Most of us think that history is the past. It’s not. History is the stories we tell about the past.
Those of you who have followed my blog for a while know that I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. I can’t help it- I just prefer fiction. So does Thomas King.
Truth be known, I prefer fiction. I dislike the way facts try to thrust themselves upon me. I’d rather make up my own world.
… for me, at least, writing a novel is buttering warm toast, while writing a history is herding porcupines with your elbows.
Despite the fact that he prefers fiction, he felt strongly about writing this non-fiction account that took him 6 years to finish. This book is made up of conversations and arguments he’s been having with himself and others for most of his adult life. So,
… in consideration of those conversations and the respect that I have for history, I’ve salted my narrative with those things we call facts, even though we should know by now that facts will not save us.
After reading such an engaging prologue, how could I not continue?
I have had this book on my list for some time now, but thanks to it making the Top 5 Canada Reads list I finally decided to read it (sometimes, I can be convinced), and, if I could, I would quote most of the book for you. It is packed with interesting, eye-opening information and stories about the relationship between “Whites” and “Indians” over the past 500 years.
I don’t even know where to start, there are so many things to say. I think I will just let Thomas King speak for himself.
1. The telling of history through art and literature:
I simply have difficulty with how we choose which stories become the pulse of history and which do not.
2. The cultural history of Indian/White relations over the years: The portrayal of the “Indian” is the “White” people’s idea of them, rather than a true reflection of who they are.
Tonto (from the Lone Ranger) was North America’s Indian. Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent… Tonto was the Indian that North America had been waiting for, the Indian that North America deserved. After all, Europeans had brought civilization to North America. They had shared it with Native people, who hadn’t been as gracious about the gift as they might have been, and one could argue that Tonto was North America’s way of thanking itself.
What we watched on the screen over and over was the implicit and inevitable acquiescence of Native people to Christianity and Commerce. No matter what happened, the question that was asked and answered again and again on the silver screen was: Can Indians survive in a modern world? And, the answer, even in sympathetic films such as Broken Arrow, Little Big Man, and Dances With Wolves, was always: No.
And when we dance, when we sing at the drum, when we perform ceremonies, we are not doing it for North America’s entertainment… We do these things to remind ourselves of who we are, to remind ourselves where we come from, and to remind ourselves of our relationship with the earth. Mostly, though, we do these things because we enjoy them. And because they are important.
3. Painting all “Indians” with the same brush:
As North America began to experiment with its “Indian programs”, it did so with a “one size fits all” mindset.
Even though disease and conflict had dramatically reduced the tribes, there were still, in the minds of policy makers, too many Indians. Too many Indians, too many tribes, too many languages. Indians were a great, sprawling mess. What was needed was a plan to give this snarl of cultures a definitive and manageable form. So, out of ignorance, disregard, frustration, and expediency, North America set about creating a single entity, an entity that would stand for the whole. The Indian. Or as J.R.R. Tolkien might have said, “One name to rule them all, One name to find them, One name to bring them all, and in the darkness bund them.”
… they (“Whites”) get to make their mistakes as individuals and not as representatives of an entire race.
4. “Throughout the history of Indian-White relations in North America, there have always been two impulses afoot. Extermination and assimilation.” This thinking is what eventually led to relocation and residential schools. In 1892, Richard Pratt’s plan was to “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man”. And, we all know how residential schools worked out.
Richard Pratt was wrong. As it turned out, if you killed the Indian, you killed the Indian.
5. Apologies to the First Nations community:
… despite the apology, North America’s paternalistic intervention in the lives of native people continues unrepentant and unabated.
But, of course, there’s a perfectly good reason for this intervention. Native people can’t look after ourselves. We don’t have the capacity to manage our own affairs. We don’t know what’s good for us. We haven’t the level of sophistication to understand the workings of the contemporary world and to participate in a modern economy.
Somebody once told me that racism hurts everyone. Perhaps in the broader sense of community, this is true. All I know is that it seems to hurt some much more than others.
Racism is endemic in North America. And it’s also systemic. While it affects the general population at large, it’s also buried in the institutions that are supposed to protect us from such abuses.
Thomas King goes on to give several examples of racism coming from these institutions, as he does with all his claims throughout the book. The book is packed with these kinds of stories.
7. The fight over land: In chapter 9, King provides us with 6 eye-opening stories illustrating the question of land between “Natives” and “Whites”.
From a Native perspective, Indian land is Indian land. From a contemporary, somewhat legal North American perspective, Native land is land that belongs to the federal government and is on indefinite loan to a certain category of Native people. To say that these two views are in conflict is to state the obvious.
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. And land is home… For non-Natives, land is primarily a commodity, something that has value for what you can take from it or what you can get for it.
Ignorance has never been the problem. The problem was and continues to be unexamined confidence in western civilization and the unwarranted certainty of Christianity. And arrogance. Perhaps it is unfair to judge the past by the present, but it is also necessary.
The Inconvenient Indian is some non-fiction that I can get behind. It is smart, funny, interesting, and illuminating. And, even though it seems like I have already told you everything in the book, this post is really only just skimming the surface. In Joseph Boyden’s words (from the back of the book), “For those who wish to better understand Native peoples, it is a must-read. For those who don’t wish to understand, it is even more so”.
The theme for Canada Reads this year is “the book to break barriers”. I love And the Birds Rained Down, but this one is going to be hard to beat. Craig Kielburger nailed it when he said, “500 years of misunderstanding and prejudice – that’s a barrier worth breaking.”
Thomas King was born in California and now lives in Guelph, Ontario. He has won or been nominated for many awards and honours, including the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Trillium Book Award, the Commonwealth Book Prize, and the Order of Canada. Some of his other works include Green Grass Running Water, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, Medicine River, and The Back of the Turtle. This is a man I would love to meet.
Have a listen to Thomas King talk about his book on The Next Chapter. I think his is the first book discussed. (Just this week).
Thomas King on Q talking about The Inconvenient Indian. (2012)