Thomas King’s “The Inconvenient Indian” – A Sometimes Contradictory, But Occasionally Constructive, Rant

Disclaimer: My references to the writings of other people–both native and non-native–do not in any way imply that they share my views on this matter.   The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my family, friends or associates.

A.        Introduction

I read Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (2012) twice.  This was not because I enjoyed it so much, I just had to read it again.  It was because the terrain that he navigates is all too familiar to me, and I was concerned my initial analysis might be laden too much with personal, rather than objective, reactions.  King and I are from roughly the same era, and I was directly or indirectly connected with quite a few of the people and events that he talks about.  But we come away with remarkably different analyses of the situation.

King chronicles his views on the interactions between native and non-native peoples in North America since contact.  The publisher (Doubleday Canada) describes it as “at once a history and the subversion of history.”  However, King acknowledges that it is more an account than a history because he does not follow “the demands of scholarship” (x).  The book has no footnotes or bibliography.  In addition, the index leaves something to be desired; sometimes keywords are listed and other times they are not.

King contends there is no one word that can cover all aboriginals in North America “because there was never a collective to begin with” (xiii).  (The Metis and Inuit get comparatively little attention in the book.)  He decided to use Indian in the title because he considered it “the North American default” (xiii).  I do think The Inconvenient Indian aptly conveys the work’s content.

King frequently uses the term “North American,” rather than Canadian or American, because he says the border is not as important to aboriginals as it is to whites (xvi).  I cannot find the spot in the book where he provides a definition for what he means by North American, but I am assuming by the context he is referring to a mindset that operates outside of what he considers to be the aboriginal one.

I agree with those commentators who believe some of the book’s popularity may be because it came out shortly before the anti-Bill C-45 protests in December 2012 and January 2013.  It remained on the Canadian bestseller lists for 20 weeks after it was released in November 2012, making it to the number one spot for a while.

(Note:  opposition to Bill C-45 has commonly been referred to as the Idle No More (INM) movement.  I prefer, nonetheless, to stay away from this term, since a number of the INM founders stated they did not condone the actions taken by some under this moniker.  In fact, there is still a lot of controversy going on within the native community about INM and what its philosophy should be.)

Although there have been some aboriginal protests since the major activism more than a year ago, they have not been as widespread.  Yet King’s book is still attracting readership.  As of February 1, 2014, it was in seventh place out of 10 on the Globe’s Canadian Non-Fiction Bestseller List.

I suspect one of the main reasons why the book has remained popular is because King does a very good job of making the reader understand why aboriginal discontent did not just spring up out of nowhere.  He also vividly demonstrates how stereotypes of Indians have led to a lot of misconceptions and ill feelings between the races.  But the downside of the book is that, while he lays out many of the contentious issues (such as the fact that “whites want land”), he offers little in the way of constructive solutions.  In addition, he frequently contradicts himself.  I will elaborate on all these points later in this post.

B.        King – Brief Biography

King was born in 1943 in California.  When he was about five years old, his Cherokee father abandoned his Greek/German mother, brother and him.  He never lived on a reservation, but his mother made sure he kept in touch with his aboriginal relatives.  Outside of a few years in the 1960s working in New Zealand and later Australia, he spent the rest of his early life in the United States.  In 1967, he got involved with native activism when he started attending Chico State University (BA, 1970, MA 1972).  He later taught and did administrative work at Humboldt State University and the University of Utah (PhD 1986).

He has been married twice, having one son by his (presumably non-native) first wife, and a son and daughter with his current, non-native wife, Helen Hoy.  He met Hoy after he moved to Canada in 1980, and started working in the Native Studies Department at the University of Lethbridge.  Hoy and he later taught at the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph, where they both specialized in aboriginal-related courses (they recently retired).

King got into his writing more seriously after moving to Canada.  His works (mainly fiction) explore many facets of aboriginal life, and he often employs humour to get his point across.  Before The Inconvenient Indian‘s publication, he was best known for his novel Green Grass, Running Water (1993) and for his role on CBC Radio‘s “Dead Dog Cafe” show (1997-2000).  For further information on his background, please consult the bibliography at the end of this post.

