April 18, 2006

The Truth About Stories

Posted in literature, non-fiction, politics at 3:45 pm by Jerry

Have you ever had the feeling, when you read a book, that it’s a book you’ve been searching for, for years? Only, you didn’t know the name of the author or the book title? It’s happened to me before, and this time the book is called The Truth About Stories by Thomas King, a book comprising his 2003 CBC Massey Lectures.

There are so many facets to this book that it seems I need to quote the whole book to do it justice. Legislation, Native Identity, Oral Story-Telling, Social Activism, Native Literature, Personal Ethics – the list could go on. I want to share at least one string of thoughts I see in the book, but consider them mere samples rather than a representation of the whole book. I’d hate to misrepresent the work of art King has communicated.

The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.

“There are stories that take seven days to tell,” says the Cherokee storyteller Diane Glancy. “There are other stories that take you all your life.” (122)

..Why is the government concerned about defining who is an Indian and who is not? There’s not an Italian Act that defines who is and who is not an Italian. Or a Russian Act. Or a Greek Act. Mind you, in California, in the nineteenth century for a while, Mexicans were legally defined as “White,” while Chinese were legally defined as “Indians.” But even with the French in Quebec, who occupy much the same position in Canada as Native people do, there has been no legislative effort to distinguish between French and non-French. No French Act.

Yet, like Indians, the French float in a sea of English influence. They control an entire province, a larger land base and more resources than any of the tribes in all of America. They seem to annoy the English as much as, if not more than, do Native people. And they have to deal with the attitude of many in this country who believe that the special rights the French enjoy – a distinct language, a distinct society – are benefits that, like Native rights, are unearned and undeserved.

The French, I’m sure, feel that they constantly have to reaffirm their right to exist, but they don’t have to deal with laws that try to get rid of them. There are no legal divisions for status French and non-status French, the concept of the pure laine being a social construct, not a legal one. Consequently if a French woman marries an English man and her children marry Italians and Greeks and their children marry Australians and Germans and maybe even Indians, they don’t, by law, lose their claim to being French.

The only obvious difference between the French and the Indians is that the French represent a formidable voting block, which can decide who comes to power and who does not.

Ah, there’s the rub.

And because there’s no legal distinction, the French can go on creating more French no matter whom they marry. All they have to do is maintain their language and culture, and they will never lose status, while Indians can disappear even with their languages and cultures intact. (148-49)

On page 142, King explains that status/non-status grandparents that have a child who marries a non-status person, who have children that marry full-blooded Indians, are considered to be without a legal Indian identity. I wonder how much value the great-grandparents of these children would put in the goverment’s declaration of their great-grandchildrens’ identity.

And right now about 50 percent of status Indians are marrying non-status folk. No one knows for sure how long it will take, but according to John Borrows and Leroy Little Bear, two of Canada’s leading Aboriginal scholars and teachers, if this rate holds steady, in fifty to seventy-five years there will be no status Indians left in Canada. We’ll still have the treaties and we’ll still have treaty land held in trust for status Indians by the government.

We just won’t have any Indians.

Legally, that is. (143-44)

When I was going to university, there was an almost irresistable pull to become what Gerald Vizenor calls a “cultural ritualist,” a kind of “pretend” Indian, an Indian who has to dress up like an Indian and act like an Indian in order to be recognized as an Indian.

… Not wanting to be mistaken for Mexican or a White, I grew my hair long, bought a fringed leather pouch to hang off my belt, threw a four-strand bone choker around my neck, made a headband out of an old neckerchief, and strapped on a beaded belt buckle that I had bought at a trading post on a reservation in Wyoming. Trinkets of the trade. (45-46)

… a young Native man about my age, dressed in a ribbon shirt, bone choker, and beaded belt buckle, the very markers of race that I had so casually abandoned, stood up and asked me what the hell an “apple” was doing speaking for real Indians. (67)

As long as I dressed like an Indian and complained like an Indian, I was entertainment. But if I dressed like a non-Indian and reasoned like a non-Indian, then not only was I not entertainment, I wasn’t an Indian. (68)

Strange world. But maybe being entertainment isn’t so bad. Maybe it’s what you’re left with when the only defense you have is a good story. Maybe entertainment is the story of survival. (89)

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