Authors: Thomas King
A Native Narrative
Copyright Â© 2003 Dead Dog CafÃ©
Productions Inc. and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
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This edition published in 2010 by
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CBC and Massey College logos used with permission.
The publisher gratefully acknowledges kind permission to reprint
excerpts from the following: (pp. 44, 93, and 95)
I Hear the Train: Reflections, Inventions,
by Louis Owens, Â© 2001 University of Oklahoma Press. Used
by permission. (p. 62) “The Halfbreed Blues” by Andrea Menard, words and
music Â© 2000 Andrea Menard,
. Used by permission.
LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
The truth about stories: a native narrative / Thomas
(CBC Massey lectures series)
I. Title. II. Series.
2003 C813'.54 C2003-904921-3
Cover design: Bill Douglas
Cover photo: Thomas
We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing
program the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the
Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund.
For Helen, who has heard these
HERE IS A STORY
. It's about
the earth and how it floats in space on the back of a turtle. I've heard this
story many times, and each time someone tells the story, it changes. Sometimes the
change is simply in the voice of the storyteller. Sometimes the change is in the
details. Sometimes in the order of events. Other times it's the dialogue or the
response of the audience. But in all the tellings of all the tellers, the world never
leaves the turtle's back. And the turtle never swims away.
One time, it was in Prince Rupert I think, a young girl in the audience
asked about the turtle and the earth. If the earth was on the back of a turtle, what was
below the turtle? Another turtle, the storyteller told her. And below that turtle?
Another turtle. And below that? Another turtle.
The girl began to laugh, enjoying the game, I imagine. So how many turtles
are there? she wanted to know. The
storyteller shrugged. No one knows
for sure, he told her, but it's turtles all the way down.
The truth about stories is that that's all we are. The Okanagan
storyteller Jeannette Armstrong tells us that “Through my language I understand I
am being spoken to, I'm not the one speaking. The words are coming from many
tongues and mouths of Okanagan people and the land around them. I am a listener to the
language's stories, and when my words form I am merely retelling the same stories
in different patterns.”
When I was a kid, I was partial to stories about other worlds and
interplanetary travel. I used to imagine that I could just gaze off into space and be
whisked to another planet, much like John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs's Mars
series. I'd like to tell you that I was interested in outer space or that the
stars fascinated me or that I was curious about the shape and nature of the universe.
Fact of the matter was I just wanted to get out of town. Wanted to get as far away from
where I was as I could. At fifteen, Pluto looked good. Tiny, cold, lonely. As far from
the sun as you could get.
I'm sure part of it was teenage angst, and part of it was being poor
in a rich country, and part of it was knowing that white was more than just a colour.
And part of it was seeing the world through my mother's eyes.
My mother raised my brother and me by herself, in an era when women were
not welcome in the workforce, when their proper place was out of sight in the home. It
was supposed to be a luxury granted women by men. But
misplaced her man, or more properly having had him misplace himself, she had no such
luxury and was caught between what she was supposed to be â invisible and female
â and what circumstances dictated she become â visible and, well, not male.
Self-supporting perhaps. That was it. Visible and self-supporting.
As a child and as a young man, I watched her make her way from doing hair
in a converted garage to designing tools for the aerospace industry. It was a long, slow
journey. At Aerojet in California, she began as a filing clerk. By the end of the first
year, she was doing drafting work, though she was still classified and paid as a filing
clerk. By the end of the second year, with night school stuffed into the cracks, she was
doing numerical-control engineering and was still classified and paid as a filing
It was, after all, a man's world, and each step she took had to be
made as quietly as possible, each movement camouflaged against complaint. For over
thirty years, she held to the shadows, stayed in the shade.
I knew the men she worked with. They were our neighbours and our friends.
I listened to their stories about work and play, about their dreams and their
disappointments. Your mother, they liked to tell me, is just one of the boys. But she
wasn't. I knew it. She knew it better.
