Academic journal article American Studies International

As Long as the Waters Shall Run: The "Obstructed Water" Metaphor in American Indian Fiction

Academic journal article American Studies International

As Long as the Waters Shall Run: The "Obstructed Water" Metaphor in American Indian Fiction

Article excerpt

   "Hmmmm," says Coyote. "All this water imagery must mean something." (Thomas 
   King 1993, 293). 

An Indian and his grandson take a walk into the mountains to see a dam built across a sacred valley. The old man cannot believe what he has heard--that men could erect a structure able to stop the movement of living water. When he arrives, he cannot even believe the evidence of his own eyes. The mouth of the canyon has been wounded, a wedge of concrete driven into it. The hillside has been cut and gouged. Plumes of white mist no longer rise into the air. The forested basin and the deer it sheltered have disappeared. In their place is a dead body of black water. The music of the tumbling stream has been replaced by a deafening roar and the shrill whine of machinery. In frustration and anger, the man raises his rifle and fires into the concrete structure. Thus opens D'Arcy McNickle's novel, Wind from an Enemy Sky ([1978] 1988, 1-7). And, with this action, he sets in motion the tragic chain of events forming the novel's plot. Not only is he beginning the narrative, he is also introducing what will become a frequent and important metaphor in modern American Indian fiction, that of "obstructed water".

There are obvious associations dams might well hold for Native Americans--destruction of reservation lands, abrogation of treaty rights, exploitation of Indians for the benefit of the non-Indian populace. In addition, there are commonly ascribed attributes of water--universal element; mediator between earth and air; ongoing and discernable cyclic process; origin and sustainer of life; cleansing agent; unfathomable deep. Both of these sets of references imply extreme unwisdom, injuriousness, or injustice in impeding or even interfering with its natural movement. Beyond these relationships clearly suggested by the choice of symbol, each author who uses it develops this "shared metaphor" in a highly personal way. Furthermore, each adds to the universal connections usually made with water characteristic Native American associations.

An examination of the obstructed-water metaphor in the works of Linda Hogan, Thomas King, D'Arcy McNickle, and Louis Owens reveals the complexity of this symbol for each of the authors and the ramifications of its meanings, stated and implied. Each expands the metaphor so as to communicate a coherent Native American world view and a powerful critique of white society, while, at the same time, conveying a highly personal sensibility. By looking at McNickle's Runner in the Sun (1954) and Wind from an Enemy Sky (1978); Owens' Wolfsong (1991) and Nightland (1996); King's Green Grass, Running Water (1993); and Hogan's Solar Storms (1995) together, we gain a clearer understanding of this collective metaphor, the themes it conveys, and its importance for contemporary American Indian literature.

Even before his novel about the social, economic, political, personal, and psychological repercussions of a monstrous dam built on Indian lands (Wind from an Enemy Sky), D'Arcy McNickle had explored the theme of obstructed water. Runner in the Sun, an ethnohistorical portrayal of the Southwestern cliff dwellers, shows the complete dependence of their society upon an adequate supply of water. The ruins of prosperous villages perched in clefts of canyon walls throughout the American Southwest constitute a mystery for us today, since no one living knows for sure the reason for their abandonment. In McNickle's novel, a long period of drought becomes a plausible solution to the mystery. Known in his day chiefly as anthropologist and historian, McNickle was certainly aware that this is one of the many contested theories offered in explanation of the phenomenon. He would also have known that some kind of conflict or threat of conflict, whether emanating from outside or within, is an alternative hypothesis.

The original twist that McNickle gives to his unraveling of the mystery is to combine these two theories. …

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