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Against Mastery: Teaching Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water

  • Robert McGill

Thomas King’s novel Green Grass, Running Water stands as an indictment of North American colonialism and the continuing injustices facing indigenous peoples; it also offers valuable insights in terms of what constitutes good teaching. With reference to personal experiences of teaching the novel in a large lecture course, this article discusses its author’s efforts at implementing the novel’s implied pedagogical principles, which include a scepticism about granting authority to certain texts over others; a collaborative model of learning; a wariness regarding totalizing narratives and claims of interpretive mastery; and a need to wrestle in class discussion with texts’ unresolved problematics.

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1 King, Thomas, Green Grass, Running Water (Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 1994), 144146.

2 One should note, as I do in lectures, that King has argued against indigenous North American literature being called “postcolonial.” In an essay first published in 1990, King observes that such a label problematically places the European arrival in North America at the center of thinking about indigenous peoples and “assumes that the struggle between guardian and ward is the catalyst for contemporary Native literature, providing those of us who write with method and topic.” King goes on to observe: “the idea of post-colonial writing effectively cuts us off from our traditions, traditions that were in place before colonialism ever became a question, traditions which have come down to us through our cultures in spite of colonization, and it supposes that contemporary Native writing is largely a construct of oppression.” See King, Thomas, “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial,” Unhomely States: Theorizing English-Canadian Postcolonialism, ed. Cynthia Sugars (Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 2004), 185. Insofar as Green Grass, Running Water repeatedly presents parodic creation stories involving traumatic first encounters between indigenous and European characters, one might plausibly consider King’s novel itself to be, at least in part, “a construct of oppression.” At the same time, King’s repeated foregrounding of precolonial indigenous traditions—including that of creation stories—works to undermine the notion that the novel is a product of colonialism alone.

3 Among the many valuable scholarly contributions to understandings of the novel’s politics are Goldman’s regarding “Native resistance” and Lamont-Stewart’s regarding the novel’s representation of gender, along with Kerber’s and Lousley’s regarding the text’s environmental politics. See Goldman, Marlene, “Mapping and Dreaming: Native Resistance in Green Grass, Running Water,” Canadian Literature 161/162 (1999): 1841; Lamont-Stewart, Linda, “Androgyny as Resistance to Authoritarianism in Two Postmodern Canadian Novels,” Mosaic 30 (1997): 115130; Kerber, Jenny, Writing in Dust: Reading the Prairie Environmentally (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011); Lousley, Cheryl, “‘Hosanna Da, Our Home on Natives’ Land’: Environmental Justice and Democracy in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water,” Essays on Canadian Writing 81 (2004): 1744.

4 King, Green, 1–2.

5 Ibid., 41.

6 King himself has written elsewhere that the creation story in Genesis evokes “a particular universe governed by a set of hierarchies—God, man, animals, plants—that celebrate law, order, and good government.” See King, , The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (Toronto, ON: Anansi, 2003), 23.

7 Rainwater, Catherine, “Native American Literature: Cultural Foundations 1318,” St. Edwards University, July 15, 2003.

8 King, Green, 195.

9 Said, Edward W., Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London: Penguin, 1995), 93.

10 King, Green, 56.

11 Ibid., 9.

12 Ibid., 39.

13 For example, see Lambe, Jeff, “Indigenous Education, Mainstream Education, and Native Studies,” American Indian Quarterly 27.1–2 (2003): 308324; and McNally, Michael D., “Indigenous Pedagogy in the Classroom: A Service Learning Model for Discussion,” American Indian Quarterly 28.3–4 (2004): 604617.

14 McNally, 609.

15 King, Green, 14.

16 For an extensive discussion of the novel’s challenging of authority, see Bailey, Sharon M., “The Arbitrary Nature of the Story: Poking Fun at Oral and Written Authority in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water,” World Literature Today 73.1 (1999): 4352.

17 King, Green, 128, 127.

18 For a comprehensive, if by no means complete, guide to these allusions, see Flick, Jane, “Reading Notes for Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water,” Canadian Literature 161/162 (1999): 140172. Many of the figures alluded to in Green Grass, Running Water also receive mention in King’s nonfiction book The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Toronto, ON: Doubleday, 2012).

19 Linton, Patricia, “‘And Here’s How It Happened’: Trickster Discourse in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water,” Modern Fiction Studies 45.1 (1999), 215.

20 Fee, Margery and Flick, Jane, “Coyote Pedagogy: Knowing Where the Borders Are in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water,” Canadian Literature 161/162 (1999): 131.

21 King, Green, 24.

22 Ibid., 49.

23 Sommer, Doris, “Resistant Texts and Incompetent Readers,” Poetics Today 15.4 (1994), 529, 542.

24 King, Green, 8.

25 Such self-reflexivity is admirably modeled by Helen Hoy in her book How Should I Read These?: Native Women Writers in Canada (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2001). Hoy writes: “Rather than proposing conclusions, I am tracing a process, rehearsing areas of contention, proffering analysis that is then often itself challenged, modified, or displaced, and ending with partial and provisional answers that invite further challenge” (25).

26 King, Green, 164, 203.

27 Sommer, 543.

28 King, Green, 196.

29 Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum, 1984), 72, 80.

30 King, Green, 431.

31 Quoted in Fee and Flick, 138.

32 Quoted in Zitzer-Comfort, Carol, “Teaching Native American Literature: Inviting Students to See the World through Indigenous Lenses,” Pedagogy 8.1 (2008), 160.

33 Findlay, Len, “Always Indigenize!: The Radical Humanities in the Postcolonial Canadian University,” Unhomely States: Theorizing English-Canadian Postcolonialism, ed. Cynthia Sugars (Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 2004), 368.

34 This article is dedicated to Rosemary Jolly. It was while taking her course “The Bible and Literature” as an undergraduate student at Queen’s University that I first read Green Grass, Running Water, and her teaching of the novel continues to influence my own.

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