In 1963, my mother and five of her colleagues were recruited by the Boeing
Company to come to Seattle, Washington, as part of a numerical-control team. Everyone
was promised equal status, which, for my mother, meant being brought into Boeing as a
fully fledged, salaried engineer.
So she went. It was more money, more prestige. And when
she got there, she was told that, while everyone else would be salaried and would have
engineer status, she would be an hourly employee and would have the same status as the
other two women in the department, who were production assistants. So after selling
everything in order to make the move, she found herself in a job where she made
considerably less than the other members of the team, where she had to punch a time
clock, and where she wasn't even eligible for benefits or a pension.
She objected. That wasn't the promise, she told her supervisor. You
brought everyone else in as equals, why not me?
She didn't really have to ask that question. She knew the answer.
You probably know it, too. The other five members of the team were men. She was the only
woman. Don't worry, she was told, if your work is good, you'll get promoted
at the end of the first year.
So she waited. There wasn't much she could do about it. And at the
end of the first year, when the review of her work came back satisfactory, she was told
she would have to wait another year. And when that year was up . . .
I told her she was crazy to allow people to treat her like that. But she
knew the nature of the world in which she lived, and I did not. And yet she has lived
her life with an optimism of the intellect and an optimism of the will. She understands
the world as a good place where good deeds should beget good rewards. At eighty-one, she
still believes that that world is possible, even though
she will now
admit she never found it, never even caught a glimpse of it.
My father is a different story. I didn't know him. He left when I
was three or four. I have one memory of a man who took me to a small cafÃ© that had
wooden booths with high backs and a green parrot that pulled at my hair. I don't
think this was my father. But it might have been.
For a long time I told my friends that my father had died, which was
easier than explaining that he had left us. Then when I was nine, I think, my mother got
a call from him asking if he could come home and start over. My mother said okay.
I'll be home in three days, he told her.
And that was the last we ever heard from him.
My mother was sure that something had happened to him. Somewhere between
Chicago and California. No one would call to say they were coming home and then not show
up, unless they had been injured or killed. So she waited for him. So did I.
And then when I was fifty-six or fifty-seven, my brother called me. Sit
down, Christopher said, I've got some news. I was living in Ontario, and I figured
that if my brother was calling me all the way from California, telling me to sit down,
it had to be bad news, something to do with my mother.
But it wasn't.
You'll never believe what happened, my brother said.
That's always a good way to start a story, you know: you'll
never believe what happened.
And he was right.
We found our father. That's exactly what he said.
We found our father.
I had dreamed about such an occurrence. Finding my father. Not as a child,
but as a grown man. One of my more persistent fictions was to catch up with him in a
bar, sitting on a stool, having a beer. A dark, dank bar, stinking of sorrow, a bar
where men who had deserted their families went to drink and die.
He wouldn't recognize me. I'd sit next to him, and after a
while the two of us would strike up a conversation.
What do you do for a living? How do you like the new Ford? You believe
those Blue Jays?
Guy talk. Short sentences. Lots of nodding.
You married? Any kids?
And then I'd give him a good look at me. A good, long look. And just
as he began to remember, just as he began to realize who I might be, I'd leave.
Hasta la vista.
Toodleoo. See you around. I wouldn't tell him about
my life or what I had been able to accomplish, or how many grandchildren he had or how
much I had missed not having a father in my life.
Screw him. I had better things to do than sit around with some old bastard
and talk about life and responsibility.
So when my brother called to tell me that we had found our father, I ran
through the bar scene one more time. So I'd be ready.
Here's what had happened. My father had two sisters. We didn't
know them very well, and, when my father disappeared, we lost track of that side of the
family. So we
had no way of knowing that when my father left us, he
vanished from his sisters' lives as well. I suppose they thought he was dead, too.
But evidently his oldest sister wasn't sure, and, after she had retired and was
getting on in years, she decided to make one last attempt to find out what had happened