Monthly Archives: July 2016

Assignment 3.7 – King’s Statements through Interacting Allegories

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[1]” (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).


  1. 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.


Works Cited

“A New Nation-to-Nation Process.” Liberal Party of Canada, n.d. Web. 27 July 2016.

Canadian Press. “First Nations Student Presses Trudeau on Third World Living Conditions.” National Observer. Observer Media Group, 28 Apr. 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.

Cooper, Sam. “A Bigotry Engrained in Bones.” The Province. Postmedia Network Inc., 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 27 July 2016.

Delano, Columbus. “Report of the Secretary of the Interior, 1873.” HathiTrust Digital Library. HathiTrust via Washington: G.P.O., 28 Apr. 2014. Web. 27 July 2016.

Flick, Jane. “Readings Notes for Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water.” Canadian Literature 161/162 (1999): 140-172. Web. 27 July 2016.

Historia – Bel99TV. “Buffalo Bill – William F. Cody – Real Film Footage – With His Wild West Show – 1908.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 27 July 2016.

Hyslop, Stephen G. “How the West was Spun – Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.” HistoryNet. HistoryNet, 5 Aug. 2008. Web. 27 July 2016.

King, Thomas. Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto: HarperPerennial, 2007 [1993]. Print.

King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: Anansi, 2003. Print.

Martinez, Mathew. “All Indian Pueblo Council and the Bursum Bill.” New Mexico History. State Records Center & Archives, n.d. Web. 27 July 2016.

McSorley, Tim. “Government Inaction Has Led to an Independent Database for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.” VICE Canada. VICE Media LLC, 5 Aug. 2014. Web. 27 July 2016.

Melville, Herman. Benito Cereno. Raleigh, N.C.: Generic NL Freebook Publisher, n.d. [1856]. Web. 27 July 2016.

“Pueblo Indians.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 11 May 2015. Web. 27 July 2016.


Filed under Unit III

Assignment 3.5 – The Medicine Wheel as a Thought Model

This blog post will address the following (question seven):

“Describe how King uses the cyclical paradigm of the Medicine Wheel (and a little help from Coyote) to teach us to understand, or at least to try to understand the power behind the stories we tell ourselves” (Paterson n.p.).


The Medicine Wheel is a First Nations thought model that can be recorded as a circle with four quadrants, expressing concepts and relationships in sets of four that signify things such as seasons, stages of life, directions, and elements, among many others (Bell 15). It emphasizes “the importance of appreciating and respecting the ongoing interconnectedness and interrelatedness of all [these] things” (Bell 14). By taking those concepts or subjects which lay on their own as separate and uniting them in a wheel, the Medicine Wheel demonstrates their interplay, and, ultimately, the “encompassing relatedness between everything” (Calliou 50; see also Walker 19).

File 5529

A Medicine Wheel created by Nicole Bell as an Indigenous education framework (Bell 14).

Clearly, the Medicine Wheel exhibits a highly “complex system of [Indigenous] knowledge” (Walker 19). In a seemingly simple way, it shows that the meanings of concepts themselves are necessarily co-constituted, their identification and operation relying on the existence and operation of other concepts. This is a system of thought that prizes a harmonious wholeness – that one should look at entireties as a greater sum of parts while simultaneously realizing that those parts are not identifiable without seeing the whole they create (Bell 15). The production of knowledge in any sense, then, “is a holistic, self-constructed process” (Calliou 53). The grandest of theories and smallest concepts are mutually defined, co-constituted, and reliant on interrelationships to create meaning. This closely follows the post-modern concept of intertextuality, which posits that, as pieces of knowledge are pulled from various places to create a new theory, the stories, narratives, and theories of those original pieces remain connected. Such a concept shows us, as does the Medicine Wheel, that most of all the theories (and stories) we come up with are interconnected and dependent upon each other.

Most importantly, the Medicine Wheel allows one to surpass the binary thought models of a “discourse of differentiation” (Calliou 70), sacrificing the ‘other’ label that invariably results in socio-cultural tension and conflict (Calliou 47). It shows us that “our lives are lived relationally, ‘as a relation among relations'” (Calliou 51). Harming any one of these relationships has a ripple effect that will harm all relationships. Bell alludes to this reliance upon relationships, saying that “interconnections create an environment which is mutually sustaining; where there is a transcending of logic and linear thought to reveal synthesis and dynamic interdependence” (15). Breaking connections within the Wheel means that the constituent parts can no longer be sustained by each other, and the harmony of the system falls apart.

Under such a model of thought, human interaction and morality are guided by a law of relations (Calliou 51), where instead of conceptualizing the self as an autonomous individual or as a cog in a larger community, the self is defined and sustained by its relationships with all other things. Those relationships must invariably be maintained and expanded through “continuous and ongoing reflection of oneself in relation to others” (Bell 15). In this way, balance is maintained and change is embraced by the Medicine Wheel, creating a system of knowledge that is not only “complex,” as Walker says (19), but flexible – universal, communal, and individual at once.

