Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America
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.