Thomas King is a brilliant storyteller. I wished for two things reading this novel: one, that he was telling it to me over a course of meetings over coffee or a meal, and two, that it wouldn’t end. The world and characters he created were so life-like and curious that I was slowing down near the end of the book to make it last longer.
In the novel, a First Nation on the West Coast is completely destroyed by a newly created bacterium, GreenSweep. Not used properly, GreenSweep kills everything and everyone in its path in the hopes of clearing brush to lay a pipeline. The irony is that the man who helped to create GreenSweep is Indigenous and knew people in the Reserve that was completely destroyed. How do you seek forgiveness? How do you make up for life’s biggest mistakes?
This novel is grounded in the Earth. It shows the importance of the relationship between people and Earth and what happens when that relationship is taken for granted or exploited?
In the beginning of Barkskins by Anne Proulx, she includes this quotation:
In Anitquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in the mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects. (Lynn White, Jr.)
After years of reading Canadian Indigenous literature, I am still amazed by the generous humour that they employ. The humour is gracious because the atrocities that have occurred in Indigenous communities is horrible, yet often times authors approach their message with humour, which engages all readers. We know that satire is one of the most powerful means of bringing about new thoughts and change, yet this story is a gentle humour that is embraces and brings in readers to the story. The story is then heard by more and thought of more. Yet, I believe it comes from a generous spirit.
One of the most heartwarming moments for me was the surprise appearance of some Alberta Elders: Narcisse Blood and Leroy Little Bear (pg 119). I first ‘met’ Narcisse Blood through Elder in the Making, an amazing film that documents Treaty 7 and the people of Southern Alberta. In “Episode 5: A Broken Treaty,” Narcisse Blood talks about his experience in Indian Residential School. He took an old school and turned it into Red Crow Community College. The moment that stands out that he says he is a “person that wants to learn. A persona that respects myself so that I can respect others. If I can become a human then I can relate to the land better.” In “Episode 6: Death and Renewal” Narcisse Blood speaks again. “The land is like our mother… We don’t take for granted that the sun is going to come up every morning. We greet the sun because we woke up. So we wake up and that gives life. Our non-human relations have rights to be here. The folly is when we think that man is it.” The teachings of Narcisse Blood are beautiful and reminded me as I read The Back of the Turtle that as humans we have lost of connection. In the episode, Narcisse Blood says that our folly is a kind way of saying stupidity. As humans, we need to reestablish our relationship with our non-human relations. In Blackfoot culture, they often say the phrase “All my Relations.” They acknowledge all of creation and honour creation by saying this phrase.
Leroy Little Bear is such an important person in Alberta. He is a Blackfoot scholar is striving to teach us about the connection between humans and the land. He is also an advocate for justice and works with prisoners and those without means to find justice to work in the system. I know I don’t have permission to say this to make make this judgement, but to me he is a modern day warrior. He is tenacious, wise, and generous. In a lecture at Congress 2016 in Calgary. His lecture compares Western metaphysics to Blackfoot metaphysics:”Big Thinking and Rethink Blackfoot Metaphysics: ‘waiting in the wings’.” He talks about the difference between Western and Blackfoot ways of knowing. In Western culture, we value reason and work around the idea that God’s creation is good and therefore stagnant. In our thinking, we categorize and run experiments. We value the objective facts and like creating and finding order out of chaos. In Blackfoot culture, they think differently and so see the world differently. As Little Bear says everything is in flux and motion, and the Earth is never stagnant. People are made of energy waves, and once they die the waves stop but are not gone. Blackfoot culture sees more in observation and processes. Blackfoot draws from the idea that chaos is a constant, and ceremonies seek to bring order. So when a Blackfoot person says “All my relations” they are talking about non-human relations because they see all of Creation as animate. For Blackfoot people, renewal is essential. Ceremonies are all about renewal that use the same songs, prayers, stories, and ceremonies to bring order to the chaos. An essential way of thinking is sustainability. Little Bear says that Native Science is grounded in sustainability and our work is to engage in the process and action of renewal. Even the languages show this difference: in English we like nouns and naming things, yet in Blackfoot it’s all about process and actions, movement. So when we learn, we need to renew, collect, and see the connections, not divide and create dichotomies and cause and effects. Within the novel, King shows the difference between different creation stories and different ways of working with the Earth. Little Bear in his lecture talks about how Western thought likes to create prophets, people who can predict what will happen. That is shown in King’s book how Dorian tries to control and predict how to manage environmental disasters caused by his company. Yet in the end, it is Creation itself and the chaos she creates that brings the characters together, even strangers, as they seek to push a boat off of the beach.
Later in the novel, King references another large personality: “The Donald.” His character Dorian is the CEO of the company that created GreenSweep and it is his job to try to make the devastation of the use of GreenSweep, and later a tailings pond spill in Northern Alberta near Fort McMurray to go away. As he is looking for a place to eat, he is referred to The Stock restaurant in the Trump Tower on Bay Street. As he describes his decision, he says this about Trump: “The man was extravagant and arrogant. A loud-mouthed egotist who gave wealthy people a bad name. Trump might have been nicer, Dorian speculated, if he had made his fortune on his own rather than having it handed to him by his parents” (Pg 367). King shows the lack of connect to land. He shows what happens when people manage nature instead of exist and work with nature. The thinking is different. Trying to predict, manipulate, and exploit seemingly stagnant resources shows the complete disconnect to Creation and the different way of seeing it: not as chaotic, but as something ordered and reasonable to gain from.
What happens to communities, people and places, when environmental disasters happen? Gabriel, the man who created GreenSweep, comes back to his community and becomes part of the people who bring the community back to life. It’s different, yet they are in it together and connected to the land and the place. In the end, King offers hope and a way forward. Nature recovers and is strong, and people are the same, if we just stop to observe.