F e e a n d J a n e
F l i c k
Knowing Where the Borders Are in Thomas King's
Green Grass, Running Water
T h e most striking effect of Green Grass, Running Water is its ability to arouse readers' desire to "get" the in-jokes, to track the allusions, and to find answers to a whole series of posed but unanswered questions. An unidentified speaker begins the story in an unknown location—an allusion to Northrop's Frye's comment that the Canadian sensibility "is less perplexed by the question 'Who am I?' than by some such riddle as 'Where is here?'" (220). We are across a border, but which one? And then we hit the Cherokee syllables: this is Cherokee territory, but even when we translate the words, when we know the colours and the directions, we still don't know what they mean to the culture that uses them. There is no reader of this novel, except perhaps Thomas King, who is not outside some of its networks of cultural knowledge. But every reader is also inside at least one network and can therefore work by analogy to cross borders into the others. We want to put as much emphasis on the "knowing" in our title as on the "borders": borders are constructed by what you know and don't know. Coyote pedagogy requires training in illegal border-crossing. Here are some examples of how this works. If, for example, you put together the word play of Louis, Ray and Al, the fishing buddies from Manitoba who plan "to hang around Scott Lake" (335) and come up with Métis leader Louis Riel (1844-1885) and the hanging of Thomas Scott, then you will probably suspect that Sally Jo Weyha (182) can also be tracked, however deviously, back to "real" life, to Sacajawea (1784-1884? or 1812?), the Shoshone who was the sole woman and guide on the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803-1806).
Canadian Literature 161/1621 Summer I Autumn 1999
C o y o t e
P e d a g o g y
If you get Clifford Sifton, then you might suspect that King has drawn Bill Bursum (80) from "real" life. Sifton (1861-1929) was an aggressive promoter of white settlement (and Native displacement) through the Prairie West Movement. He was also Federal Minister of the Interior and Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Wilfrid Laurier's government (18961905). That the historical Sifton was quite deaf is apt—many characters in this novel don't listen when they should. Bill Bursum? He is Sifton, American Style. The historical Bursum was Holm O. Bursum (1867-1953), a senator from New Mexico, who advocated the development of New Mexico's mineral resources. He proposed the infamous Bursum Bill of 1921, which aimed to give Pueblo land and water rights to non-Indians (Sturtevant). And Buffalo Bill (43) is an appropriate nickname for the proprietor of the Home Entertainment Barn, as the Wild West Shows of the original Buffalo Bill, William R Cody (1846-1917), provided subject matter for many a male fantasy in dime novel or movie. King's strategy for writing for an audience primarily composed of the uninformed is not to pander to its preconceptions or to produce explanations, but to entice, even trick this audience into finding out for themselves. The reward for following King's merry chase is the pure pleasure of getting the point or the joke, the pleasure of moving across the border separating insider and outsider. Borders make us stupid and allow us to remain so if we let them. Lionel, told that "Massasoit was the Indian who greeted the Europeans at Plymouth Rock" responds "I'm Canadian" (58). This is not so much an explanation of his ignorance as a defence of it. Remember, Lionel wants to be white even if to do this requires paying no attention at all to what is going on around him and falling asleep during his Aunt Norma's frequent instruction sessions. King similarly bombards us with allusions to what is basic general knowledge for at least three distinct groups: Canadians, Americans, and Native North Americans. Anyone who wants to understand (or...