King makes various allusions to the Medicine Wheel throughout his novel, most obviously in the headings of the four sections of the book, which translate into a direction and colour (north is blue, east is red, south is white, and west is black), but also with the Four Old Indians and the four mythical women who fall from the sky who are named to represent the four stages of live (Paterson n.p.). As a thought model that focuses on relationships within and between concepts in groups of four, some of King’s allusions are fairly obvious given that he creates several of these groups for us. However, King also gets at the heart of the Medicine Wheel as First Woman’s call to “mind your relations” appears early in the novel (Green Grass 39). Not only does this explicitly hint at the law of relations, but the idea of relationships and relational meanings carry throughout the book as narratives cross over and affect each other, and as the real/ideal binary is broken down (most often by Coyote).

The Medicine Wheel, then, multiplies the power of the story, expanding its relevance not only to literature itself (see Frye 234), but to all things. By using the Medicine Wheel as a thought model, we can easily see that stories are related to each other, and King makes this very clear through his narrative structure in Green Grass Running Water. However, by taking the model a step further, we gain insight on the relationships between stories and reality, history, ideology, science, and, in fact, all dialogues. Stories themselves are no longer stories, but instead pieces of a larger knowledge base that function in relation to all other theories and pieces of knowledge. The Medicine Wheel shows us that every story we tell, as well as every story we are told, becomes “loose in the world” in both senses that it cannot be recalled, and that it expands to interact with all facets of life, just as all facets of life interact with it (King Truth About Stories 10).

The power of a story with the aid of the Medicine Wheel is that it is capable of reaching and interacting with all things, affecting change both in the imaginary, spiritual, and emotional realms, but also in reality. This power is demonstrated foremost in Green Grass Running Water by Coyote, a Native trickster character. Coyote jumps between all narratives in King’s novel, engaging with the ‘I’ speaker in the novel’s meta-narrative, meeting the Four Old Indians, and then using his stories and movements to affect the real world occupied by King’s (strictly) human characters. Using the power that stories hold with the Medicine Wheel, Coyote is able to alter every realm of the novel, resulting in a cheeky reply: “‘You are one silly Coyote,’ I says. ‘No wonder this world is a mess'” (King, Green Grass 238).


Works Cited

Alfaro, María Jesús Martínez. “Intertextuality: Origins and Development of the Concept.” Atlantis 18.1 (1996): 268-285. Web. 18 July 2016.

Bell, Nicole. “Teaching by the Medicine Wheel: An Anishinaabe Framework for Indigenous Education.” Education Canada 54.3 (2014): 14-16. Web. 18 July 2016.

Calliou, Sharilyn. “Peacekeeping Actions at Home: A Medicine Wheel Model for a Peacekeeping Pedagogy.” First Nations Education in Canada: The Circle Unfolds. Eds. Marie Battiste and Jean Barman. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1995. 47-72. Web. 18 July 2016.

Frye, Northrop. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Introduction by Linda Hutcheon (1995). Concord: Anansi Press, 1971. Print.

King, Thomas. Green Grass Running Water. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 1993. Print.

King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Tornoto: Anansi Press, 2003. Print.

Laframboise, Sandra and Karen Sherbina. “The Medicine Wheel.” Dancing to Eagle Spirit Society. Dancing to Eagle Spirit Society, n.d. Web. 18 July 2016.

Paterson, Erika. “Lesson 3.2.” ENGL 470A Canadian Studies: Canadian Literary Genres May 2016. University of British Columbia, n.d. Web. 18 July 2016.

Walker, Polly. “Journeys Around the Medicine Wheel: A Story of Indigenous Research in a Western University.” The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 29.2 (2001): 18-21. Web. 18 July 2016.


Filed under Unit III

Assignment 3.2 – Myth and Nationality

This blog post will address the following (question six):

Lee Maracle writes:

In order for criticism to arise naturally from within our culture, discourse must serve the same function it has always served. In Euro-society, literary criticism heightens the competition between writers and limits entry of new writers to preserve the original canon. What will its function be in our societies? (88)
In the following paragraphs in her essay, Maracle answers her question describing what she sees to be the function of literary criticism in Salish society. Summarize her answer and then make some comparisons between Maracle and Frye’s analysis of the role of myth in nation building” (Paterson n.p.).


To Lee Maracle, developing a system for literary criticism in Salish society is akin to restoring bodies of knowledge and systems for creating and critiquing that knowledge. Such restoration is needed following extermination vis a vis the Canadian colonial enterprise (Maracle 79). She goes as far as saying that the key to liberating the Salish people (perhaps implying all Indigenous peoples)  lies within both oracy and literature, which hold the “cultural knowledge” needed to escape cultural oppression (Maracle 95). Indeed, and quite unsurprisingly for a society that has existed for millennia, Salish people, through orature and literature, had a developed system of knowledge with diverse schools of thought that reached into and probed the realms of science, philosophy, anthropology, politics, &c (Maracle 89).

