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 Canadaincluding such influential figures as Thomas King, Tomson Highway, Beth Brant, Daniel David Moses, and Lenore Keeshig- Tobiashas 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