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Troubling Tricksters

Revisioning Critical Conversations

Edited by Deanna Reder & Linda M. Morra
Subjects Cultural Studies, Literary Criticism, Indigenous Studies
Series Indigenous Studies Hide Details
Paperback : 9781554581818, 348 pages, February 2010
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781554582907, 348 pages, February 2010


Excerpt from Troubling Tricksters: Revisioning Critical Conversations edited by Deanna Reder and Linda M. Morra

From What's the Trouble with the Trickster? An Introduction by Kristina Fagan

I must admit that, when first asked to contribute to this collection of essays on the trickster, I was apprehensive. My first encounter with trickster figures had been in the late 1990s when I was writing my dissertation on humour in Indigenous literature in Canada. At that time, the trickster was a particularly trendy topic among critics and it seemed, as Craig Womack recently put it, that “there were tricksters in every teapot” (“Integrity” 19). Focusing on the trickster seemed to appeal to literary critics as an approach that was fittingly “Native”. The trouble was that the trickster archetype was assumed to be an inevitable part of Indigenous cultures, and so the criticism paid little attention to the historical and cultural specifics of why and how particular Indigenous writers were drawing on particular mythical figures. As a result, the critics' trickster became an entity so vague it could serve just about any argument. Unsatisfied with much of the critical work on the trickster, I critiqued it in a section of my dissertation entitled,”What's the Trouble with the Trickster”? As I recently re-read that piece, I could see, in retrospect, the ways in which the troubles in the trickster criticism of the 1990s reflected broader problems in the study of Native literature at that time. I also realized that these problems have since then been articulated and begun to be addressed by the movement known as Indigenous (or American Indian) Literary Nationalism. I have therefore revised the original piece to give a sense of how the critical treatment of the trickster has fit into and reflected the developing study of Indigenous literature, from the 1990s to the present.

I want to separate clearly the creative depiction of figures such as Coyote and Nanabush from literary criticism about “the trickster”. The work of many Indigenous writers in Canada—including such influential figures as Thomas King, Tomson Highway, Beth Brant, Daniel David Moses, and Lenore Keeshig- Tobias—has included mythical figures that could be described as tricksters. And some of these writers have used the term “the trickster” when describing their creative work, in some cases making strong claims for the importance of the trickster, and of a connected “comic worldview”, to Indigenous peoples. In Canada, the most famous spokesperson for the trickster-worldview theory is Tomson Highway, who has repeatedly asserted that Christ is to Western culture as the trickster is to Native culture (Highway XII, quoted in Hunt 59 and in Hannon 41): “One mythology says that we're here to suffer; the other states that we're here for a good time” (quoted in Hannon 41). Later in this essay, I explore some possible reasons for this popularity of tricksters among contemporary Indigenous writers in Canada.

The object of my critique is not the Indigenous writers' use of tricksters, much of it emerging in the 1990s, that seeks to explain this use: Allan Ryan's The Trickster Shift (1999), Kenneth Lincoln's Ind'in Humor (1993), and many essays asserted the “trickster spirit” in Indigenous creative work. 2 Any humorous work by an Indigenous author seemed to be considered the result of a trickster influence. We can see this single-minded approach to Indigenous humour when, for instance, Blanca Chester claimed that “Native satire . . . is always connected to the trickster” (51, italics mine) and Drew Hayden Taylor pronounced,”while the physical manifestation of Nanabush, the trickster, appears in precious few plays, his spirit permeates almost all work presented as Native theatre” (512, italics mine). The working assumption seemed to be that the trickster was hiding in every work of Indigenous literature and it was the critic's job to find him. 3

Table of contents

Table of Contents for
Troubling Tricksters: Revisioning Critical Conversations, edited by Deanna Reder and Linda M. Morra

Preface | Deanna Reder

A Preface: Ruminations About Troubling Tricksters | Linda Morra

Looking Back to the “Trickster Moment”

What’s the Trouble with the Trickster? An Introduction | Kristina Fagan

Trickster Reflections: Part I | Niigonwedom James Sinclair

The Trickster Moment, Cultural Appropriation, and the Liberal Imagination in Canada | Margery Fee

The Anti-Trickster in the Work of Sheila Watson, Mordecai Richler, and Gail Anderson-Dargatz | Linda Morra


