Reviewed by Paul Watkins
The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. Anchor Canada, 2012.
Thomas King is one of Canada’s most prolific writers: a renowned novelist, broadcaster (The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour), screenwriter, one-time NDP electoral candidate, and the first person of Aboriginal descent to be chosen to give the Massey Lectures (in 2003). In The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America Thomas King shares his extended reflection on Native (King’s chosen term) identity through history, humour, and personal meditations. For King, stories define who we are and The Inconvenient Indian takes this maxim and displays—through the weft and warp of history—why the stories we tell matter, especially since Canada’s story is often about the country’s strained relationship with First Nations people.
King explains: “Most of us think that history is the past. It’s not. It’s the stories we tell about the past. That’s all it is” (2-3). Unsurprisingly, Aboriginal writers feel the need to recover the unsolicited histories written on their behalf. Case in point, King describes how Alma, Idaho is famous for an Indian massacre of 295 pioneers, which a decorative plaque says occurred in 1861. Except, as he details, the massacre never actually happened. When it comes to history, fact and fiction are repeatedly entwined. Accordingly, King plays with history, using humour and irony—with personal anecdotes, as in one story where a younger, mustachioed King wears a sombrero and passes as Latino in a Christmas commercial—to provide an accessible yet meticulously researched account of Native history in North America. King’s wife, scholar Helen Hoy, serves as an astute interlocutor throughout as King creates layered conversations rather than a one-sided history lesson.
However, not all stories are innocent. King plays with the old saying that those who do not understand the lessons of the past often repeat them, stating: “Those who understand the lessons of history are only too happy to repeat them” (90). King reminds his readers that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect different results. For the government, as he points out, such behaviour is called policy (94). Focusing on the Department of Indian Affairs in Canada, King spends a great deal of time unpacking just how detrimental governmental policies have been for Native people. But rather than solely blaming governments, he examines how stereotypes and myths of the dying, noble, and imaginary Indian still haunt contemporary society. Converging on potent images such as James Earle Fraser’s sculpture The End of the Trail, which depicts both the rider and horse “poised on the edge of oblivion” (32), or portrayals of Indians on film as exotic and erotic, wearing headdresses and beaded buckskins, King describes white North Americans’ phantasmagorical construction of the authentic Indian.
The authentic Indian is a Dead Indian. Duncan Campbell Scott, Head of the Department of Indian Affairs, wrote in the 1920s that the government’s goal was to have the “Indian” vanish: “‘Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question’” (qtd. in King 72). The Indian Act, which outlawed sun dances, potlatches, and pow-wows, with heavy fines for those who practiced them, continues to separate Indians, as King plays with the ironies between Live Indians, Dead Indians, Status Indians, and Legal Indians. Stephen Harper’s “We’re sorry,” while perhaps heartfelt, was, as King expresses, an empty apology. At the Toronto G20 summit in September 2009, Harper boldly declared that Canada has no history of colonialism, essentially ignoring the Indigenous holocaust that took place in Canada. King illustrates the horrors of residential schools in Canada, as some 150,000 students were forbidden to speak their languages or practice any aspect of their culture: “Up to 50 percent of them lost their lives to disease, malnutrition, neglect, and abuse—50 percent. One in two. If residential schools were a virulent disease, they would have been in the same category as smallpox and Ebola” (120). Given that 60% of residential schools in Canada were Catholic-run, King describes Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 expression of “sorrow” as “nothing more than a sympathetic lament” (121). Apologies might be significant symbolic gestures, but too often the apologist assumes that the problems of the past are—well, past.
King demonstrates how the past continues to haunt the present, describing historical Native resistances (from Riel to the Native occupation at Alcatraz to the recent Idle No More movement), current injustices against impoverished Native communities (such as the Mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows in northern Ontario), systematic violence against Native women (including a 1971 case of a murdered 19 year old Cree woman named Helen Betty Osborne, which recalls the current 1,000 + murdered or missing Aboriginal women in Canada), and the importance of land and treaties. As King writes: “If you understand nothing else about the history of Indians in North America, you need to understand that the question that really matters is the question of land” (218). Sometimes there are victories, such as the Inuit being given back their land in Nunavut—a word that means “our land.”
King masterfully presents a curious history that goes in circles. The book is full of tragedy, but it is also about healing, reconciliation, and hope. The Inconvenient Indian will likely stir up strong emotions. King quotes Mohawk writer Beth Brant, who says, “Out of a past, I make truth for a future” (249). It might be impossible to determine truth for all people, but King’s The Inconvenient Indian demonstrates, through its extended reflections, that stories about the past in relation to contemporary realities continue to sustain and inform Native peoples. What stories will people tell about Native and non-Native relations in North America five hundred years from now? As King suggests, the “future should be very curious indeed” (266).