The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

Inconvenient IndianThomas King explains in the Prologue called Warm Toast and Porcupines that “the underlying narrative is a series of conversations and arguments that I have been having with myself and others for most of my adult life, and if there is any methodology in my approach to the subject, it draws more on storytelling techniques than historiography. A good historian would have tried to keep biases under control. A good historian would have tried to keep personal anecdotes in check. A good historian would have provided footnotes.

I have not.”

He continues: “And, while I’m making excuses, I suppose I should apologize if my views cause anyone undue distress. But I hope we can agree that any discussion of Indians in North America is likely to conjure up a certain amount of rage. And sorrow. Along with moments of irony and humour.”

I love it that he puts the “u” in humour!

Also in the Prologue there follows an interesting discussion about terminology and in particular about the word “Indian”. King says he doesn’t “see that one term is much better or worse than another” and that he is fond of “First Nations” (“the current term of choice in Canada”) and “Native Americans” (“the fashionable preference in the United States”). His conclusion? “For all its faults and problems – especially in Canada – “Indian,”as a general designation, remains for me, at least, the North American default.” This neat clarification of issues of terminology sets the stage nicely for a discussion in which every one knows where the author stands and, I think, very successfully and cleverly defuses the likelihood of arousing ire that clouds the much bigger issues/questions to be considered.

Then he goes on to clarify a much more important matter: “While we have dispensed with guns and bugles, and while North America’s sense of its own superiority is better hidden, its disdain muted, twenty-first century attitudes towards Native people are remarkably similar to those of the previous centuries.”

The final point clarified in the Prologue is an interesting one: why did King decide to “to take on both Canada and the United States at the same time.” This is what he has to say: “For most Aboriginal people, that line doesn’t exist. It’s a figment of someone else’s imagination. Historical figures such as Chief Joseph and Sitting Bull and Louis Riel moved back and forth between the two countries, and while they understood the importance of that border to Whites, there is nothing to indicate that they believed in its legitimacy.

I get stopped every time I try to cross that border, but stories go wherever they please.”

Chapter One(Forget Columbus) starts out with a quotation from a work by Jeanette Armstrong which is particulary well chosen for this work:

Out of the belly of Christopher’s shipKing #2
a mob bursts
Running in all directions
Pulling furs off animals
Shooting buffalo
Shooting each other

Pioneers and traders
bring gifts
Smallpox, Seagrams
and rice krispies
Civilization has reached
the promised land.

My apologies if that’s too many quotations so far: I really do believe the words of the author and the work of others he or she chooses to include speaks strongly about the character of the book itself so you need to sample those two things much more than you need to listen to me . Like his definition of history: “History may well be a series of stories we tell about the past, but the stories are not just any stories. They’re not chosen by chance. By and large, the stories are about famous men and celebrated events. We throw in a couple of exceptional women every now and then, not out of any need to recognize female eminence, but out of embarrassment.
And we’re not easily embarrassed.”

King suggests we forget about Columbus and start our historical account in Almo, Idaho. He’s never been there he says and neither has Christopher Columbus nor Jacques Cartier or Samuel de Champlain or David Thompson or Hernando Cortes. He thinks Sacajewea along with Lewis and Clark might have passed through the area but the town wasn’t yet built. All Almo is famous for, he writes, is an Indian massacre in which almost 300 westward bound immigrants were killed. A plaque commemorates the event. More statistics are presented about massacres and these are followed by some figures for massacres which were not about Indians doing the killing including one in 1598 in New Mexico in which 800 Acoma and the left foot of every man over the age of twenty-five was cut off. These are extremely sobering statistics.

Oh and yes, apparently the Almo massacre never happened. What do you mean you say? Well, you can check it out in The Inconvenient Indian, pages 4 to 6 in the hard cover version.

The book is packed full of interesting data such as history of the Wild West show, the story of the twentieth century’s most famous Indian image, James Earle Fraser’s 1915 sculpture The End of the Trail, the image of Indians in the movies, relocation programs of the Mi’kmaq and many others, extermination and assimilation policies, apologies for deplorable practices in residential school etc.

Then there is the matter of Prime Minister Harper’s statement at the G20 Summit in Philadelphia that blatantly stated that Canadians “have no history of colonialism.”  WHAT! Where on earth is the man’s head and what qualifies him to represent all Canadians?  How shameful!

I could go on and on but I won’t. You probably need to read this for yourself. And while you are at it do gather some of Thomas King’s fine fiction and prepare to kick off your shoes and laugh heartily.King #3King #4King#1

Back of the Turtle

One thought on “The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *