- The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative
In novelist Thomas King's new book, The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative, the greatest point of intrigue turns out to be his greatest challenge to readers. He simply writes: "The truth about stories is that that's all we are" (2). For Native and non-Native, academic and general readers, this unassuming sentence resonates throughout the Cherokee/Canadian émigré's narrative. It is difficult to disagree with such a reasonable statement, and, as King steadily winds the stories [End Page 235] of his narrative, one begins to nod along, relishing the repetition of the story of the earth that begins each chapter and the gentle yet empowering directive at the close: "But don't say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You've heard it now" (29).
In King's book, first delivered as the 2003 CBC Massey lecture, there are plenty of stories to listen to, to repeat, to remember, and to forget. King's challenges to North American colonial narratives enable readers to begin to tell a new story about Native people and their relationship to this history. King's shrewd perspective and biting humor permit readers to reassess the stories that make up a uniquely North American experience, which spans his own personal and familial past and that of influential cultural figures such as photographer Edward Curtis and author Louis Owens while weaving in creation stories and animal tales. The stories King tells encompass his own search for a Native identity in a continent that relishes the idea of its imperial creation, "the Indian," and does not easily make room for living, breathing, present Native Americans. With this in mind, King delivers a sustained warning to his readers to "be careful with the stories you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories that you are told" because stories can be "wondrous" and "destructive" things (10). As King points out, in the face of a Western capitalist system that cares not for the principles of cooperation and balance found in Native stories, preferring instead the opposition and hierarchy found in Christian myths, it is all too easy to be lulled by the complacency of North American individualism and to ignore or forget the stories that make us who we are.
Herein lies the predicament of the text. King does not provide instruction as to which stories can and cannot be told, which are sacred and which are destructive, leaving readers to decide for themselves. By retelling a variety of Native stories with no such direction, intertribal differences in storytelling are downplayed against a revisionist but still hegemonic cultural and political history of North America. In one sense, King's flattening of intertribal similarities and differences resembles Robert Warrior's definition of Pan-Indianism, that "which seeks to blend and homogenize Native cultures" (The People and the Word, 107). In effect, King's silence about the power and importance of certain narratives over others in particular communities sanctions generalizations about Native storytelling and Native people. For instance, King provides readers with two creation stories, one tribally unspecific ("Native") and one Christian. In the first he arbitrarily names the Woman Who Fell from the Sky "Charm" in an effort to call attention to the ease with which readers accept a storyteller's power to name, on the one hand, and the common privileging of written narratives over oral narratives, on the other. While well aware of the power dynamics between Native and Christian stories (he points out how easy it is to forget the former story in the "thunder" of the latter), King does not take the same liberties with the Christian [End Page 236] creation myth—the god is God. King's fast and loose play with naming in the case of the "Native" creation story does little to challenge established assumptions about Native and Christian, oral and written stories. Instead, he allows the...