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The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative

by Thomas King

Before he became the respected author of such books as Green Grass, Running Water, Thomas King just couldn’t win. When he wore a suit and reasoned like a non-Indian, he wasn’t authentic. When he wore jewellery and a ribbon shirt and complained like an Indian, he wasn’t an expert. So he engages in a nice bit of subterfuge in his newest book, The Truth About Stories: he dresses the book in a suit of linear non-fiction that looks an awful lot like a piece of aboriginal storytelling, and he reasons like an expert professor but with the authenticity of a ribbon-shirted Indian.

The Truth About Stories, the latest addition to the Massey Lectures series, uses snatches of memoir, quotations from settler histories, American literature, new native literature, stories from the aboriginal oral tradition, and exposition to discuss everything from racism and capitalism to aboriginal identity and the relationship between aboriginal people and colonial governments in both the U.S. and Canada. These points are interesting enough in themselves, and the book could be read simply at that level.

At another more important level, King uses these stories – the work of James Fenimore Cooper, for example, or Choctaw-Cherokee-Irish writer Louis Owens’ experience working in the farm fields of California – to illustrate how stories have shaped and continue to shape our societies, as well as our personal mythologies and therefore our choices in life.

King starts with the big picture, a comparison between an aboriginal creation story and the Judeo-Christian creation story. The aboriginal story introduces the talking animals almost straightaway. The animals are, as King says, a bit of a problem. The “chatty fish and friendly rabbits” of aboriginal literature allow people to label AbLit as simplistic and aboriginal societies as primitive. But as King shows, the talking animals are actually quite sophisticated: they speak of a world where cooperation is the norm, where the world is shared, where chaos is turned into organization. Compare that with the hierarchy, individualism, and organization-into-chaos of the Judeo-Christian worldview, and it’s no wonder Western society accepts violence and anomie as unavoidable. The primary role of traditional aboriginal stories, on the other hand, was creating and fostering social cohesion.

King writes with a dry wit and delicious sarcasm throughout. In a nod to the scientific determinism of Western culture, King has his creation-story animals speak of “mass, velocity, compression, and displacement” as the first woman falls from the sky. Some of the jokes might go over the heads of some readers, but there should be some humour here for every one.

Stories do different things in aboriginal culture: they don’t always have a clear moral centre, there are no payoff endings, and they sometimes don’t really “say” anything. King calls his own favourite stories “saving stories,” stories that help him live in the face of his own failures. And that’s where the subtitle of this book comes in: King repeats the introductions and endings to each of the four chapters (and uses the same ending in his Afterword). But these narrative frames are essentially different every time because they are understood differently each time they are told.

In an excellent segment on identity, King points out the ridiculousness of using colonial markers such as tribal enrollment to determine authenticity. Then in the last chapter, he decries the Canadian government’s attempts to enroll fewer aboriginal people as status Indians, saying that the government is trying to “legalize [native people] out of existence.” King ponders a future without status Indians, and asks, “Who will sing for us? Who will dance for us? Who will remind us of our relationship to the earth?”

There seems to be a contradiction in King’s status argument. Is he implying that you need a status card to know the songs and dances? King talks about the false dichotomies forced upon aboriginal people elsewhere in the book, so it’s disappointing that he does not see the status/non-status issue in this light.

Nevertheless, The Truth About Stories is a wonderful book. It leaves us with the hope that if we create better stories – and stop believing dangerous stories – we can create a better world. Because the truth about stories is that we get the world we imagine, and in that sense, we get the world we deserve.