Why Ravens Smile to Little Old Ladies as They Walk By | Richard Van Camp

Gasps, Snickers, Narrative Tricks, and Deceptive Dominant Ideologies: The Transformative Energies of Richard Van Camp’s “Why Ravens Smil to Little Old Ladies as They Walk By . ..“ and/in the Classroom | Jennifer Kelly

A Conversation with Christopher Kientz | Linda Morra

Personal Totems | Sonny Assu

Rigoreau, Nappi, and Wesakecak

Dances with Rigoureau | Warren Cariou

Naapi in My World | Eldon Yellowhorn

Sacred Stories in Comic [Book] Form: A Cree Reading of Darkness Calls | Deanna Reder

Coyote and Nanabush

“Coyote Sees the Prime Minister” and “Coyote Goes to Toronto” | Thomas King

Excerpt from Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit | Jo-ann Archibald

(Re)Nationalizing Naanabozho: Anishinaabe Sacred Stories, Nationalist Literary Criticism, and Scholarly Responsibility | Daniel Morley Johnson

Quincentennial Trickster Poetics: Lenore Keeshig-Tobias’s “Trickster Beyond 1992: Our Relationship” (1992) and Annharte Baker’s “Coyote Columbus Cafe” (1994) | Judith Leggatt

Trickster Reflections: Part II | Niigonwedom James Sinclair

Telling Stories Across Lines

Processual Encounters of the Transformative Kind: Spiderwoman Theatre, Trickster, and the First Act of “Survivance” | Jill Carter

Diasporic Violences, Uneasy Friendships, and The Kappa Child | Christine Kim

“How I Spent My Summer Vacation”: History, Story, and the Cant of Authenticity | Thomas King


Appendix I: The Magazine to Re-establish the Trickster, Front Page

Appendix II: Let’s be Our Own Tricksters, Eh | Lenore Keeshig-Tobias

Copyright Acknowledgements

List of Contributors


Contributors’ Biographies

Jo-ann Archibald (Sto:lo) is the Associate Dean for Indigenous Education at the University of British Columbia and the Acting Director of the Native Indian Teacher Education Program. She has recently released Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body and Spirit (2008).

Sonny Assu (Laich-kwil-tach) received his BFA from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 2002 and his certificate in Multimedia Studies from UBC in 2004. He has held solo exhibits at Equinox and the Belkin Satellite Gallery and group exhibits at several galleries.

Warren Cariou (Métis) is the Canada Research Chair in Narrative, Community and Indigenous Cultures at the University of Manitoba, where he also directs the Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture. He has published fiction, nonfiction, and criticism dealing mainly with Métis culture.

Jill Carter (Anishinaabekwe) is completing her dissertation, Repairing the Web: Spiderwoman’s Grandchildren Staging the New Human Being at the Graduate Centre for Study of Drama (University of Toronto). She has published in Canadian Woman Studies/Les Cahiers de la Femme: Indigenous Women in Canada (26. 3,4) and Stanislavsky and Directing: Theory, Practice and Influence (Legas, 2008).

Kristina Fagan (Labrador-Métis) is an Associate Professor at the University of Saskatchewan and specializes in Aboriginal writing and storytelling in Canada. She has published articles on methodology in the study of aboriginal literature and on the depiction of aboriginal people in settler-Canadian literature. Her current research is on autobiography and storytelling among her people, the Labrador Métis. She is also increasingly interested in oral traditions and the ways in which the study of such traditions challenge our usual methods of literary analysis.

Margery Fee is a Professor of English at the University of British Columbia. She has been specializing in post-colonial studies, particularly in the comparison of Indigenous literatures in Australia, New Zealand-Aotearoa, and Canada, since the early 1990s. Recently she has been writing about racializing narratives associated with the “‘Aboriginal’ thrifty gene. ” She is the editor of Canadian Literature.

Daniel Morley Johnson is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta, where he has taught courses in the Faculty of Native Studies. He has also taught at Maskwachees Cultural College in Hobbema. His dissertation is a Cree literary history. Johnson is a graduate of the Aboriginal Studies program at the University of Toronto.

