There is a story I know. It is about an island and how it flourishes 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 the voice of the storyteller. Sometimes the change is in the details. Other times it’s the way the story is presented, either in language, print, or art. But in all the tellings of all the tellers, the turtle always becomes the island. || Paraphrase of Thomas King, my own details added.
I am not sure what I was expecting when I opened to the first page of Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Despite King’s prominent place in the canon of contemporary Canadian literature — and being an American expatriate — I had never encountered his work, nor even heard his name. I settled in with this narrative with the attitude to churn out yet another text for my “Public Intellectuals in Canada” class. My mind remains open to engagement but I find that it is often closed to being truly affected by the words waiting for me in those pages.
One of the difficulties with my place in this “Public Intellectuals in Canada” course is the fact that I am not Canadian. At times, I often feel as though the local and national knowledge is taken for granted. A colleague or the professor will mention certain public figures, events, and cultural products — whether it be novels, films, television shows, or even something as simple as advertisements — and everyone will immediately be in the know, allowing the conversation to charge ever-onward. I find myself left behind. The trouble is, I am different from my peers in two very crucial respects: I was born in the United States but received my undergraduate education in the United Kingdom. I straddle two distinct spheres while attempting to orient myself in this third space, as though I, alone, am playing a game of intellectual Twister. I am always balanced precariously amongst these places: I never allow myself to come crashing down definitively on one circle, letting it swallow me up.
As Thomas King opens his narrative, “There is a story I know,” something remarkable happened. I found that I too know this story. I know it almost as intimately as I know my own. King is an American in Canada and a storyteller; I, armed with stories of my experiences told one too many times, wander the streets of St. John’s, Newfoundland, a most unlikely place for a girl from rural Michigan.
Yet King’s story is different. King tells about a woman he calls Charm who falls through the sky to the earth, enlisting the aquatic creatures she met there to create land for her to live on upon the back of a great, giant turtle (12-21). King calls his story “the Woman Who Fell from the Sky” and it is a “Native” narrative of Creation (22). King himself is a prominent scholar of Cherokee heritage and a Professor of English at the University of Guelph. Once again, the story has evolved into one I do not know. Once again, I find myself on the outside.
The study of indigenous literature and perspectives is a topic that I consistently grapple with. My interest in indigenous storytelling began as a young, pebble-collecting urchin trundling along the shores of Lake Michigan. The creation story King tells is a variant of a story told frequently at home about a popular tourist destination: Mackinac Island. Today, this story appears in a strikingly illustrated children’s book by Minnesotan (and non-native) author Kathy-jo Wargin. It tells of the great turtle Makinauk who transformed into Mackinac Island after the most stalwart and least-esteemed creature, a tiny muskrat, managed to capture soil from the bottom of Lake Huron to place upon the turtle’s back.
Almost every child-friendly household in Michigan owns Wargin’s picture book, alongside her companion work The Legend of the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Many knew these legends before they were fixed in print and in artwork. In Michigan, legends flit along the shores of the Great Lakes, hiding buried in the sand with Petoskey Stones. They lurk in the deep pine forest with the black bears, wary of the humans that pass them by. Legends feed the Michigan imagination; they nourish its sense of self.
However, critic Deborah McGregor argues in her essay “Coming Full Circle: Indigenous Knowledge, Environment, and Our Future” that “Our knowledge cannot be placed in a book or library; it does not work that way” (399). How, then, can we who were born and bred in a place like Michigan — as steeped as it is in lake water and indigenous narratives — who are not indigenous reconcile our love, respect, and interest in our home and its stories? I have never known what it means to not respect the indigenous narratives and legends that shape my home. As a child, I spent a large portion of my time away from the urbanized southeast of the state at my grandmother’s cabin in the far north. This childhood was spent toddling along quiet rivers, hunting for Petoskey Stones, listening for the call of the loon caught on the morning breeze, and taking in the stories that created that land. My mother was careful to educate my brother and I about the people that called the lakes and forests home before us, to expose us to their art, music, and stories so we could know lives different from our own, though we were both “Michigan natives.”
In light of King’s The Truth About Stories — his testimony of native experience and scholarship — and McGregor’s essay, I struggle to reconcile the deep respect, and indeed pride, I feel for my home and its privileging of its indigenous past. I question my interest in the stories that nurtured my love of storytelling, folklore, and magic: of bears transforming into sand dunes, of brave muskrats, and turtles who carry the weight of human lives upon their backs. Though I have possessed a long-standing desire to study indigenous literature in an academic setting, perhaps even pursuing an extended research essay on the topic, instead, I ask: are there things that cannot be studied or taught by people who do not share the background of those who tell those stories? What role do I play — traveler, Michigan “native”, and burgeoning scholar — in the preservation of these stories, or would the best thing I could do to be to leave them be?
This post feels disjointed. Disconnected. Adrift. Perhaps it mirrors my own state of mind in reflecting upon the topic of nativeness, indigenous literature, storytelling, and the role scholars play in the respectful study of narratives that are integral to the people that tell them. Perhaps it feels lost in light of the notion that “Indigenous Knowledge cannot be separated from the people” (MacGregor 399), forever barring my curiosity from cultivating a deeper understanding of the narratives that nurture my home. What can I truly know?
Campbell, Tenille K. “The Truth About Stories – King.” Photograph. Tenille K Campbell: Academic, Photographer, Poet, 28 November 2016. tenillecampbell.com/?p=755. Accessed 3 March 2020.
King, Thomas. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Dead Dog Café Productions Inc. and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2003.
McGregor, Deborah. “Coming Full Circle: Indigenous Knowledge, Environment, and Our Future.” American Indian Quarterly vol. 28, no.3/4, Special Issue: The Recovery of Indigenous Knowledge, 2004, 385-410. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/4138924.
van Frankenhuyzen, Gijsbert. “The Legend of Mackinac Island.” Cover art. Sleeping Bear Press. sleepingbearpress.com/shop/show/11482. Accessed 3 March 2020.