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January 28, 2015

The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

inconvenient-indian“You see my problem. The history I offered to forget, the past I offered to burn, turns out to be our present. It may well be our future.” –Thomas King

Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America is a curious contender for the Canada Reads debates, which this year is mixing fiction and non-fiction for the first time. Its scope is outsized compared to the other books. It comes with a moral imperative so great that a reader might be shamed to offer up a different book instead, a book championed for, say, its aesthetic concerns. It’s a book that might be difficult to discuss in its own right, outside of its subject matter.

But let’s for just a moment do such a thing.

For in all my years of reading, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a more curious “curious account” of anything. A history whose narrator shrugs away any claims of authority, chronology abandoned, national borders ignored, a narrative tone that’s sarcastic and a bit snarly. Plus haunted by the spirit of King’s wife, Helen, much esteemed, offering her own feedback from somewhere in the background: give examples, don’t generalize, and other editorial suggestions. What is the historian who offers up lines like, “I don’t know. I wasn’t there”? King’s supposed insouciance, his humour, his edge—with wry understatement—all rhetorical devices. There is a begrudgingness here, King offering up a book his readers have done nothing to deserve except be ignorant. This history is painful and terrible, and to tell it all chronologically, straightforwardly would be to be writing the same thing over and over again. The way he’s done it, at least, King gets to have a little bit of fun.

“I never knew,” I said to my husband, when I finished reading this book on Sunday afternoon, “what they meant when they said that we stole their land.” I’d assumed it was in a general sense—Europeans arriving on these shores and planting a flag, the First Nations people displaced with that one gesture. What I never knew, and only learned from reading The Inconvenient Indian, is the way in which First Nations land has been stolen over and over again. First Nations people moved and moved again, and displaced and relocated. This in itself traumatic—I’d known about the Cherokee Trail of Tears from reading King’s novel Truth and Bright Water—but then there was more, one example being the General Allotment Act of 1887, which broke up Indian reservations into individual pieces. Though to divide that land evenly between its inhabitants would make for too much land per person, the government decided, so they came up with an arbitrary amount, split that, and the rest became surplus land—theirs. Or the golf club in Vancouver whose land came from the Musqueam Nation, via agents in Ottawa—the Musqueam never even saw the agreement—with a long-term lease far below value. Later, the government signed a deal with developer to turn 40 acres of Musqueam land into a subdivision, also at rock-bottom prices fixed without increases for decades. When the Musqueam were eventually able to raise the rents to market rate, the homeowners refused to pay and took the case to court.

I knew about Indian Residential Schools, a terrible tragedy whose effects are trickling down through generations. But I never knew that one in two children in residential schools lost their lives there. King asks, “What would have happened if the residential schools had been public schools instead? Schools in Toronto, San Francisco, Vancouver, New York? What would have happened if the children who were dying were White? What would have happened if one of them had been your child?/ Sure It’s a rhetorical question.” King also asserts that “tragedy” is the wrong term with which to describe the residential schools. “It suggests that the consequences of residential schools were unintended and undesired, a difficult argument to make since…the schools were national policy.”

The underlying argument in The Inconvenient Indian—when casinos and garbage dumps become rare economic opportunities for First Nation communities; when land and rivers on reserves is ravaged by industrial waste from corporate neighbours; when it’s argued that the Indian land wasn’t being “used” anyway; when Native people are seen as unable to manage themselves without government handouts, all the while “Air Canada, AIG, Bombardier, Halliburton, General Motors, and the good folks at Alberta’s Tar Sands Project manage on their own without relying on government handouts”—is that capitalism is the problem. King writes, “there is little chance that North America will develop a functional land ethic until it finds a way to overcome its irrational addiction to profit.”

And there is so much more—on racism, historical perceptions, First Nations men murdered by police, First Nations women murdered by… well, who knows who, because no one can be bothered to investigate, the history of the AIM and activism throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and Oka and Ipperwash, the dots connected, pieces fitting, a shocking context, the same patterns, disregard and abuse repeated over and over, a hundred years ago, a decade ago. Which is why history is a slippery thing here, and why some critics would prefer the past be forgotten altogether—it’s simpler. King writes, “Using this approach as a template, one could write a book about the United States dropping two atomic bombs on Japan without having to mention World War II.”

I was thinking about this as I read the newspaper on Saturday, an editorial about the death of a Native child after her parents had halted her chemotherapy. “So far, no one has stepped forward to appeal the decision [to halt the treatment], probably because of an oversensitivity to the native rights issues that the judge allowed to cloud what should been a simple decision to protect the life of a child.”

An oversensitivity to native rights issues.

Has there ever been such a thing?

Which is not to say that the death of the child is not tragic, that she should not have been protected, that there are any easy answers in this situations, that there are any easy answers at all. But it is a failure to acknowledge complexities that has always been the problem, a tendency to fit people into boxes, for the human part of the matter (humanness, with all its foibles) to be disregarded. For someone, like say Christie Blatchford writing about Caledonia, or whoever wrote that editorial, to think that some matters are simple, that the weight of history might be sloughed off altogether. Hence the reason King subverts history, authority, chronology in his book—this is a story that has to be told another way.

The Inconvenient Indian has been sitting on my shelf for three years. I bought it for my husband who is an immigrant and wanted context to what he was hearing about First Nations issues in the news. He read it but I hadn’t. I’d been meaning to get around to it, and am pleased that Canada Reads has provided me with the incentive to finally do so. (Though I do wish a book by First Nations woman writer had been on the list this year—I learned by a campaign in November that in its history, Canada Reads had never featured such a book. I’m going to make an effort to seek out books by First Nations women for myself this year.)

I do wonder if the other books selected for Canada Reads are going to be unfairly pitted against this one, if there will be an unequal distribution of importance—it seems obviously slated to win. Who’d argue that? But someone will, and I wonder too if that will seem to trivialize The Inconvenient Indian when that happens. It seems like potentially an awkward exercise. But if the point is that the book gets read, then I think it’s a good thing. For me it’s always been the reading more than the debate that’s been the chief appeal of Canada Reads anyway.

9 thoughts on “The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King”

  1. Mark says:

    Fantastic post, Kerry. One of your absolute best.

  2. Tanya says:

    Thank you, Kerry. Great post. This book has been languishing on my shelf, too. I’m taking it down!

  3. Lindsay says:

    Great post and review. Thanks for this.

  4. m says:

    Once you get through the Canada Reads books, I recommend looking into the work of Leanne Simpson. She gave the Carol Shield’s Lecture at the most recent Victoria Writers Festival and it was one of the most powerful talks I’ve been to. I haven’t read her Islands of Decolonial Love yet, but her talk was based on the book. It’s a mix of stories and songs and poems.

    1. Kerry says:

      I’m going to do that, Marita! I’ve made a list of First Nations women authors, and she was one of the suggestions.

  5. Ann Marie says:

    Time to start reading this – the first of my ‘Canada Reads’ books…thank you, Kerry.

  6. I agree with the commenter on the 49th shelf website who asked for They called me number 1 by Chief Bev Sellars.

    I’d add that to the list, as well as Half Breed by Maria Campbell, A really good brown girl and/or The Pemmican Eaters by Marilyn Dumont, and Louise Halfe’s books. Also, In search of April Raintree.

    1. Kerry says:

      Thanks, Alexis! I added these (and the Chief Bev Sellars suggestions too—I hadn’t seen that). I didn’t put poetry on the list—wanted to highlight fiction and non-fiction, of which there are fewer, it seems. But we need a poetry list definitely!

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