Interrogating a settler feminist co-opting of the indigenous figure of coyote in Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s The Cure for Death by Lightning

6 August 2019
By Alice Higgs

Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s bestselling 1996 novel The Cure for Death by Lightning has been hailed as a feminist bildungsroman, documenting a young girl named Beth Weeks’ journey into womanhood and the consequent male sexual violence that appears to follow her growing physical maturity. The novel is set on a remote farm location in British Columbia during the Second World War, and is littered with non-human animals, both wild and domestic.

Despite the novel’s success, underlying the novel is a largely unexplored problematic co-opting of Indigenous stories and voices for settler-feminist literary purposes, which reflects a period of tension that emerged between settler and Indigenous authors in Canada over this very issue during the late 1980s. The narrative of Cure is quickly consumed by Beth’s haunting by ‘Coyote’, a trickster figure of Native folklore, whom she is told by the many Native characters that appear throughout the text inhabits the bodies of men, turning them into deviant, sexually predatory creatures, incapable of controlling their impulses. When she is repeatedly attacked and sexually assaulted by men in the novel then, these men appear in animal form, as a coyote, or appear to come to life as ‘shadows’ from coyote pelts: ‘I stared at the coyotes that Billy had skinned and my mother had stretched on frames like ironing boards and hung on my bedroom wall, their inside-out skins shining in the moonlight, their dark eye-holes watching me.’ (263) Such a literary technique, blurring fantasy and reality, man and coyote, reduces the Indigenous figure of Coyote and the stories told about him amongst numerous Indigenous tribes and communities into an entirely symbolic element of magical realism to symbolise male sexual violence, appropriating the myth for settler-literary means and eradicating both the didactic purpose of the Indigenous myth and also all connections to the material animal.

Diana Brydon has commented on this frequently occurring authorial choice by white, settler-Canadian writers of fiction to adopt and include Native myths and aspects of culture in their work, arguing that it stems from a settler-anxiety regarding their Canadian identity. She says:  

The current flood of books by white Canadian writers embracing Native spirituality clearly serves a white need to feel at home in this country and to assuage the guilt felt over a material appropriation by making it a cultural one as well. In the absence of comparable political reparation for past appropriations such symbolic acts seem questionable or at least inadequate. Literature cannot be confused with social action.[1]

Brydon is correct here. It is imperative to acknowledge that Anderson-Dargatz is not a member of a First Nations tribe and yet has created a novel in which the narrative is entirely constructed on an Indigenous figure, Coyote. There does appear to be an obvious attempt to explore and draw attention to the ill treatment of Indigenous communities in Canada and the sparse conditions of the reservations in the novel. However, Anderson-Dargatz’s text at times treads a fine line of indulging in Native-bashing, seen for example in its’ exploration of oppressive language and consequent frequent use of ‘squaw’ and ‘Indian’ throughout. This literary utilisation of Native myth, characterisation but neglected centralisation and serious handling of Settler-Native politics (since Beth remains the protagonist) begs the question—are narratives like this by Anderson-Dargatz postcolonially progressive or oppressive? And moreover, as Brydon questioned, what role should settler-writers have, (if any), in constructing narratives about Native issues in an attempt to encourage social action?

In 1989, only a few years prior to the novel’s publication, the issue of cultural appropriation was raised by Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, the founding chair of the Racial Minority Writers’ Committee of The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC). She defiantly argued that ‘the stories and cultures of the First Nations (and, by extension, other minorities) should not be appropriated by non-native writers’ (Moore).[2] To explain why, she added:

“You know, in our culture, people own stories. Individuals own stories. Families own stories. Tribes own stories. Nations own stories. And there is a protocol if you want to tell those stories: you go to the storyteller. And if you don’t and you start telling those stories, then you are stealing.” (Troubling Tricksters: Revisioning Critical Conversations, p.70)

To overlook such a particularized relationship to these stories then is to expose either one’s ignorance to cultural differences or one’s wilful desire to steal and use these narratives despite these differences. There is no foreword in Anderson-Dargatz’s novel indicating she sought permission to use the story of Coyote from any particular Native tribe, and so we can presume its presence in the novel is one of self-ordained literary license.

In addition to this structurally confrontational relationship between the appropriate boundaries of settler literary imagination and the use Native myth by non-Natives, getting to grips with the animal representation in the novel is complicated by this messy blurring of differing epistemologies of human­–animal relations. The coyote is simultaneously a material animal, a figure of Native folklore and symbolically representative of human men, rendering a reading of Coyote or coyotes impossibly fluid and indecipherable—a purposeful attempt to reflect Native Coyote’s ‘trickster’ nature, but also mirroring Beth’s changing adolescent understanding of her vulnerability as a woman. Anderson-Dargatz’s novel then, attempts to hold together settler and Native human–animal relations, whilst also exploring the dynamic between violent masculinity and vulnerable womanhood. It compares and contrasts the many ways in which we interact and build relations with non-human animals, and how these relations might intersect with our notions of storytelling and our consequent understanding of our social relations to the beings around us—both human and non-human. As such, the novel emerges as an example site of social and political contention in 1990s Canada, centring literature as a lens through which it is possible to explore oppression, both in the stories that are being told and in who is telling them.

[1] Diana Brydon, ‘“The White Inuit Speaks”: Contamination as Literary Strategy’ in Post-Colonial Studies Reader, edited by Bill Ashcroft (Routledge, 1994) p.141

[2] Taken from: Margery Fee, ‘The Trickster Appropriation, Imagination in Moment, and the Canada Cultural Liberal’ in Troubling Tricksters : Revisioning Critical Conversations, edited by Deanna Reder, and Linda M. Morra, (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010) p.163