C.        King and I – Similar Terrain But Divergent Paths

My late parents got involved with aboriginal issues in the late 1950s when I was a child, so I grew up with this matter constantly around me.  From 1975 to 1987, I worked primarily in native organizations in Southern and Northern Ontario and the Northwest Territories.  Until around the mid-2000s, I maintained a relatively close connection to the “cause,” but since then have been generally keeping my distance, for reasons that I discuss in other posts on this blog.

There are many scenarios in King’s book that I am familiar with because of my background.  For instance, in June 1978, I had an article published about a walk by approximately 500 native people from all over North America who were protesting “anti-Indian legislation.”  The “longest walk,” from Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, to Washington, D.C., took place from February to July 1978.  King describes the 19th century Trail of Tears, which was one of the motivations behind the 1978 “longest walk” in the book (88, 123).

Another anecdote that brought back some memories for me was when King related a harrowing experience he had in 1973.  Some other protesters and he were riding in a van heading for Salt Lake City; they were going there to participate in a rally in support of Wounded Knee.  The police pulled the van over at the Wyoming border, and at one point, a gun was aimed directly at him.

My connection to this border incident is far less dramatic: an aboriginal woman from a Southern Ontario reserve and I took a car trip through the Northern United States in the summer of 1978.  When we got to the North Dakota border (en route to Saskatchewan), the border guard asked us where we were from.  I dutifully said I was from London, Ontario, but she repeatedly said she was a “North American Indian,” and refused to clarify the reserve where she lived was in Canada.  The guard told us to get out of the vehicle, and then inspected every part of it, presumably looking for something illegal.  We were finally allowed to proceed after an hour.  I doubt it took him that long to search the car; I think he just wanted to delay us, to hammer the point home that my associate’s response was not acceptable.

So when King talks about the unrest that has gone on in the United States, I have some idea what he is talking about.  In terms of the Canadian references, there are no personal examples that stand out for me.  However, there are two that, although I do not have direct experience with, I know a fair bit about: the Caledonia, Ontario crisis and Canadian aboriginals’ views of property rights.

I discussed my concerns about King’s coverage of the Caledonia crisis in my review of the blog “Six Nations (Haudenosaunee) & the Haldimand Tract: Beliefs Versus Facts,” February 2, 2014, which can be found here.

King deals fairly extensively with aboriginals’ views of property rights on both sides of the border.  I do not know much about what is going on in the United States, but I have read quite a bit about the Canadian situation.  He contends that “Indians, through inclination or treaty, held land in common” (129).  But C.T. (Manny) Jules, who is the First Nations Property Ownership Initiative (FNPO) chief commissioner, and former chief of the Kamloops Indian band in B.C., says historically bands such as his had “governments that financed themselves” and that allowed for “individual property rights.”  He asserts that the Indian Act removed his band from the economy, and this needs to be rectified with a “secure property rights system” that protects “title and underlying jurisdiction.”

King claims it is erroneous to think that aboriginal people want “individual freedom to pursue economic growth” like their non-aboriginal counterparts (118).  But Shane Gottfriedson, who is chief of the Kamloops band (same band that Jules is from), does not share this view.  He says his band is a proponent of the FNPO because it will help “to break the dependency culture. . .”

Because of my personal background, and because I have done considerable research into many of the topics he covers, I frequently realize when King’s assertions are questionable.  What bothers me is about two-thirds of the online reviews are unflinching in their praise for the book; only around a third recognize the book’s failings.  For instance, I could only find one reviewer other than myself who recognized that King’s account of the Caledonia crisis was lacking in balance: Bob Tarantino mentioned the beating of non-aboriginal builder, Sam Gualtieri, who has been left with permanent brain damage.

D.        Strengths of The Inconvenient Indian

D.1      “North American” View of Aboriginals Has Been Problematic

King deserves praise for showing how some images have been appropriated in a way that demeans native people.  When he mentioned a butter container, which he contends has a sexually-suggestive picture of an Indian maiden on it, I was transported back to early 1970s London, Ontario.  At the time, my white boyfriend and I shared a townhouse with another couple (he was black; she was white).  We went out for the evening, accompanied by an aboriginal female associate of mine, who was attending Western University in London.

Shortly after we arrived at what was then considered to be a fairly respectable tavern, my aboriginal associate started to get propositioned by a white male stranger in the bar.  She quietly declined, but then another white male stranger did the same thing about 10 minutes later.  Our black comrade asked the men why they were doing this.  They said they assumed she was a prostitute, or words to that effect.  This is one of several examples in my life where I have seen aboriginal women viewed in an exploitative fashion.

