This blog post will address three themes that emerge in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water from pages 79-93. The first involves the dialogue between Lionel and Norma, in which they seem to talk past each other in the car on the way to the reserve. The second is in Lionel’s “third mistake” – getting a job as Bill Buffalo Bursum’s Home Entertainment Barn (King, Green Grass 80). The third sees Babo Jones attempting to tell the Old Indians’ creation story to patrolman Jimmy Delano. This post will discuss the allegories that King makes in these sections through the characters, and the possible meanings that the interactions of the allegorical figures might have.
Lionel and Norma
Throughout Green Grass, Running Water, the reader is presented with dialogue between Lionel and his aunt Norma as they drive. During these sections, it might strike the reader that they both seem to talk past each other, not hearing what the other is saying and, instead, talking into the air. Lionel’s treatment of what Norma has to say reflects a kind of ‘not this again’ attitude that one would associate with a stereotypical ‘rebellious teen.’ However, given that King chalks his novel full of allegory and metaphor, the style of this dialogue must have some meaning.
An attitude similar to Lionel’s comes up often in Canadian public opinion toward Aboriginal affairs with the oft-repeated response that First Nations should ‘just get over it,’ and that ‘it’ was ‘in the past.’ We could ‘move on already’ if it weren’t for their stubbornness and reliance on public funds – a reasoning commonly heard. “‘Long time ago, auntie,'” says Lionel (King, Green Grass 33). “‘Can’t change the past'” (ibid.). Given Norma’s constant lament that Lionel is trying to “be a white man” (King, Green Grass 80), his attitude toward her may allude to this popular non-Indigenous Canadian frame of mind. Lionel’s drowsiness as he drives may also aid this allusion, as white Canadians (and their government) may express a ‘tiredness’ of hearing about Indigenous issues.
At this point, Lionel says that he is “just thinking,” and that “some people think when they drive” (King, Green Grass 55-57). Later on, Norma sarcastically states, “You think any harder, you’ll be snoring” (King, Green Grass 79). The Canadian government may frequently say that they are concerned with Aboriginal affairs and are investing resources to work towards a “nation-to-nation relationship,” but they are really just sitting on the issue – sleeping, metaphorically. Lionel blames other things – the wind – for his sleepiness, just as the government may blame other circumstances for their inaction (King, Green Grass 79). He then attempts to set a distraction from his real problems – “‘Boy, if it weren’t for the clouds,’ he said, ‘you could see all the way to the mountains'” (ibid.). Norma sees through it – “‘You could see the mountains real good if you came out to the reserve once in a while'” (ibid.). “Mountains” here may allude to how big this issues are. From the Ottawa, the issues are not present, but on the reserve they are unavoidable.
Lionel and Bill Buffalo Bursum
Lionel’s third mistake, getting a job at Bill Buffalo Bursum’s Home Entertainment Barn, has tremendous meaning when one understands the allegories that King is making with Bursum. Jane Flick notes that ‘Bill Buffalo Bursum’ is a combination of “the names of two men famous for their hostility to Indians,” mainly in the form of exploitation (148). The first is Holm O. Bursum (1867-1953), who, as a New Mexico senator, proposed the Bursum Bill of 1921 (ibid.). This bill “aimed to divest Pueblos of a large portion of their lands and to give land title and water rights to non-Indians” (ibid.). The second is “refers to William F. Cody (1846-1917), an exploiter of Indians for entertainment in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show” (ibid.). Taken together, Bill Buffalo Bursum’s character is a reference to the exploitation of First Nations peoples for both their land and labour. The character’s ignorance towards Natives signifies the objectification of them in the past by the historical figures he alludes to.
Lionel story about getting a job and working at at Bursum’s store reflects the mechanism of this exploitation. Even though Lionel planned to go to school, he is enticed by Bursum to work at the Home Entertainment Barn (King, Green Grass 80). It is interesting to note that King has specifically chosen an entertainment store, further solidifying the allegory to William F. Cody and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Lionel is then given a flashy gold jacket by the white owner, making him a piece in the white entertainment business.
Importantly, Lionel gets the job expecting to leave after a year, once he has saved up enough to go to university. However, he becomes tied into the job, continually telling himself that he would apply “next year,” but instead, his labour is exploited until the opportunity seems distant and impossible to him (King, Green Grass 83). Similarly, First Nations peoples were enticed by colonial governments to sign agreements that looked appealing in the short term, and that would allow those peoples to carry on afterwards. However, they were intended by the government to be enablers of unending exploitation of land and people. Within the context of Green Grass, Running Water, Bursum enacts one of these exploitative agreements with Lionel through his employment.
Babo Jones and Jimmy Delano
King goes to lengths throughout his text to craft Babo Jones, who is a character reference to a black slave aboard the San Dominick in Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (Flick 145). As the ships barber, Melville’s character deceives the captain and leads a revolt, guiding those aboard to “freedom in Africa” (ibid.). This allusion is reinforced once when Babo says, “My great-great-great grandfather was a barber on a ship” (King, Green Grass 92), and again when Babo and Dr. Hovaugh cross the border and the border guard assumes that Babo is Hovaugh’s “property” (Flick 159; King, Green Grass 237). Moreover, Melville’s captain of the San Dominick is named Captain Delano, which is a name shared with King’s patrolman Jimmy Delano.
Jimmy Delano, however, may be another character that has multiple meanings outside of the text. Flick believes that he is an allegory for Columbus Delano, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under Ulysses S. Grant (146). During his time in office, Delano created the reservation system in order to make space for colonial expansion westward and to expedite the assimilation of Native populations, simultaneously hunting buffalo nearly to extinction and destroying the culture of Indigenous peoples from the plains (ibid.).
In the passage (King, Green Grass 91-93), Babo attempts to retell the creation story of the Old Indians to Jimmy Delano, but she is incapable of getting the story right (likely because it is not her story). Babo, through the book, seems to be fairly ambivalent about the policemen around him, and continually frustrates their efforts to get a story they are comfortable with. In effect, Babo is undermining the efforts of the white authorities to control the narrative. Because Delano’s character has two meanings, this not only cements the allegory to “Benito Cereno,” but serves to decolonize the acts of Columbus Delano.
As we know, King pays a great deal of attention to which stories are told, by whom they are told, and how they are told (King, The Truth About Stories 10). Babo embodies this in his care to tell the story correctly, but King disguises a specific reference to his ideas about the power of stories through the dialogue between Babo and Delano. In the context of the passage, they appear to be talking about straight razors, but the dialogue reads differently when isolated:
“… Have I got stories -”
“Those things are pretty dangerous, aren’t they?” (King, Green Grass 92).
- Please note that this article overlooks, excuses, or even supports William F. Cody’s exploitation of Native peoples, and that the views expressed are not supported by me. It is interesting nonetheless to read an example of how “Wild West” characters such as Cody are still popularly celebrated, rather than denigrated, for their colonial acts.
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