The idea of heritage and tradition in the modern world has become an idea of importance to both the indigenous peoples and the descendants of the European colonists who attempted to Westernize the lands they discovered and the people in them. This idea has taken numerous forms in recent years and not-so-recent years. One form it has been examined in is the literary short story. Thomas King’s “One Good Story, That One” and Chinua Achebe’s “Dead Men’s Path” use characters and conflict to make a statement about the loss of tradition and heritage in order to demonstrate the effect of colonialism on indigenous people and their culture.
The representatives of colonialism in these stories are white men in positions of superiority. In King’s story, they take the role of anthropologists, well-educated and well-dressed, while in Achebe’s story, the white man is a supervisor in charge of overseeing everything the black main character does. The presence of these men, all of European descent, is a metaphor for the manner in which the original colonist behaved. The supervisor’s position of authority over the ‘lesser’ black man is reflective of the attitude that causes loss of heritage, while in King’s story the attitude the anthropologists display is that of the conqueror: expecting to have their wants (to hear an old traditional story) met by those who have been conquered. They do not even deign to sit with the person they are asking this of. “These three like to stand. Stand still.” (pg... p...) These characters remain nameless and faceless, only known by their titles, throughout both stories. Perhaps this is because their true purpose in the story is not as a character, but as a symbol for the attitudes of the colonists.
If the white men in these stories are symbols, then the main characters, both of indigenous descent, must be as well. The narrator in King’s story is an old man. He has seen many instances of the theft of tradition, from residential schools where children are taught to be white to the rampant alcoholism his people suffer from. He, however, holds on to his heritage, living in the old way; the mention of “my summer place” (pg... p...) implies that he lives nomadically throughout the year and remembers his oral tradition. However, when the anthropologists come and ask for a story, he gives them not the creation story of his people, but the creation story taught to him by white missionaries. He gives it just enough First Nations content to make it sound as though he has given them what they wanted. He is a guardian of the old ways and he will not give any more of his culture to the white man.
Achebe’s Michael Obi, on the other hand, is young and ambitious. He gives up his traditions and heritage in favour of ‘becoming’ white. Such a trade is necessary for him to succeed in life. In time, he comes to ridicule the culture that birthed him, dismissing its ancient traditions as mere superstition that he has been sent to eradicate. He is the...