The novel Green Grass, Running Water is a multifaceted work of art in the literal sense. The plot circles around an Indian tribe i.e. the Blackfoots, while interweaving myths and the stereotypical attitude towards Native Americans into the macro picture. It takes an extremely sensitive topic and makes sense of it through a comical way.
Through the book King raises a voice against the treatment of the Native culture and way of life at the hands of the ‘white,’ through humorous and witty settings, plots and dialogues. One can easily spot the shots that have taken against the government that went onto cheat the Natives in the name of friendship, the idea of religion, the social stigma that plagues the Natives and a whole lot more.
The discord created by Coyote is a very integral part of the novel. In the story Coyote is the Trickster, and along with him the four Indians namely Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robin son Crusoe, and Hawkeye set their course towards the Blackfoot reservation so they can find things to ‘fix’ (133). When they come onto the reservation everything goes topsy-turvy. Through the re-telling of old Native American legends King puts things into a different perspective for the reader. On top of the Native legends one will be amused by the many references to biblical stories as well.
When it comes to the role of Coyote we know that he is one force that is present long before the world really exists. In the start where there was nothing but “just the water” even then the trickster was present, “but Coyote was asleep”. This in itself can be taken as a testimonial for Coyote’s strength and importance. Whenever Coyote enters the plot he manages to wreak havoc by influencing the events and people around him. He does this on more than one occasion by simply making a joke or performing a ritual.
It is important to note though that Coyote never indulges in direct violence, his idea of wreaking havoc comes from a very passive stance so to speak. His actions are based on what the others say and how he can manipulate their words. In the length of the novel Coyote assists in ‘fixing the world’ through interconnecting European tales with Native ones. He distorts the stories that were brought in by the early settlers by adding the Native flavor to them, thereby coming up with completely new stories altogether.
One instance where Coyote and the four Indians try to ‘fix’ the world is the dam. The thing to note here is that the damn is not going to bring any good to the Natives. The government has ignored many things, such as the fault lines, while making the damn. In effect it would bring great problems to the people living around the area if it were to break.
Coyote possesses mystical powers and can manipulate the environment around him. In one of the scenes from the book Ishmael and Robinson Crusoe ask him whether he has been dancing or singing to which he replies “Just a little” (341) on both counts. At that point a great earthquake hits the land and causes the stress fractures under the dam to open up.
Now, the dam in essence was bad, but once it had been built it would have been worse for it to just fall apart. At one glance one might thing that Coyotes doing was negative rather than positive. However, with the supernatural demolition of the dam, the flood that follows symbolically washes away pieces of the colonial heritage.
The Natives are then able to defy the government and reclaim their land. Even Eli, who ended up dying in the process, is a symbol of strength for the remaining people. His cabin stands are an icon for the rest, a piece of their heritage which one of their own died protecting. Even though Coyote caused death, he still managed to give people something to hold onto, something to huddle them closer to their own Native values.
Another example of Coyote’s well meaning intentions’ going wrong is the John Wayne movie, where he manages to twist and turn the story through the use of linguistic violence and ends up completely distorting it. This is good because he inculcates the Native culture and values into the story which is important for the main characters on the Blackfoot reserve.
The well known story ‘The Mysterious Warrior’ is toyed with. In an attempt to change the world, they end up changing the classic too. In the new version the Indians are not the ones who die terrible deaths but John Wayne and Richard Widmar instead. The Natives that had been hunted by the cavalry suddenly begin to fight back and massacred their assailants. The Natives on the reserve need this kind of reinforcement because they are losing their own values and their heritage and not because they want to, but because they cant find the will to really fight for it.
Eli is the only one who really pushes for anything, while the rest themselves have managed to infuse ‘white’ culture into every part of their lives. An example of this is Latisha who is only using her heritage and that too by inventing things that never existed in the Native culture to begin with i.e. selling dog meat burgers (which are really hamburgers) to tourists claiming it to be a Native tradition, when it wasn’t.
Coyote at times hinders the path of the other four Indians as well. In a way he is the embodiment of the struggle of the Natives against the ‘whites’. His actions may at times seem completely negative, but one must remember that Coyote has been around for a while. And in the end his actions only end up benefiting the Natives of the reserves.
Throughout the novel it would seem as though Coyote has induced certain events almost by mistake or through carelessness but once it has run its course it only ends up helping the Blackfoots. In a way it can be said that Coyote has wisdom beyond what most can understand which is why it is possible that he just might know how things will turn out at the culmination. Coyote tends to intertwine the old ways with the new norms. He uses many biblical references (albeit distorting them completely) and the legends of the old age and present them in a very contemporary way. His distortion of the white tales helps by cleansing the invasive stereotypes and stigma that surround the Indians of today.
In one instance a dam builder says to Eli “Besides, you guys aren’t real Indians anyway. I mean, you drive cars, watch television, go to hockey games. Look at you. You are a university professor” (King 119). This shows the ignorance and misconceptions about the Natives. The general public is completely oblivious of these people, their lives and how they exist. Coyote in his own crazy way tries to do away with this kind of mentality.
Thus, Coyote manages to pull the Natives together. The culture and heritage that has been eluding them and at times confusing them is brought back by him. His actions may at times seem overly negative but in the long run they always prove to be good for the people on the reserve. This is why in totality one can only say that the Tricksters actions are positive and not negative.
Green Grass, Running Water: Thomas King (1993)
Courtney from Study Moose
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