6. Green Grass, Running Water

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King

Thomas King


“There are no truths, Coyote,” I says. “Only stories.”

In October of 1829, President Andrew Jackson wrote a letter to an army major who was soon to be passing through the country of the Choctaw tribe in present-day Alabama and Mississippi. The government was working to induce the tribe to peacefully cede their lands to American settlers. In his letter, Jackson instructs his emissary to promise them new lands, further west, which would be theirs for good. The major, wrote Jackson, should tell the Choctaw that they would live,

There, beyond the limits of any State, in possession of land of their own, which they shall possess as long as Grass grows or water runs.

Jackson was not the first to use some version of the phrase “as long as the grass is green and the water runs,” and he wasn’t the last. It has resurfaced over the years during government negotiations with Indigenous tribes, and has since taken on the sad ring of a promise broken from the moment it was uttered. Two years after that letter, with the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, the Choctaw, along with other major tribes of the American Southwest including the Cherokee and the Seminoles, were removed in stages to Indian Territory as part of what became known as the Trail of Tears. Today this territory is called Oklahoma.

Jump now to present-day Canada. In northern British Columbia, the federal government has granted permits for dam construction to begin at what is called Site C on the Peace River. Site C is located on Treaty 8 land; in 1899 representatives of Her Majesty drew out a chunk of BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan representing an area larger than France, where the indigenous people there would be allowed to “pursue their usual vocations of hunting, trapping and fishing” without hassle, while of course making some small concessions to Her Most Gracious Majesty, like to:

HEREBY CEDE, RELEASE, SURRENDER AND YIELD up to the Government of the Dominion of Canada, for Her Majesty the Queen and Her successors forever, all their rights, titles and privileges whatsoever, to the lands included within [these] Limits.

Today the heads of several tribes are pursuing BC Hydro in federal court to argue that construction of the dam has proceeded in violation of their Treaty 8 rights, that the industrial development of the land would, among other things, destroy places central to their culture and way of life. They are driving a bus from BC to Quebec to make their case. It’s the latest in a long history of Canada’s First Nations fighting dam projects that would violate their treaty rights in favour of developing land on behalf of the Government and private corporations. Besides Site C, the James Bay Project in Quebec, or the Oldman River dam in Alberta, we can count at least one fictional example of this phenomenon: Eli Stands Alone and the Grand Baleen Dam.

Eli is a protagonist in Green Grass, Running Water, a book that pushes for another, more positive meaning to that phrase “as long as the grass is green and the water runs.” Eli is a middle-aged professor of English who long ago left the reserve in Alberta to become an academic in Toronto. He has now returned to Alberta to occupy a cabin built by his mother, a cabin that is the only private property keeping the Grand Baleen Dam from being activated. (Incidentally, one controversial dam from the James Bay Project in Quebec was named the Great Whale Dam—Grande Balene in French.) Eli refuses to let the dam operators raze the cabin and flood the land, which belongs to him and his family, and to interrupt the natural course of the waterway, which is important to the traditions of the Blackfoot nation.

I don’t want to make all this sound too serious, because Green Grass, Running Water is a funny, ironic book. So let’s start again. In this novel there is what you might call a real world and a semi-mythical story world. The real world includes the saga of Eli and the dam as well as those of:

  • Eli’s nephew Lionel Stands Alone, in the fictional town of Blossom, Alberta. He’s a salesman at a dismal electronics store owned by “Buffalo” Bill Bursum. Lionel is competing for the affection of Alberta Frank, a professor of History in Calgary, with his rival and cousin, Charlie Looking Bear. Charlie is an Edmonton lawyer who works on the litigation against Eli for a big law firm, serving essentially as a Blackfoot face to the PR campaign against Eli.
  • Joe Hovaugh, a doctor at a mental hospital from which four mysterious “Indian” men escape at the outset of the book, and Babo Jones, his assistant. They scour both sides of the American border in search of the missing men.
  • Latisha, Lionel’s sister and confidant who runs the Dead Dog Café in Blossom. This restaurant caters to gullible Canadian and American tourists who are of the mistaken belief that the Blackfoot eat dog meat. The Dead Dog menu includes “Houndburgers” and “Saint Bernard Swiss Melts.”