Jennifer Kelly teaches in the International Indigenous Studies Program at the University of Calgary. Her interests include Indigenous Literatures and Interpretive/Pedagogical Practices, Indigenous Film, and Research Ethics. She is co-coordinator (with Delia Cross Child, Ramona Big Head, and Georgette Fox) of “You May Laugh”: Surviving, Remembering, and Transforming Residential School Experience, with members of the Kainai Nation, Southern Alberta.

Chris Kientz (Cherokee) traces his Native ancestry back to the Eastern Cherokee nation of Tennessee and the Dawes Rolls. He has worked as an independent producer and animator, developing multimedia projects for commercial clients in both Canada and the United States for over ten years. He has scripted, produced, and directed award-winning video, animation, interactive media and web sites for numerous clients. Growing up among the Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi people of New Mexico gave Chris a great respect for North American Aboriginal Art and Culture. Raven Tales represents the culmination of this interest.

Christine Kim is an Assistant Professor in the department of English at Simon Fraser University. Her teaching and research focus on Asian North American literature and theory, contemporary Canadian literature, and diasporic writing. She has recently published articles in Open Letter, Studies in Canadian Literature, and Asian Canadian Writing Beyond Autoethnography (WLU Press, 2008). She is currently working on a book-length project titled From Multiculturalism to Globalization: The Cultural Politics of Asian Canadian Writing and is co-editing a collection of essays called Cultural Grammars of Nation, Diaspora and Indigeneity.

Thomas King (Cherokee) is a Professor of Native literature and Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. He is renowned for writing such novels as Medicine River and Green Grass, Running Water. He gave the 2003 Massey Lecture, “The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative. ”

Judith Leggatt is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Lakehead University. She teaches postcolonial, First Nations, Canadian, and women’s literatures and has published articles on Lee Maracle, Salman Rushdie, and postcolonial pedagogy. Her present research interests include the representations of dirt and disease in First Nations literature, and the intersections of science fiction and postcolonialism.

Linda Morra, Associate Professor in the Department of English at Bishop’s University, specializes in Canadian Studies/Literature with a particular focus on twentieth-century Canadian writers. Her publications include a book of the letters of Emily Carr and Ira Dilworth (Corresponding Influence, 2006), an anthology about Marshall McLuhan (At the Speed of Light There is Only Illumination, 2004), and essays about Tomson Highway, Jack Hodgins, and Mordecai Richler.

Deanna Reder (Cree-Métis) holds a joint appointment as Assistant Professor in Simon Fraser University’s First Nations Studies Program and Department of English. Her main fields of study are Indigenous literary theories and autobiography theory with a particular focus on Cree and Métis life writing. She has recently published on Edward Ahenakew in Studies in Canadian Literature and was recently appointed series editor for the Aboriginal Studies series at Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Steve Sanderson (Cree) is a member of the James Smith Cree Nation. Sanderson is currently located in Vancouver where he works as an animator. The front cover image for Troubling Tricksters: Revisioning Critical Conversations as well as the front cover image for the WLU Press Fall/Winter 2009 Catalogue is from his comic book entitled Darkness Calls distributed by The Healthy Aboriginal Network.

Niigonwedom James Sinclair (Anishinabe) is a graduate of the Native American Literatures program at the University of Oklahoma and is currently a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at the University of British Columbia. His dissertation is an Anishinaabeg literary history. He is originally from Ste. Peter’s (Little Peguis) Indian Reserve in Manitoba. His creative work has appeared in Prairie Fire and Tales from Mocassin Avenue: An Anthology of Native Stories, while his critical work will appear in two anthologies in 2009 and 2010. He also writes a monthly column entitled “Birchbark Bitings” in Urban NDN, Manitoba’s monthly alternative Native newspaper.

Richard Van Camp is a proud member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation from Fort Smith, NWT, Canada. A graduate of the En'owkin International School of Writing, the University of Victoria’s Creative Writing BFA Program, and the Master’s Degree in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, Richard currently teaches creative writing with an Aboriginal focus at the University of British Columbia. His novel, The Lesser Blessed, will soon be a movie with First Generation Films. Director, Kelvin Redvers, has now completed the film adaptation of Richard Van Camp’s short story, “firebear called them faith healers,” with Cross Current Productions and will be screening the film at various film festivals internationally. Richard’s new collection of short stories, The Moon of Letting Go, will be released in 2009 and his new novel, Blessing Wendy, will be published in 2010.