Issues arise due to the fact that the Salish lack internal structures and methods through which they can analyse their own literature. Because most Salish literary analysts are educated in Western traditions (Maracle 88-89), they approach Salish literature from a Western standpoint, incapable of examining it through the now-lost “old filters of original knowledge” (Maracle 89). By developing a Salish literary criticism rooted in Salish society, Maracle seeks to systematize and formulate the extensive knowledge held by the Salish people in the past and present (Maracle 95). This, in turn, will allow Salish society to define itself as a nation separate from its European colonizers.

In a separate strain of thought, Northrop Frye notes that “the question of identity is primarily a cultural and imaginative question” (Frye xxi), and thus that identity is confined by the limits of the imagination. Identity, in the context of this post, is national in scope – what we call ‘nationalism,’ or in Canada, ‘Canadianism.’ Nationalism, framed by Frye, is an imaginative mentality, a story built on widely spread myths that connect person to place. Central to Frye’s particular theory of nationalism is “the obvious and unquenchable desire of the Canadian cultural public to identify itself through its literature” (Frye 218).

In turn, literature is defined as “conscious mythology: as society develops, its mythical stories become structured principles of storytelling, [and] its mythical concepts … become habits of metaphorical thought” (Frye 234). Nationalism, then, is based on the mythological stories formulated in a national canon. The myth forms a “vision of a social ideal” towards which a society strives (Frye 240). This social ideal, the flag under which a nation rallies, is reflected by “‘popular’ literature,” which has the goal of “[persuading] us to accept existing social values” (Frye 237). We then formulate our national identities, and indeed our literature, through the framework of those values.

In terms of Canadian national identity, Frye claims that, instead of being based on myth, “the Canadian literary mind” is based on history (Frye 233). Canadianism is a consequence of a particular historical bias, not a mythological one. This is because myth does not have the basis to form in Canada to the extent needed for create a solidified national identity, according to Frye. Problems of national identity, what Frye calls “the mystique of Canadianism” (Frye 222), arise due to cultural revolutions that have occurred to quickly and too often to allow for the development of a literary foundation (Frye 221). This foundation must exist before a canon of literature can develop to refine the myth of ‘nation,’ as forms of literature “cannot be derived from any experience outside of literature” itself (Frye 234). Thus, Canadian national identity must be based in history rather than myth, though it may strive for a foundation in the latter.

Frye claims that “Canadian literature … is an indispensable aid to the knowledge of Canada” (Frye 217), being the primary way that we record our imagination. The accepted canon of Canadian literature, regardless of how developed it may be, not only aids knowledge of Canada, but creates and frames that knowledge as Canadian. Through some of the methods that Frye alludes to, canonization in this way creates a more or less static foundation of literature that can then be analyzed and critiqued by literary ‘experts.’ Knowledge pertaining to that literary canon (which is representative of a national identity) is thereby produced, encoded, and replicated. This process plays a large role in forming and solidifying the myth of Canada as a nation.

Maracle advocates for a system of literary critique internal to Salish society because she realizes the power that this process holds. Indeed, the ability to internally criticize literature and knowledge would allow Salish people to invent a Salish myth of nationalism by drawing borders around their own knowledge and traditions of recording that knowledge. It is at this point that the theories of Maracle and Frye intersect. Both recognize the role that literature plays in informing a collective identity, and the power that literary critique holds by creating a national literary canon.

When the nation is framed as a myth, Thomas King’s statement that “we [Indigenous peoples] are about story and nothing else” is no longer the insult that Maracle takes it to be (quoted in Maracle 82). In fact, Maracle herself is attempting to find a way to create a national myth – a story – in order to reclaim Salish knowledge, culture, heritage, and society. Similarly, Frye is utilizing Canadian literature to create a national myth of Canadianism. Ultimately, both implicitly or explicitly concede that “ideas are weapons” (Frye 229) and that stories are power in the sense that they can be used to invent and harness the raw power of nationalism, or to reclaim a lost sense of togetherness.


Works Cited

Frye, Northrop. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Introduction by Linda Hutcheon. Concord, ON: House of Anansi Press, 1995. Print.

Maracle, Lee. “Toward a National Literature: ‘A Body of Writing.'” Across Cultures, Across Borders: Canadian Aboriginal and Native American Literature. Ed. Paul DePasquale, Renate Eigenbrod, and Emma LaRoque. Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2010. 77-96. Print.

“Nationalism as a Cause of World War I.” Alpha History. Alpha History, n.d. Web. 13 July 2016.

Paterson, Erika. “Lesson 3.1.” ENGL 470A Canadian Studies: Canadian Literary Genres May 2016. University of British Columbia, n.d. Web. 13 July 2016.

“Xá:ytem/Hatzic Rock National Historic Site of Canada.” Canada’s Historic Places. Parks Canada, n.d. Web. 13 July 2016.


Filed under Unit III