Stories can be both wondrous and dangerous, according to writer Thomas King

IDEAS revisits one of the best Massey Lectures, delivered by award-winning author Thomas King. He draws listeners in with his witty and colourful insights into the stories we tell each other. But as an Indigenous man, he knows their sinister capabilities, too.

IDEAS revisits the enduring message of King's powerful 2003 Massey Lecture

Novelist Thomas King draws listeners in with his witty and profound insights, examining the stories we tell each other. As an Indigenous man he sees storytelling in all its power — as a force for connection, or for division. (Trina Koster/Canadian Press)

With a year's deadline and predecessors that include Martin Luther King and Northrop Frye, an offer to take on the Massey Lectures was not a slam dunk for Thomas King back in 2003.

"I said no at first because I didn't think I could do it,' King tells IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed, from his home in Guelph, Ontario.

Thomas King illustrates how stories are the key to human understanding in The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. (House of Anansi Press)

But after his partner urged him to reconsider, King says, "I started thinking about story….The value of story, and the power of story." 

The result is a wide-ranging and ever enduring set of five talks called The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. They focus on how "the stories we tell create our world...and us."

"Stories are wondrous things," says the award-winning author and scholar in his Massey Lecture. "And they are dangerous."

King downplays the significance of being the first Indigenous Massey Lecturer.

"(I thought) I'd like to hear a Native voice, but it didn't have to be mine, particularly."  But he acknowledges its meaning for others.

His talks are centred in Indigenous stories, experience, and identity — even as they address and implicate everyone listening.

The lectures were collected in a book, also called The Truth About Stories, published by House of Anansi. They were a source of inspiration to journalist and author Tanya ​​​​​​Talaga, the 2018 Massey Lecturer. 

She notes King's "humour, his keen eye and his ability to get under our skin and bash around what it means to be an Indigenous person, what it means to be human and the moral and spiritual responsibilities we carry."

For better and worse, the truth about stories, says Thomas King, is "that's all we are."

And what we do with them is our own decision, as King tells us at the end of each lecture.

His first talk — which explores his own family history, as well as Indigenous and biblical creation stories — is called: 'You'll Never Believe What Happened' is Always a Great Place to Start.

Lecture 2: 'You're Not the Indian I Had in Mind'

In the second lecture, Thomas King delivers a complex consideration of Indigenous identity. He grounds it in tales of his youth in California, and from his own performative experiments with appearance.

There is also the story of his early work as a photographer in Australia and New Zealand in the 1960s, where he saw blunt and dehumanizing expressions of racism towards Aboriginal and Native people from white locals.

Alongside this is an analysis of white ethnologist Edward Curtis' early 20th century journey to create historical images of — in his eyes —  a dying people. King describes his ongoing series of portraits of Indigenous artists, in all of their numbers and diversity.

You can see that work here.

"I may never finish the project, said King in his 2003 lecture, but "the photographs themselves are no longer the issue...What's important are the stories I've heard along the way. The stories I've told.

"Stories we make up to try and set the world straight."

Lecture 3: 'Let Me Entertain You'

In King's third talk, he reflects on the stories that outsiders tell about Indigenous people, and the ways that Indigenous experience can become a kind of entertainment for white audiences.

Thomas King relates the story of Ishi, a Native man in California left without family or community, who became a kind of mascot and "museum curiosity" for the local public at the turn of the 20th century. 

In the 60's, Thomas King found himself an in-demand speaker on college campuses. (Photo submitted by Harper Collins Canada)

King also tells the story of telling the story of Ishi, on occasions in the 1960s when King was asked to speak on Native issues on American college campuses. 

"Tonight only," King jokes pointedly,"white depredations, Indian deprivations. You'll laugh, you'll cry. Wine and cheese reception to follow."

Running parallel is an analysis of the centuries of dehumanizing descriptions and assessments of Native people given by North American colonists, historians, and authors.

There is this kind of overt racist characterization, but subtler examples, too. All of it is a kind of "historical propaganda," King says: one that leads to a reductive view of Indigenous people — then, and now. 

"There is a brand of entertainment that can be crippling. And a brand...that can be enlightening," King told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed recently.

"And sometimes we don't know the difference between the two."

Lecture 4: 'A Million Porcupines Crying in the Dark'

Please note: this lecture mentions and discusses depression, abuse, and suicide. You can find local sources of help through The Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention website.

In his fourth lecture in The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, Thomas King looked at the centuries of harmful stories told about Indigenous people by outsiders: from 17th century Dutch colonists to 21st century white journalists. 

Now, he turns to the stories that Native people tell about themselves, both orally, and in print.

Speaking in 2003, before even the latest wave of books by Indigenous authors, Thomas King details innumerable examples of such writing across North America.

Robert Alexie's novel Porcupines and China Dolls explores the lives of students forced into residential schools. (Theytus Books)

Having been consigned to a white version of history, Native writers instead "began to use the Native present as a way to resurrect a Native past, and to imagine a Native future," explains King.

At times, that reckoning with the past can be searing. Thomas King speculates about the traumas that may have haunted a friend and fellow author, Louis Owens, who took his own life.

But King also considers how writing for Native readers can offer liberating possibilities around the past. 

Such is the case with Robert Alexie's 2002 novel, Porcupines and China Dolls, about residential school students.

The novel uses "repetition, hyperbole, and orality as storytelling strategies," and despite the horrors of its subject, creates "a humour song of sorts."

Stories like these, as with the personal anecdotes that he tells throughout this lecture, are "saving stories," the ones that help keep Thomas King — and perhaps others — alive.

Lecture 5: "What Is It About Us That You Don't Like?"

For his fifth Massey Lecture, writer Thomas King turns to what he considers a major threat to the existence of Indigenous people.

As he wryly comments in the final talk in The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative: "No need to send in the cavalry with guns blazing. Legislation will do just as nicely."

He analyzes how the Canadian and American governments have legislated Indigenous people to give up what is theirs, from treaty land and its resources, to Indigenous identity itself.

In his talk, King makes a parallel through his version of a traditional Coyote story, in which the sly animal wheedles an entire coat's worth of feathers from some ducks.

Speaking in 2003, Thomas King criticizes the U.S. Indian Arts and Crafts Act, and Canada's Bill C-31, for their governmental paternalism in deciding who actually qualifies for Native status.

The approach, he says, is "Whom will we allow to be an Indian?" The result, he says, is fewer and fewer Indians. 

There have been some amendments to Bill C-31 in the almost two decades since these talks were given. 

As well, Indigenous people have spoken their truth to Canada, through protests, actions, and official reports such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Residential school survivor Lorna Standingready is comforted by a fellow survivor in the audience during the closing ceremony of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in Ottawa on June 3, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

More Indigenous writers and activists are also speaking out and telling their stories. Yet politicians still, according to King, avoid meaningful action.

Indigenous stories may, at times, foster understanding with the wider Canadian public. 

"Stories have helped in that area. I just don't know how much further they go, and how permanent those kinds of effects are," King recently told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed.

At 77-years-old, and having witnessed the lack of change, the Guelph, Ontario-based author sometimes despairs about his work.

"I've gotten to a point where I've asked the last couple of years...Should I keep writing?...I get discouraged."

Yet he continues to tell stories and write books:  both for his grandchildren, and because it is what Thomas King does.

  "If I stop doing that, I stop doing."

The book version of Thomas King's Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, is available. It is published by House of Anansi.

Thomas King's most recent books are the novel Obsidian, and a poetry collection called 77 Fragments of a Familiar Ruin. He also has a new novel forthcoming in August 2020.

* This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.