Eldon Yellowhorn (Piikani) is an Associate Professor in archeology and the program chair in First Nations Studies at Simon Fraser University. Currently he is working toward defining the tenets and objectives of indigenous archaeology and examining its contributions to archaeological theory.


Troubling Tricksters is a collection of theoretical essays, creative pieces, and critical ruminations that provides a re-visioning of trickster criticism in light of recent backlash against it. The complaints of some Indigenous writers, the critique from Indigenous nationalist critics, and the changing of academic fashion have resulted in few new studies on the trickster. For example, The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature (2005), includes only a brief mention of the trickster, with skeptical commentary. And, in 2007, Anishinaabe scholar Niigonwedom Sinclair (a contributor to this volume) called for a moratorium on studies of the trickster irrelevant to the specific experiences and interests of Indigenous nations.

One of the objectives of this anthology is, then, to encourage scholarship that is mindful of the critic’s responsibility to communities, and to focus discussions on incarnations of tricksters in their particular national contexts. The contribution of Troubling Tricksters, therefore, is twofold: to offer a timely counterbalance to this growing critical lacuna, and to propose new approaches to trickster studies, approaches that have been clearly influenced by the nationalists’ call for cultural and historical specificity.


``Although the focus of the book is serious, the pieces themselves are lighthearted and engaging, especially the bawdy and irreverent trickster tales (traditional and contemporary). The reader comes away with a sense that the trickster is alive and present, not stored away in an ethnographic tome. This is a significant contribution to the robust field of Canadian indigenous studies and a welcome expansion of Canadian literary studies. ... Highly recommended. ''

- J. Ruppert, Choice, November 2010

``The term `trickster' has done much to illustrate the distinct nature of Indigenous literatures and narrative traditions. This volume examines the historical use of this term but also points out its limitations through the lens of Indigenous thought and philosophy. I will have all of my students read and study this important book. ''

- Neal McLeod, Trent University, Indigenous Studies

``The strength of Troubling Tricksters is its grounding in Native literary nationalism, studies that engage not only the literature, but the communities' ways of knowing and traditions from which the work grew. Many of the essays are situated in tribal-specific ways of knowing. ... Clearly, tricksters, in whatever guise, are still a force to be reckoned with. ''

- June Scudeler, Canadian Literature, December 2011

``Troubling Tricksters is a far-reaching text, promoting an innovative critical approach to the ‘trickster discourse’, and also, because of the presence of essays by Native scholars, constitutes the first step towards a more faithful interpretation of Indigenous literature. ''

- Giuseppina Botta, British Journal of Canadian Studies, Volume 24, #2, 2011

``With its impressive lineup of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars and creative writers, this volume demonstrates the fertility of the new, ethically engaged, Indigenous-centric literary critical model. ... The colleciton benefits from the presence of creative work by well-known Indigenous writers like King and also Richard Van Camp, whose risqué story ‘Why Ravens Smile to Little Old Ladies As They Walk By’ is included, then carefully analyzed within the classroom setting by Jennifer Kelly. With its discussion of Indigenous literary expression in a wide range of genres, its refreshing variety in discourse, and the intellectual precision of the majority of its contributions, Troubling Tricksters functions as an excellent illustration of the diversity and vitality of Indigenous literary studies as it is taking shape in the twenty-first century. ''

- Keavy Martin, English Studies in Canada, 36/4, December 2010

"From the opening question, `What's the Trouble with the Trickster?' to the concluding imperative, `Let's Be Our Own Tricksters, Eh,' the essays, interviews, poems, and stories in this collection signal an important new phase of trickster studies: one that is deeply historically and culturally grounded. Deanna Reder and Linda Morra have gathered the nineteen voices of scholars and artists, of storytellers and critics, of tricksters and troublemakers to reinvigorate critical conversations about Nanabush, Coyote, Rigoureau, Wesakecak, Raven, Glooscap, Naapi, and `the trickster'. Often with a captivating sense of humour and in highly readable prose, Troubling Tricksters follows the shift from `the trickster moment' of the 1980s to the ethical engagements of contemporary Indigenous theory. This timely intervention should become compulsory reading for anyone interested in literary studies in Canada today. "

- Laura Moss, associate professor, Department of English; associate editor,Canadian Literature; and director, International CanadianStudies Centre, University of British Columbia