Saturday, April 12, 2003

Museum as Trope in 'Truth and Bright Water' by Thomas King

Keeping it Reel(ing)...What's it been......a week or two? The words have been flying thick and fast passed my head this week. The Project is underway. Mikhail Michajlovich Bakhtin rocks my world at the moment. To think that the world has this: "unfinshed becoming" it is Bakhtin but it could be the Venerable Milerepa. Perhaps there is hope for the world after all.....not of course if you judge by the images articulated from the idiot eye: TV. (Drug of a nation, breeding ignorance and feeding radiation). Perhaps it's time for an insert: An essay submitted recently to my sponsor, Umeå University on the magical articulation which is Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King:

“More to a story than just words.”
Thomas King

Instead of approaching this in a purely analytical sense and providing definitions and evidence I will attempt to keep with the spirit of the work and weave a series of connections based around the trope . By this I mean that there are identifiable themes that are consistent with my reading of the as trope. Among them, the didactic nature of the majority of the narrative, the “oral tradition” which is reflected in the dominance of conversational dialogue, attention to family and communal relations, and intertextuality from Indian History, all provide resistance to what could be termed ‘the traditional museum discourse’. Within the novel binary relations are pivotal to narrative. Characters, locations and historical events are juxtaposed in contrasting pairs (e.g. Tecumseh and Lum, Truth and Bright Water, Elvin and Franklin), and this applies to the trope.

In Truth and Bright Water the museum is figurative in a number of ways when we consider its primary functions in terms of: collecting preserving categorising re/presenting The largest (in terms of physical size) manifestation matching these criteria is the reservation itself. This is especially true when considered in relation to the “Indian Days” festival, which is described and planned throughout the novel. Those within and outside the ‘living museum’ manipulate the boundaries implicit in being ‘Indian’, where they apply and how they are manifest. “Everybody’s going crazy over traditional Indian stuff. I figure I can sell these for fifty bucks as fast as I can make them.” (King, P32), claims Elvin, who later states “Boy these days Indians are everywhere.” (King, P231). ‘Indian’ is a brand name, artefacts become commodities and if they are purchased in combination with a tourist experience they become even more ‘authentic’. However, despite a consistent appearance as a money orientated provider of Indian kitsch, he also realises boundaries saying, “What the hell do they expect?”…“It ain’t Disneyland.” (King, P234). The line between the appearance and the content is the boundary framing the . This is articulated in the objectification of the camera gaze; “All of the photographs were panoramas, landscapes, the sort of thing that you would expect tourists to take. But the neat thing was that everything in the distance, the rivers, the mountains, the clouds, the prairies, was slightly blurry and out of focus, while everything in the foreground, the steering wheel, the windshield wipers, the hood, was crisp and sharp.” (King, P155).

In contrast to the reservation the smallest manifestation matching the above criteria is the quilt of Tecumseh’s mother. “The geometric forms slowly softened and turned into freehand patterns that looked a lot like trees and mountains and people and animals, and before long my father said you could see Truth in one corner of the quilt and Bright Water in the other with the Shield flowing through the fabrics in tiny diamonds and fancy stitching.” (King, P61). Along with the collected artefacts (chicken feet and hair among them) the quilt forms a creative history/mythology (begun just after when Tecumseh was born) in the form of a museum of symbols. It is dangerous with razor blades, needles, and fish hooks attached but “it looked as if you’d be safe enough as long as you were under the quilt and were not moving around on the outside, trying to get in.” (King, P62). This is free of the camera gaze, but it is, like the reservation it depicts, a delineated construct, with an inside and an outside. This avoids the objectification of the museum culture as the antithesis of social solidarity where human beings are transformed into artifacts or actors in the living museum, the subjects of the tourist camera gaze. This is a family or communal artifact, with characters speculating on the meaning of symbols and features changing to mirror the changing narrative.

The confluence of the trope, as juxtaposed in the two above examples is crossed over by Monroe Swimmer. He first hints at subversion with a rhetorical question “You know what they keep in museums?” and the answer given, “Old stuff from the past?” is just “what they want you to think.” (King, P133). He begins with the restoration of the ‘living museum’, the reservation, by the rubbing out of the church and the return of buffalo. He further challenges the museum discourse by restoring bones of Indian children to “the centre of the universe” (King, p251) from “the drawers and boxes and stuck away on dusty shelves.” (King, p250). The climax of the text is Monroe Swimmer’s potlatch (1.) in an oppositional binary to the plunder of the traditional museum, as described through the stories of Monroe Swimmer. "The theory of the gift is a theory of social solidarity. Through gift giving social bonds are created, individuals are joined, sharing with each other the back and forth of the social power that is associated with the gifts exchanged. It places the individual into a structure of total services” (2.) This placing of individuals into structure is consistent with the (restored or communal) trope as illustrated by the quilt, the return of the Indian children’s bones, and the “Indian village slowly coming up through the layers of paint. Clear as day.” (King, p129) in what could be called Monroe’s ‘Smithsonian Parable’.

1.Potlatch: (Chinook jargon, from Nootka, patshatl: giving], a ceremonial feast of the Indians of the Northwest coast marked by the host's lavish distribution of gifts requiring reciprocation Source: Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary)

2. David L. R. Kosalka Georges Bataille and the Notion of Gift 12/99 at

Thomas King Truth and Bright Water (New York: Grove Press, 1999)

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