[(essay date summer 1998) In the following essay, Smith explores the role of Coyote as a postmodern trickster in Green Grass, Running Water.]
[T]rickster stories point to the way ordinary, conventional reality is an illusory construction produced out of a particular univocal interpretation of phenomena appearing as signs. This deeper wisdom about the linguisticality of our constructed world and the illusoriness of that construction is where trickster stories open onto the sacred.--Anne Doueihi, "Inhabiting the Space Between Discourse and Story in Trickster Narratives," in Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts and Criticisms
Among the numerous chimerical developments to occur in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water (1993), perhaps the most telling occurs as the four old Indians at the center of the novel alter the outcome of the allegedly famous John Wayne western The Mysterious Warrior.1 Having traipsed from a Florida hospital to the Blackfoot reserve in Canada, the four-hundred-year-old Indians have set out in an effort to "change the world." Reckoning that the "classic" movie is as good a place as any to start, the old ones stealthily alter the "well-known" final scene of the movie as it unfolds amid the immense video wall of Wild Bill Bursum's Home Entertainment Center. While the assembled watch, John Wayne and his costar, Richard Widmark, suffer a cinematic death usually reserved for Indians. Seemingly cornered and vanquished amid the stark expanse of Monument Valley, the Indians who had been pursued by the Cavalry for the entire movie "began to shoot back, and soldiers began falling over:
Sometimes two or three soldiers would drop at once, clutching their chests or their stomachs. ... John Wayne looked down and stared stupidly at the arrow in his thigh, shaking his head in amazement and disbelief as two bullets ripped through his chest and out the back of his jacket. Richard Widmark collapsed face down in the sand, his hands clutching at an arrow buried in his throat.2
Present among the witnesses to this magical event, besides the four old Indians--Eli, his nephew Lionel, Charley Looking Bear, and the hapless Bursum--is trickster Coyote, whose gleeful response is a resounding "Yahoo!"3
Indeed, the moment is telling for it delightfully alludes to the ways in which King's Coyote intervenes at the level of perception, and challenges us to conceive of new, even audacious possibilities. Coyote's "Yahoo!" signals the subversive reversal of the culturally resonant image of John Wayne felling Indians. New stories emerge in the process; old stories change. In a similar way, Coyote and the four old ones mischievously subvert and entangle a variety of other stories in Green Grass--stories ultimately bound up in the cultural processes of signification and representation itself.
From this perspective, King's Coyote can be viewed as intervening in the semiotic realm--a realm where cultural signifiers and politicized discursive structures produce meaning and coherent stories. Coyote thus exemplifies a "semiotic trickster," a version of what Gerald Vizenor has termed a "comic holotrope." As a comically disruptive sign, Coyote forces us to...