The inconvenient Indian collective: Bob Tarantino reviews Thomas King’s new book

Bob Tarantino
June 7, 2013
Thomas King has produced a new, almost poetic account of Indians and their relationship with European settlers. He inevitably struggles with articulating and abiding by a convention on how to treat individuals and collectivities. He is not alone. Bob Tarantino reviews The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America.

The inconvenient Indian collective: Bob Tarantino reviews Thomas King’s new book

Bob Tarantino
June 7, 2013
Thomas King has produced a new, almost poetic account of Indians and their relationship with European settlers. He inevitably struggles with articulating and abiding by a convention on how to treat individuals and collectivities. He is not alone. Bob Tarantino reviews The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America.
Share on facebook
Share on Facebook
Share on twitter
Share on Twitter

The Inconvenient
Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America
Thomas King
Doubleday Canada, 304 pages, $34.95
Reviewed by Bob Tarantino

Good stories pose questions, though they don’t always provide answers. Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America is, in its way, an attempt to query its readers: if this had happened to you, wouldn’t you be ticked too?

Many urban Canadians (including the writer of this review) have never spoken at length with one of our fellow citizens of Native/aboriginal/First Nations/Indian descent. It is an omission which King has tried to remedy with The Inconvenient Indian, a book whose languid pace and meandering trajectory impart the mood of an afternoon’s conversation in a comfortable bar with an old acquaintance. King, a novelist, broadcaster, member of the Order of Canada and former NDP candidate, has produced a rewarding book, even if the reader seeks nothing more than to get unmediated access to the type of honest thoughts and impressions on a topic of pressing concern rarely conveyed via television or newspaper and which novels and poems present only obliquely. The Inconvenient Indian offers an unvarnished take on the views and yearnings of one Indian – an opportunity which Canadians would do well to seize. It is, as King promises, a narrative which kicks up rage, sorrow, irony and humour.

King knows his audience is going to be uncomfortable with at least some of what he has to say and the directness with which he delivers his message. He brings readers along by telling his stories with archly-raised eyebrows, knowing glances and playful punches to the arm.

(I should note that this review uses, as King does throughout his book, the term “Indian”, in full recognition of how fraught with potential insult such usage is. Terminology is, King says, a “rascal”. The shifting preferences and sensitivities regarding “naming” is something King toys with, and ultimately concludes that one word is, for these purposes, no worse than another. I will use “Indian” and “White” if for no reason other than to keep faith with King’s text.)

In assessing King’s “curious account”, the adjective should be used in both senses: inquisitive and odd. The book rambles from topic to topic, anecdote to anecdote, charming the reader with historical tidbits, then turning into a much darker read a little more than halfway through – the conversation adopting a more dour tone, the litany of facts becoming less amusing and more ominous.

King’s account is also, admittedly and even proudly, an idiosyncratic and biased one. It jumps from Louis Riel to Roy Rogers to Plan 9 from Outer Space to the Hollywood Walk of Fame to the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and beyond. If nothing else, all but the most erudite readers will walk put this book down having picked up some new snippet of information or cultural analysis.

Of course, wise readers will be on their guard after King warns that his book will be subjective and predisposed to privilege certain aspects of the history he is relating. Thus, for example, his brief recounting of the land claim dispute in Caledonia, Ontario includes criticism of journalist Christie Blatchford’s book on the topic, but neglects to mention Sam Gualtieri, the builder of a home on the disputed land who was left with permanent brain damage after being beaten in a “senseless and vicious” attack which was “a notch below culpable homicide” (Gualtieri’s assailant was given a sentence of less than two years imprisonment).

Two considerations dominate a reading of the The Inconvenient Indian. The first is the unresolved, and unresolvable, tension in the book which echoes in Canadian political life, namely the relationship between the individual and the collective. Who is the “you” in the question posed in the first paragraph of this essay?– If this had happened to you, wouldn’t you be ticked too? We generally struggle with notions of collective rights or histories, but there are certainly echoes in our language and our social geography: our intellectual and legal touchstone remains the individual, but we can speak without much cognitive dissonance of communities or collectivities such as, say, “the Irish” or “the West”.