The other sections of the book involve an unknown narrator in an unknown place somewhere between myth and reality. He or she is there with the trickster Coyote, a mischievous figure with an insatiable, if naïve, enthusiasm for tales and a flimsy grasp of his power over the real world. He seems strongly rooted in the traditions that King is referencing, and as portrayed here is so lovable that he was by far my favourite character. He appears on the cover of this edition as a constellation of stars howling over a prairie highway.

The narrator and Coyote have four companions in the story-world sections, who are introduced to us as the Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye. The incongruity of the four names in this context is a good sign of what’s to come. Each of them takes a try at telling the same creation story, the first line of which opens the book:

In the beginning, there was nothing. Just the water.

To this, Coyote immediately asks: where did all the water come from? And the four voices attempt to answer. Throughout the course of the book (these sections and the real-world sections are interspersed pretty evenly), each of the four tells the creation story differently, and each time the story follows a woman: First Woman, then Changing Woman, then Thought Woman, and finally Old Woman. As the stories proceed, each of these women encounters a crude and domineering figure from the Bible, and then a similarly overbearing character from the Western cultural treasury (those four names will tell you which ones to expect). By the end of the book the four storytellers are still figuring out how to start the story, although we’ve already heard and been through a great deal. Still, Coyote’s question remains, and they are dedicated to telling the story correctly, even if it takes an eternity.

These sections of the book are a satirical tour de force. King re-frames the well-known Western stories to seem crazed and narrow compared to the tales of the oral tradition being told by the four voices. Each of the Biblical and literary characters mistakes the central Woman of the story for someone else, and then tells her what to do. They are bossy, childish men crashing their way through the worlds they intrude upon. The depictions are so vivid and subversive that you might not ever see the original characters in the same way again. Who can forget the tale from Genesis, where cranky GOD, hands on hips, surveys First Woman and “Ahdamn” chowing down in the Garden:

Wait a minute, says that GOD. That’s my garden. That’s my stuff.

Or the fanatical Ahab, who also picks up Changing Woman on his boat and tells her why they are killing all of the whales:

This is a Christian world, you know. We only kill things that are useful or things we don’t like.

Or Nasty Bumppo, parody of Natty Bumppo from James Fenimor Cooper’s novels, mistaking Old Woman for his sidekick Chingachgook:

I can tell an Indian when I see one. Chingachgook is an Indian. You’re an Indian. Case closed.

These characters personify the European colonial attitude. Their manner ranges from dismissive intolerance to mindless cruelty and beyond. They stand directly against both the Native traditions they are so gleefully steamrolling, as well as against Nature itself, which they are compelled to destroy and conquer.

But these sections of the book are not merely about Western stories getting in the way of other traditions. They are a celebration of the very styles of oral storytelling that have been ignored by literary types for most of modern history, and which have continued in the communities that practice them. We see each of the four Indians discussing their version of the story. They correct one another, and disagree about whose turn it is or how exactly the story should start, but each of them eventually embarks on telling it with the others as a critical audience. Coyote listens eagerly and interrupts with innocent but revealing questions. The narrator answers Coyote and calmly explains how stories work. It’s hard to convey how King fuses all of this with the real-world narratives of Eli and the others; you’ll have to read for yourself, but I can say it’s intricate and fun to read.

Maybe it’s because of my own solidly European heritage, but much of this book seems directed towards those who, like me, have had little exposure to Indigenous cultures in any real context. Too often when one encounters the subject in daily life, it’s either as kitsch or history. But this book isn’t meant as a remedial “100% Authentic Lesson in Indian Culture for Well-Intentioned Whites.” King is writing about our own stories too, telling us to look at them again. Re-examine those Hollywood Westerns where the cowboys always win, where the Indians are played by Italian actors from the Bronx. Re-examine those Biblical stories, those pioneer sagas, the stories where the land and all within it is there for the taking. What are these stories saying about us? That we have romanticized for so long the annihilation of lands and animals, and fellow people, out of a sense that they are all under our dominion and exist to be tamed? Well, here is a different perspective. It has always been there, but we have long been too busy shooting buffalo and handing out treaties to hear it.

