft; as an ally and supporter of Indigenous resurgence, I recognise storytelling to be an essential part of cultural reclamation and celebration.

I hope that this course (while nudging me towards 21st Century technological skills) teaches me more about the canonization of literature, and that it will help to further my understanding of how Indigenous and European narratives intersect, informing my artwork and strengthening my own voice as it calls out for positive change.

I believe that, through listening to one another’s stories, we may help to foster a culture of mutual respect and community accountability, working together to heal the trauma of colonialism and creating a society that celebrates our various histories, cultures, traditions, and wisdoms.

Works Cited:

“Dory Nason” First Nations Studies Program. U of B.C., n.d. Web. 15 May 2014.

Musqueam: A Living Culture. Musqueam Indian Band, 2011. 15 May 2014. Web. http://www.musqueam.bc.ca/

Paterson, Erika. ENGL 470A: Canadian Studies: Canadian Literary Genres. University of British Columbia, 2014. Web. 15 May 2014.

Tomson Highway. n.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2014.

“What is Turtle Island?” Turtle Island Indigenous Education Corporation. 2013. Web. 15 May 2014.

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