In many Native American cultures, ceremonies of sacrifice and renewal are an annual activity used to promote community and individual well being. In the novel Green Grass, Running Water, Thomas King suggests that when one is able to fully accept one’s own self and/or cultural traditions, a renewal celebration or regeneration of the spirit may give the individual’s life direction or guidance in previously misguided areas. The Native American Sun Dance is a celebration where the sacrifice of past difficulties and misdirected ideals and/or paths may cause the participants to gain strength and understanding in their lives . This is also a time to celebrate how the world was once created and to insure harmony between all living things. Thomas King proves this thesis using the characters Alberta, and Lionel.
Alberta Frank is a Native American woman teaching native studies to a small group of “white” students at the University of Calgary. This Native American woman is lecturing on the “destruction aimed at . . . reservations,” a topic integral to her life, and one from which a great deal of passion should be generated. However, her uninspiring and spiritless lesson causes “certain individuals” to “fall asleep,” sit “virtually in each other’s laps,” and enter into a private “conversation.” Indirectly her lecture touches upon an important religious celebration of the Native American culture, the Sun Dance. She depicts the Sun Dance, which celebrates the creation of earth and all of its components, as a trivial and meaningless component of her people’s culture. Even though she portrays such a momentous occasion as inconsequential, its inclusion in her lecture is an unconscious admission to herself of how her own desire for inner peace can be realized through this cultural celebration. Alberta closes her lecture by wishing her class a good long weekend, then departs for “home.”
Alberta is discontent with her relationships and herself. She is dating two men, Lionel and Charlie. When either starts “talking commitment,” or begins “hinting about spending more time together,” she avoids them for “two or three weekends in a row.” Alberta’s reaction to her possible pregnancy is “I’m not pregnant.” Therefore, it is with escape from commitment and responsibility in mind that Alberta decides to go home to the reservation for the weekend. Even though she professes that she is going for “Lionel’s birthday,” she is in actuality going home to once again avoid having to relinquish a part of herself by surrendering to Charlie’s desire for commitment. It is only by chance that Alberta is returning home to her original community at the time of the Sun Dance.
Alberta recognizes within her a desire to start and raise a family. She begins to see a need to “swallow her fears” and accept what she can accomplish out of life. To do this, she will need the help of friends and family. To accept help from others she will need to forgo her fear of commitment, accept certain parts of herself and her culture, because after all “Family’s a great thing.” To acknowledge this pregnancy Alberta would be making an important sacrifice, she would be giving up a part of herself for another human being. Alberta’s -acceptance of herself leads her to decide to “come along” to the Sun Dance. Here she is able to cleanse and redeem her past and consequently empower and bless the future. The dance is not only for the empowerment and self -transcendence of the individual in need of self-redemption, but also for the well being of family, community, planet and life in general.
Lionel is a Native American who “had made only three mistakes in his entire life, the kinds of mistakes that seem small enough at the time, but somehow get out of hand. The kinds that stay with you for a long time. And he could name each one.” Throughout his life, Lionel allows these simple yet powerful mistakes to govern himself and his opinions. Each mistake demonstrates how Lionel has always denied his own self by trying to become someone he isn’t. The first mistake occurred when he agreed that he “must be the lucky young man who won the free plane ride.” Rather than admitting he wasn’t he said “That’s me . . .When do we go?”
As a university student who is working for the “Department of Indian Affairs,” and eager to impress his supervisor, Lionel agrees to “give a paper at a conference on Indian education” that his boss was unable to deliver. Expecting “twenty-five or thirty teachers and bureaucrats,” he is shocked to find “a room jammed with Indians dressed in jeans and ribbon shirts. All the chairs were taken, and half the crowd was standing or leaning against the walls or sitting on the floor. Most everyone had a beaded leather headband.” He was the “white man” in a room full of “Native people.” All of his life Lionel had idolized John Wayne, a white “cowboy” who was well known for killing “Indians” in the movies. Here he stood as John Wayne “in his three piece suit” in this room of Native Americans giving a paper about “The History of Cultural Pluralism in Canada’s Boarding Schools.” The group of individuals assembled would have more than likely been exposed to the principles being presented and hold views in complete opposition to those being discussed. Ultimately he realizes that he was sent as a “white” Native American to give this biased paper.
Ironically, this incident leads to his unwilling participation as a fellow Native American in a “rally that was to take place at the state capital.” This involuntary act “took eleven stitches . . . four days in jail until the police could verify his identity, and despite his pleas, another five days in jail for disturbing the peace,” to finally be resolved.
This unfortunate “mistake” causes Lionel to drop out of university and leads to his “third mistake,” taking a job at “Bill Bursum’s Home Entertainment Barn.” By simply taking a job at a store that advertises the exploitation of anything that might be of public interest, Lionel is unknowingly denying a part of his culture. The Sun Dance does not allow any form of recording devices or cameras.
It is not until Lionel runs into “four old Indians” who are “trying to fix up the world,” that he begins to put aside the “white man” in him, “fix up” his past mistakes and community image. After he meets the four Indians, he begins to realize all of the things his family has done for him. “It was Norma who had given Lionel the key to Alberta.” She advised him to “stop talking about cars and other guys and sex and start talking about babies . . . Don’t say squat about marriage. She’ll make up her own mind about that, and if she’s interested, she’ll let you know.” Until he came home, coincidentally around the time of the Sun Dance, he did not realize he “had become embarrassing. His job was embarrassing. His gold blazer was embarrassing. His car was embarrassing. Norma was right. Alberta wasn’t about to marry an embarrassment.” By realizing “he did not want to look at what he had become-middle aged, overweight, unsuccessful,” he decides to begin to make “things change.” The realization that family is important and his own integrity is worth fighting for, opens him up to the idea of once again participating in the Sun Dance. When his uncle asks “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?,” he responds that most of his life he had been “here. In Blossom.” With that, Lionel is taken off and told that it is about time he went “Native,” he is then taken to the Sun Dance where he feels contented and “peaceful, as if the rest of the world, . . . had all disappeared.”
The significance of the Sun Dance in the lives of those connected and of those who participate, is one of importance. This ritual sacrifice of misguided ideas and/or paths creates kinships within both the social and individual components of the participants. Thomas King uses the characters Alberta and Lionel to show that when one is able to accept himself/herself and their own cultural heritage, a celebration such as the Native American Sun Dance may prepare an individual for a new life direction and/or acceptance in previously misdirected views. Whatever the motivation for the sacrifice, which is one of the key ideas and activities behind the Sun Dance, those who participate out of their own free will achieve personal power which will not only assure the accomplishment of desired outcomes but which will bring them a richer and more meaning full life as a member of their society. The meaning and significance of the Sun Dance is shown well in this quote from the essays of Montaigne, “The value of life lies not in the length of days, but in the use we make of them: a man may live long, yet get little from life. Whether you find satisfaction in life depends not on your tale of years, but on your will.”