This message arises not only in the Coyote sections of Green Grass, Running Water, but in the real-world sections as well. Several characters give a sense of how misguided mainstream Anglo-American perspectives can be. There is Bill Bursum, who sees himself as a white saviour of the “Indians” in his community, merely because he cares about and interacts with them. Or there is Eli’s girlfriend Karen, from his college days in Toronto. She is fascinated with Eli’s culture when he tells her about his upbringing on the reserve in Alberta, and she goads him into attending the annual Sun Dance (which he has not done for years) and to bring her along for the spectacle. Karen is an example of the well-intentioned enthusiast of Indigenous cultures who, for all her efforts at being respectful, still comes off as tactless and ignorant, simply due to a lack of awareness. Although she would probably love to see herself, as Bursum does, as “part of the family,” her words betray her as somebody who has only heard one kind of story: “It’s like it’s right out of a movie,” she says to Eli as they approach the camp full of teepees. “It’s like going back in time, Eli. It’s incredible.” For all her admiration of Eli and his family, she still manages to see the Blackfoot rituals as though glimpsing a lost daguerreotype, or watching a scene from one of the Hollywood films to which King so often draws our attention. She reacts as a clumsy tourist to what is, for Eli, a conflicted moment of homecoming, and mines the experience for some colourful anecdotes that will prop up her cultural-sensitivity credentials to friends and family back home. In short, she misses the point.

But the conflicts come as much from within the reserve as from outside it. As we see with both Charlie and Eli, there is always tension between those who stay in the community and those who leave it for the world beyond. Whenever someone departs, the people back home envy their ambition, yet deride them for wanting to “become white.” When they return, they’re not “real Indians.” But the Big White World out there never knows what to make of them either: Indians are supposed to be on reserves, not in law firms or on English faculties. They fall in between both worlds, never belonging to either one. How they cope with this varies: Eli wrestles with it in his self-reflective way, while Charlie covers it up with flashy cars and stereos. Yet they both grapple with their sense of what it means to be home, and with the judgement of those who have never left it.

All told, the Coyote parts of the novel were my favourite. Their boldness and humour gives them a certain electricity that I wish was present in the more conventional sections of the book, where characters like Babo and her belaboured catch phrase “ain’t that the trick,” diminish the energy a little. I sometimes wondered whether the plot with her and Dr. Hovaugh searching for the missing inmates wasn’t given too much attention. But the pace of this book is such that any particular scene won’t last very long before you leap to another entirely different one. This makes Green Grass, Running Water a quick and engrossing read that is always more complicated than it looks.

Thomas King has ingeniously taken the image of the dam, so recurrent in the legal battles of First Nations across the country, and with the help of that perennial lie voiced by Andrew Jackson, the Canadian colonists and others, turned it into a symbol of the truth and tenacity of the claims by the land’s original dwellers. European settlers made promises they said would be kept “as long as waters run,” then metaphorically and literally stopped the flow of water. In King’s imagery, this bait-and-switch perfectly symbolizes how the Indigenous people of North America were fleeced out of their lands and their way of life. But as you quickly notice in Green Grass, Running Water, the world is threatening a deluge at every turn. Puddles, rain, mysterious pools—even a toilet that keeps backing up: there is a fateful urgency driving the water in this novel to find its natural course once again. By this means, Green Grass, Running Water upturns the colonists’ scam of “forever” by portraying the colonial system as a historical anomaly in this land—anyone who calls that “forever” commits a simple error of scale:

This story is just beginning.

*   *   *   *

Inside pages of Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King

Thomas King was born in California and moved to Canada in 1980. This is the first book I’ve reviewed, and the first I’ve read in a long time, to be set in Alberta where I live. It’s nice to read about your own spot for a change. Also, this title should be on anyone’s list of Canadian books to read at least once.

Other favourite quotes from Green Grass, Running Water:

Apart from the mountains, which you really couldn’t see, the sky was the best part of the landscape. One of his teachers at law school had said that the sky in Alberta reminded her of an ocean.

You’re mistaken, says Changing Woman, I believe that is Moby-Jane, the Great Black Whale.

What happens when it breaks? You can’t hold water back forever.

“You got the wrong song,” I says. “This song goes ‘Hosanna da, our home on Natives’ land.’” “Oh,” says Coyote. “That song.”

-Sean “Houndburger” McB


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