Although it is an exaggeration for King to say that the North American view of aboriginals is frozen in time in the 17th or 18th centuries, there is definitely a tendency in that direction.  Some of it is fuelled, as he says, by Hollywood marketing.

D.2        “Whites Want Land”

King believes that asking Indians what they want is not the right question.  It should be asking whites what they want, which is land.  I completely agree that this is the main source of the tension between the races.  In fact, in 1981, I pointed this out in a letter I wrote to some of my former colleagues, after resigning from a native organization:

It has been said that land is the single most important commodity left on this planet, and the fight over land will be the last battlefield.  The government will never, never agree to separate nation status for native people unless they can–directly or indirectly–benefit from the revenue (oil, coal, etc.) under that nation.

At the time I wrote the above, I assumed that “separate nation status for native people” would mean that those nations would remain within the Canadian Constitutional framework.  Since then, the whole nation issue has become much more complex, with some aboriginal reserves wanting to separate totally from Canada.  As I have explained in previous posts on this blog here and here, I am OK with aboriginal communities in this country operating as collectives within the Canadian Constitutional framework, but I disagree with those who advocate operating outside of it.

(There were other points I made in my 1981 letter that I do not feel the same way about now, but I do think the above excerpt still has some validity.)

D.3        North Americans’ “Irrational Addiction to Profit”

King believes that an “unexamined confidence in western civilization” is one of the root causes of the tension between non-aboriginals and aboriginals (265).  I believe in maintaining a unifying Canadian culture that respects the rights of the individual and upholds the rule of law.  But I do think there is some validity to his contention that North Americans need to find a way to overcome “their irrational addiction to profit” (220).

E.        Weaknesses of The Inconvenient Indian

E.1       Contradictions

King repeatedly contradicts himself throughout the book.  The most blatant example is when he flip-flops as to whether violence and vandalism are good strategies.  He says the American Indian Movement (AIM)’s 1972 destruction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ files was “stupid,” because the folders may have contained material the tribes could have used for land negotiations.  But he admits that, when the media asked for his opinion, he, along with others “mumbled supportive platitudes about Native rights and government deceit. . .” (147-148).

Later, he discusses AIM’s growing frustration with the lack of progress they had made in their negotiations with the government, and says that sometimes native concerns have to involve “demonstrations, confrontations, and, on occasion, violence” (157-158).

He proceeds to the Caledonia crisis, where he implies that the “Mohawk” protest was fuelled by the “long-standing Native land claim” (165-166).  It is true that the protest did not just happen, but the validity of the claim involving the south end of Caledonia is under serious dispute.  I go into further detail about this issue in other posts on my blog here and here.

Since I have worked in native organizations involved with land claims negotiations, I have some understanding of the frustration and anger that builds when negotiations do not go as well as the aboriginal side would like.  But I think it is a huge mistake for King to be advocating violence under any circumstances.

E.2       Pre-Contact Aboriginal Society Was Not a Paradise

Although it is true that many post-contact intertribal aboriginal battles were precipitated by European encroachment, the same cannot be said for what happened before Europeans arrived.  King barely touches on this.

When I was working in the native organizations, I regularly heard about how various tribes had fought with each other historically.  So I was pleased to learn that an Inuk fillmmaker and a Cree filmmaker recently released Inuit Cree Reconciliation, a documentary about how the Inuit and Cree are coming to terms with their past and present animosities.

A re-examination of past animosities is also occurring on the other side of the country.  Archaeological research being conducted in B.C.’s Fraser Canyon is confirming what Sto:lo elders have said, that the Coast Salish and Sto:lo peoples fought regularly for thousands of years before contact.

In addition, some aboriginal spokespeople have alleged that all Indian societies traditionally treated their women well.  Yes, some tribes did treat their women with great respect and as equals, but others did not.  For example, polygamy was common in some Athabaskan (Dene) societies.  Chipewyan leader, Matonabbee, had seven wives, and believed women “were meant for labour.”

In April 1986, I saw a stage play entitled “Matonabbee” in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (still have the program).  I have a distinct recollection of the actor in the title role (played by a Chipewyan named Francois Paulette) striding across the stage while his wives followed behind, carrying heavy loads strapped to their foreheads.  There was a strong aboriginal component to the cast and crew.  In retrospect, I realize it was quite an enlightened production for the time period.