At the same time that we prioritize the individual as the vehicle by which we understand and explicate history, we also conduct our discussions by talking about abstractions such as nation-states and cultural groups: we speak of “Canadian” history or “Jewish” history, though we often anchor such terms by reference to individuals. In this book, King is relating “Indian” history, but as he notes in deciding to utilize the term “Indian”, there “never was a collective [North American aboriginal culture] to begin with”. Nevertheless, Indians have had the collectivity of their history imposed upon them (Whites viewing Indians as an undifferentiated mass) and they have taken its mantle upon themselves (Indians expressing solidarity with their cultural “cousins”), and King wrestles with both processes.

And so King’s account of Indians and their relationship with European settlers and later the governments of Canada and the United States inevitably struggles with articulating and abiding by a convention on how to treat individuals and collectivities. When an Indian child suffered abuse in a residential school, or an Indian was taken on a “Starlight Tour” (i.e., an intoxicated Indian was picked up by police and driven out and dropped off in the middle of nowhere on a freezing Prairie winter night) was that suffering an infliction solely on the individual or was it in some meaningful sense borne by the community as a whole?

If the latter is correct (and King certainly contends that is the case) how do we define the “community” affected? Does it extend from the Sayisi Dene in Manitoba to the Chickasaw in Oklahoma to Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia to the Yakama in Washington to the Mescalero Apache in New Mexico? If so, how do we account for and describe this transference? None of this is unique to the issues which King discusses (we often speak of historical events, such as World War II or the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as happening to a society as a whole), but The Inconvenient Indian forces readers to confront the problem, even if it fails to provide a satisfactory solution.

The second consideration, related to the first, is whether injustice has a weight, an historical inertia, which transfers through communities and cultures. Of course, if that’s correct – and certainly we tend to speak as if it is – then it cannot and does not merely apply to Indians. But it is the central animating concern in the book: what does it mean that all of these things happened (in the past)? Is there a way for Indians and Whites to “solve”, or at least address, historical inequities, or can a “fresh start” be possible? (The Inconvenient Indian expressly concludes that the latter is not a viable possibility.)

The two considerations force us to confront political questions: namely, what is to be done?

King never takes much of an expressly political stance. He avers that violence might be necessary or acceptable in some situations (though he declines to specify which ones). He clearly thinks “land” and its ownership (or at least stewardship) by Indians is key, but precisely how that is to be realized is the subject of some hemming-and-hawing.

Keeping the promises and relationships memorialized in treaties is also something King prioritizes, though he never quite delves into the issue of whether there are any ambiguities in the language of those treaties and, if there are, how we might reconcile them with modern governance.

But perhaps such criticism is beside the point – King is writing as a poet, not a lawyer. Lawyers don’t seem to have gotten us terribly close to reconciliation and solidarity, so perhaps adopting the poet’s approach will be more productive. Indeed, The Inconvenient Indian, and my fondness for it, are predicated on precisely that wager.

The lack of an express political program in the book means that readers are left to muse over the broader implications. For political conservatives in particular, some fundamental challenges arise. Conservatives cannot profess the primacy or value of community and cultural continuity on the one hand, but then dismiss the sufferings of Indians (whether individually or in the aggregate) on the other.

The mutual antipathy and incomprehension with which Indians and small-government conservatives often regard each other is difficult to fathom. Indians are the only Canadian community which have had a federal bureaucracy specially dedicated to them for more than a century, and no community has been subject to as much government intervention and control. Indian nations are also, by virtually any measure, the most impoverished, damaged and shattered communities in this country. The former facts may have nothing to do with the latter, but if they do not, it’s an awfully curious coincidence. Put more succinctly: no one has been manhandled by government more than Indians – so they would seem natural constituents for those suspicious of overweening governments.

