Apparently, the subject of the Massey Lecture Thomas King delivered Wed., Nov. 12 at the University of Calgary was excessively broad.
When pressed, King admits that his lecture, the fourth in a five-part series entitled The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, was about more than just that. It seems he was preparing to speak on the differences between the Native oral tradition of passing on stories and the Western tradition of writing them down, and how those separate traditions affect the pasts, presents and futures of those societies.
Author, educator, and humorist, King is a master of both the oral and written methods, which is best demonstrated by his most important work, 1993’s Green Grass, Running Water. The tale, set primarily in Alberta, is part creation myth, part Columbus story, and part ecological standpoint. Many find it a challenging read because of the way King combines the oral and written traditions and story structures. He also incorporates spiritualism into what seems, early in the book, to be a conventional fable of Natives trying to come to terms with their roots while living on and off the Blackfoot reserve.
Now a Canadian citizen, King was born in California to a Greek mother and Cherokee father. However, it was the pursuit of the unknown that led him to identify primarily with his Native ancestry.
“I didn’t know my father,” King recalls. “So I guess it was that that made me want to learn more about that part of my heritage.”
While the pursuit of his Native legacy might have been somewhat obvious, King followed a different route to find his home in Canada.
He was an instructor at the University of Utah, where he earned his PhD in English Literature, when a former colleague invited him to teach at the University of Lethbridge. Initially hesitant, King made the decision to come north for one year.
While in Lethbridge, King met a woman who encouraged him to stay. Twenty-three years later, King is not only still with that woman, he has become a Canadian citizen and entwined himself in the national cultural fabric through his books, such as Green Grass, Running Water and Truth & Bright Water, and his radio comedy series The Dead Dog Cafe.
While he laughs at the idea that he has become a Canadian institution, King is proud to be presenting the 2003 Massey Lecture series.
“It’s a huge honour,” he gushes. “I thought maybe I might get a Governor General’s Award or, at the most, at the very most, maybe I’d win the Giller Prize. But I never imagined I’d give a Massey Lecture.”
Since 1961, CBC Radio’s Massey Lectures have been an integral part of Canada’s public discourse. In presenting a Massey Lecture, King joins such intellectual luminaries as John Kenneth Galbraith, Martin Luther King, Noam Chomsky and John Ralston Saul.