Because I have concerns about some questionable aspects of native society before contact, it follows that I also take issue with how King depicts aboriginal sovereignty.  He does not adequately convey the fact that sovereignty has various interpretations among aboriginal groups.  In 2003, the Harvard Project on Indian Economic Development released a report that contended sovereignty was the process needed for creating stable Indian government structures.  The authors concluded that letting these communities make their own decisions is a good idea as long as the institutions and policies developed are stable; dispute mechanisms are transparent; politics is separated from business; personnel are competent, and the systems developed take into account each tribe’s distinct characteristics.

In the 1980s, I did a considerable amount of research into United States tribal government archival systems for my native organization employer.  It seemed to me that work in this area, at least at the time, exemplified an efficient way of looking after the records.  I have absolutely no idea what the situation is like now, but I think it is important to point out that I saw aboriginal governance in action when it came to archival records, and it made sense to me, at least back then.

As I understand it, tribal sovereignty is different in practice in the United States and Canada.  It appears from the limited research I have done that the Canadian version of sovereignty is a mixed bag of everything from ones modelled on the Harvard project, to those reserves that want to break away entirely from Canada.  As mentioned previously, I have no problem with aboriginal communities operating as collectives, as long as they still want to remain part of the Canadian Constitutional framework.

I am concerned that King’s approach to sovereignty could result in the borders between Canada and the United States being eliminated, and thousands of separate “nations” operating independently of each other.  This could lead to anarchy and chaos.  Although there are many similarities between Canada and the United States, there are major differences was well, e.g., our legal systems.  Turning back the clock to satisfy some aboriginal demands for independence from federal oversight could end up backfiring on everyone involved.  Since aboriginal societies historically did not often get along with each other, and since these animosities are only starting to be addressed, I do not see how reverting to a pre-contact scenario would be advantageous.

E.3      Lack of Constructive Solutions

King’s observations about how non-aboriginals have failed aboriginals do have some merit.  For instance, he says that instead of trying to assimilate natives into the white educational system, whites could have developed partnerships with the individual nations (119).  The Assembly of First Nations recently agreed to the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, so this could be an example of this type of partnership in action (although some native groups and individuals are opposed to the Act).

I totally agree with King’s observation that non-aboriginals could have been more accommodating of aboriginals, rather than trying to change them into something they could never be.  I suspect at the core of the condescension is the “whites want land” issue.

But, considering such factors as the intertribal warfare and the disparaging treatment of women that went on pre-contact, I think it is far too simplistic for King to make it sound like returning to the traditional ways would make everything better.

F.       Conclusion

Although many of King’s experiences relating to aboriginal issues have come from working on reserves in the U.S. and Canada, and teaching native-oriented material in academic settings, the fact remains that he did not really get involved with the topic until he was about 25.  In addition, he has never lived on a reserve or in a native community.  Plus non-aboriginals, such as his mother and wife, have played very important roles in his thinking and philosophy.

I feel this is important to point out because of what I consider to be the often sarcastic and almost anarchistic approach he takes towards his subject matter.  Despite the fact that his life has been spent in a multiracial, multi-faceted environment, he portrays the native situation as very much an “us and them” situation, when his own biography does not mirror this reality.

In a February 2013 CBC Radio interview with Shelagh Rogers, he revealed there were many times that he wanted to give up on the book, and return the advance to the publisher.  He said it was Hoy who said he had to finish it.  And, as anyone knows who has read it, Hoy’s interjections feature prominently throughout.  This is frequently a good thing, since she helps to curtail some of his rants.

I also felt as if Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, whose endorsement appears on the book jacket, was leaning over his shoulder, along with Hoy.  King really tiptoes around any criticism of Canadian aboriginals, and I think this takes away from the book’s effectiveness.  When he finds fault with natives, he either does it in a general way, or limits his barbs to U.S. Indian groups.

So I maintain the book, despite its strengths, seems more the work of a committee than an individual.  King admitted in the CBC Radio interview that he really had trouble revisiting some of the material, and it shows.  I also had trouble revisiting some of the material because of my personal connection to it.  I can understand why he said it took him six years to finish it.  It took me six months to complete this blog post.


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