That Indians are not terribly receptive to small-government conservatives probably reveals some uncomfortable truths for both sides. If there’s a genuine desire on the part of conservatives (and Conservatives) to understand Indians, to understand the conditions in which they find themselves and the conditions to which they aspire, The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King’s gently insistent hand guiding the reader along, offers a decent place to start.

~

Bob Tarantino is an entertainment lawyer in Toronto.

Love C2C Journal? Here's how you can help us grow.

More for you

The Private Sector Must Get a Larger Role in Canadian Health Care

Canada has so far ducked the extreme growth in the Covid-19 hospitalization and mortality rates afflicting some other countries. The worst is certainly still to come, however – and when it does, the shortfall in Canada’s health care capacity will be laid bare. The vulnerability was largely avoidable, points out Gwyn Morgan, if Canada like nearly all other countries had only allowed private health care delivery alongside its public system. When the nation comes out the other side of the pandemic, Morgan writes, a health care policy reckoning will be long overdue.

Future of Conservatism Series, Part V: Could Canada Handle a Trumpian Populist?

Democratic politics must continue even in times of war. Despite suspension of the federal Conservative leadership race amidst the coronavirus, members and supporters still need to think about how to shape their party and pick the right leader to best meet the many challenges of our era. C2C Journal has looked at revived Red Toryism, at uncompromisingly principled conservatism and at the decidedly compromised but successful Harper way. We have sought insight from abroad. And now we turn to populism. Barry Cooper applies his usual fearless thinking and cheerful bluntness to evaluate whether the Canadian political landscape has become hospitable terrain to a Canadian Trump.

Want More Affordable Housing in Canada? Build More Houses

Solving Canada’s housing crisis shouldn’t require more than a single lesson in economics. When prices are high, a free market always responds and supplies more. Yet amidst Canada’s severe problems of housing affordability, this foolproof mechanism is continually frustrated by governments that are either ignorant of how markets work, fixated on preserving the status quo or display naked contempt for the profit motive. Peter Shawn Taylor looks at the scorn heaped on land developers, landlords and the rest of the housing supply industry and wonders how they became the villains of this story.

Thinking Clearly in a Time of Panic

How should the conservative mind respond to the coronavirus pandemic? Panic and despair are in ample supply, and the urge to succumb appears widespread. Others have steered, via deliberate ignorance, to fatalism, though the walls are closing in on such rebels. Both extremes are beneath thoughtful conservatives. C2C Editor-in-Chief George Koch counsels that however dark today might appear, the eternal search for objective truth – the foundation for all conservative thought – is the first necessary step along the path to seeing humankind through to brighter days.

Future of Conservatism Series Part IV: Rallying the World’s Centre-Right Parties

As Canada’s Conservatives evaluate leadership hopefuls and ponder what their party is about and which path might lead to electoral victory, it’s easy to ignore international politics. They should take a look, for the world holds dozens of established centre-right democratic parties, and many are tackling challenges of relevance and adaptation at least as steep as those burdening Canada’s Conservatives. John Weissenberger travelled to Washington, D.C. for the annual conference of the International Democrat Union (IDU) and provides his assessment in this essay. Later this year, once international travel is restored, Weissenberger heads to Vienna to deepen his understanding at the IDU’s 2020 Forum.

Averting “Climate Poverty” for Canada’s Middle Class

Pursuing grandiose visions tends to cloud judgment, and when the vision is saving our very planet from an apprehended climate crisis, it’s little surprise that numbers are fudged, logic is twisted, the hardest-hit are ignored and entire social classes are cast into the trash. Matthew Lau, however, refuses to be dazzled by dreams. In this article, Lau remains rooted in reality and fixed on crunching the numbers to come up with some arresting conclusions about the huge costs of government climate policies to working people here and now, set against marginal if not ephemeral benefits to come over the next 80 years.

Share This Story

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on print

Donate

Subscribe to the C2C Weekly
It's Free!

By clicking SUBSCRIBE, you agree to receive emails from C2C Journal. You can unsubscribe at any time.