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The Inconvenient Indian, by Thomas King.

October 27, 2013

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, by Thomas King.  University Of Minnesota Press (2013). 272 pages

 A history of native-white relations in the United States and Canada by an insightful and indignant Native American novelist.

 Thomas King is a Native American storyteller and scholar.  He grew up off reservation in California and earned a Ph.D. in English before moving to Canada and teaching in universities there.  He is best known for his novels about contemporary Native Americans along the US/Canadian border.   He has also published a set of his lectures, The Truth about Stories, on the importance of stories, in which he shared stories from his own culture. King is angry about what has been taken from his people, but he tempers that anger with humor and simple common sense.

 King believes that the past, and the stories we tell about the past, matter.  In The Inconvenient Indian, he tells stories of both the distant past and the near present as he considers what the relations have been and could be between European settlers and the peoples who already occupied the North American continent.   Although he is deeply knowledgeable about his people’s history, he does not write for historians but to inform a larger audience. His book lacks strict adherence to chronology and has no footnotes.  It is full, however, of challenges to much we think we know about Indians.

 Rather than starting with Columbus, King begins his book by telling how a small town in North Dakota has an historical marker about a massacre of 300 whites which occurred there.  Although it claims more dead than almost any other Indian attack, in reality the massacre never took place.  In telling its story, King shows that we often prefer the legend about Indians rather than facts about them.  For the general public, Native Americans are only characters created for our entertainment.

Native history is an imaginative cobbling together of fears and longings, romances and reverences, facts and fantasy into a cycle of creative performances, in Technicolor and 3-D, with accompanying soft drinks, candy and popcorn.

 In fact, King believes that Americans and Canadians still prefer dead Indians to live ones. Focusing on dead Indians makes it easy to avoid seeing the ones who are still with us.

Live Indians were forgotten, safely stored away on reservations and reserves or scattered in rural backwaters and cityscapes of Canada and America. Out of sight, out of mind.  Out of mind, out of sight.

 In the first period of settlement, Europeans primarily tried to exterminate Indians.  Later attempts were made to negotiate with them.  As we pushed Indians away from white settlements and economic development, we claimed it was for their own good; it was said to be “Indian welfare.”  But negotiations with Indians were never conducted between equals.  Treaties were not signed to be kept.  What whites wanted, and got time after time, was land.   When King looks at recent years, he sees the patterns unchanged.

King notes that what Indians wanted was never what was discussed by the powerful men who governed North American.  And what whites wanted, and still want most of all, is land.  Yet land is central to what it means to be an Indian, and not because they are mystical or weird.

Land has always been a defining element of Aboriginal culture. Land contains the languages, the stories, and the histories of a people.  It provides water, air, shelter, and food. Land participates in the ceremonies and the songs. Land is home. Not in an abstract way.

According to King, the two issues where Indians need to take stands involve tribal membership and resources.  They need to fight to hold on to who they are, and that includes protecting the land and sovereignty which they still hold.  That includes fighting projects like the Canadian tar sands which are destructive of the land.  It also meanings realizing that selling out for the most money is learning the wrong lesson from whites.

One point I think is important that King does not address in his book are the ways in which treatment of Native Americans was shaped by the huge numbers of Africans brought to this country as slaves.  Africans provided the masses of laborers here, rather than the Indigenous people who, as King describes, were typically killed or driven from regions where whites dominated.  This is part of why Native American history differs somewhat from that of Indigenous people elsewhere.  Prejudice against them existed everywhere but it played out differently in different locations.

 King’s history of Indigenous people in Canada and America is a quick and easy introduction for anyone anywhere to this important subject.  His viewpoint is not objective, but neither are the ideas that most of us hold about Native Americans.  Even those who know a great deal about this history will find surprises and challenges in this book.

Other books by King that I have are, enjoyed, and reviewed:

Green Grass, Running Water

Truth & Bright Water

Medicine River

The Truth about Stories

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