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A Seat in the Garden

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The Humorous Depiction of Popular Stereotypes Revealing Cultural Problems and Barriers between Native Americans and non-Natives in Thomas King’s “A Seat in the Garden”

In the short story called “A Seat in the Garden” Thomas King plays with a range of popular White/Indian stereotypes touching upon the issues of ecology, ownership and culture. All the myths, illusions and stereotypes are humorously depicted in the setting of a garden where all different kinds of vegetables grow. The story begins with Joe noticing a Big Indian in his garden. The tall Indian that is naked to the waist appears to be a personification of all Indians that are heroes of westerns and adventure novels that represent a classical Indian as a warrior. Generally, these pieces of writing were produced by the White authors. The cultural origins of the Big Indians get uncovered in the end of the story – the figure is a way to make fun of the non-Native theories and assumptions along with their creators. The Big Indian turns out to be just a product of Joe’s and Red’s imagination, the embodiment of their non-Native fears and concerns as the invited three Indians do not see the Big Indian. It is interesting that Red always tries to compare the looks of the Big Indian to some Hollywood idols that typically represented Native Americans in the movies. That is done throughout the story, and it proves that the Big Indian is just a generalized character of the pictures of Indians and White myths about them. The last phrase of the story emphasizes the central problem of the cultural misconceptions created by the popular culture and stereotypical mindset and their consequences: “And there was an air about the man that made Red believe — believe with all his heart — that he had met this Indian before” (King 94).

The phrase that the Big Indian keeps on repeating is also quite famous. It was originally represented by W.P. Kinsella in his story “Shoeless Joe”. The phrase itself is not directly related to the main problem of the story but Kinsella used to be criticized for ‘stealing’ the local indigenous stories. The former resonance of the phrase is used by Thomas King to parody the stereotype of the relation of the Native Americans to the beyond and various forms of mystifications. Therefore, Kinsella’s phrase is used to stress how the image of Indians was faultily created and applied to reach the goals that had nothing to do with the interests of the nation. The bench is also a symbol behind the personal experience of the author. He uses the real personality of a Marxist nationalist called Robin Mathews who emphasized his compassion for Native Americans due to the mounting of a bench in his garden for them to enjoy their drinks. Surely, the author couldn’t ignore this humorous and ironical case from real life and incorporated it as a hidden message deeply into the roots of the story. Robin Mathews becomes the prototype of Red Mathews.  King applies stereotypes as metaphors to add colors into his story. Joe is scared of the Indian’s encroachment upon his garden but finally the figure is immaterial. Joe finds it out by falling down and cutting his face. When Joe contacted the police officer, he was told that the Indian might be drunk or drug abusing which is another stereotype that King plays on.

The role of Joe and Red has changed significantly by the end of the story. In the last paragraphs it is obvious that Joe and his friend Red have their minds in a haze. They are held hostages by their own prejudices and stereotypes, so they can’t stop seeing the imaginary Big Indian who is always repeating the same thing they cannot understand. The Indians they invited for help are smart and unbiased. Unlike Joe expects, they do not smell bad and they are not alcoholic or drug addicts. In fact, the invited Indians are abstainers unlike Joe and Red themselves. Once again, Red wrongly assumes that the three Indians are expected to know the ins and out of the Indian myths and culture but this is another fault of the popular White Man stereotype. When the dialogue goes on, it turns out that the Indians drive the mass media interest due to their engagement in the environmental campaign but Red thinks that it is rather connected with their alcoholism. The phrases “It’s good that these kinds of problems are brought to the public’s attention” and “Everyone’s got to help. Otherwise there’s going to be more garbage than people” confuse both parties on the matter (King 89).

The author involves stereotypes with symbolism, metaphoric approach and irony that is expressed in each Joe’s attempt to get rid of the mysterious trespasser. The used humorous stereotypes are the author’s instruments of showing how cultural translation and colonialism complete the ideas of the Native Americans who are critical of the White people’s attitude towards nature. King also drives the reader’s attention to the absurdness of the boundaries between colonized Native people and the colonizers. Thomas King reverses the readers’ expectations by setting the main heroes as fools. At the beginning of the story, each reader expects the Native Indian to urge for the things that White Man expects him to urge for. It may be food or the desire to re-divide property. The mystic effect is added with the help of the repeating phrase, and the reader may make a suggestion that the house is somewhat connected to the spirits of Indians, and the Big Indian came to punish Joe for something. However, the reader is completely surprised at the end, and the special charm of this story is that each of us gets caught by the same stereotypes as Joe and Red.

The ecological and environmental experiences of the Native Americans, along with their culture in general, can never be reviewed in a framework different from the natural conditions where these attitudes and values first appeared. The common mistake of the Orthodox interpretation is the attempt to review these attitudes and patterns in a completely different context which is wrong and leads to numerous stereotypes that are wrong in real life. Simplifications and mistranslations in White Man’s vision are quite common for the Native American culture but it does not mean that this culture is what non-Natives think it is. The story still reveals that Native Americans find their own way regardless of the superstitions others have for their actions. They still fight for the salvation and purity of nature being smart and full of humor to mock upon the White Man frightened by the ghost of their own superstitions.

Thomas King sets Joe and Red as thick-skinned White Men that are simply not ready to change what they believe in. This type of characterization is related to the central problem of the story, and the solution is quite close. Non-Natives need to give up on their ethnocentric approach and start understanding other cultures not in the context of their own values and patterns but in the context of the other culture itself. ‘Trying on’ what the other culture has to offer ended in silly barriers and misunderstanding between nations which may have negative consequences for both parties in the future. Every person should learn to respect the people form the other cultures and experience these cultures all by himself but not with the help of secular stereotypes accepted in the White Society. 

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