Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian (subtitled a “A Curious Account of Native People in North America”) is full of tales of injustice, hypocrisy and flat-out racism towards this continent’s indigenous peoples.
It’s also — at times — quite funny.
For instance, he begins the book by detailing a conversation with his partner, Helen Hoy, on, well, how to begin the book. “Just don’t start with Columbus,” advises Hoy.
“She always gives me good advice,” writes King. “I always give it my full consideration.”
And on the next line he begins his treatise: “In October of 1492, Christopher Columbus came ashore….”
“Years and years ago, when I was sort of a front-line activist — when I say front-line, I was out there on protests and whatnot — I would make speeches, and I would yell at people, and stomp up and down and try to make my point with just force of voice and force of the information and whatnot,” says King when queried about his tongue-in-cheek style of disseminating information. “What I discovered was that I was just being entertainment — you know, invite the angry Indian to the show and watch him jump up and down and yell and shout.
“I learned fairly early on that that kind of frontal attack on the prejudices of North America was not going to get me very far…. What I really had to do was present that information in a way that got past the basic defences that people throw up when they’re sort of assaulted. I discovered that humour was much more powerful than anger. It allowed you to get in close and then… tweak it just a little a bit.”
Not a dry, straightforward history by any stretch, The Inconvenient Indian jumps around a variety of issues regarding the often uncomfortable relationship between natives and non-natives. It touches on subjects ranging from the appropriation of aboriginal culture (“I get quite cranky at $1,200 vision quests — get in touch with your inner-Indian kind of thing,” he says) to the contentious topic of self-determination. In doing so, the Massey Hall lecturer, broadcaster and author uses an arsenal of disarming techniques — “satire, sarcasm and — sometimes just the juxtaposition of the horror of the situation with something that is so ridiculous that it’s comic.”
Needless to say it’s a timely book, what with Idle No More and Chief Theresa Spence in the news. Although he wrote and published The Inconvenient Indian before these events came to pass, the issues inherent in the movement have long been of concern to First Nations people. As King details in the book, official efforts to override indigenous rights have been part and parcel of government policy both here and in the U.S. since Europeans first set foot on North America soil.
In particular, King writes that the notion of termination (the abrogation of treaties, and denying “status” to indigenous peoples, for example) is a concept that gains popularity in an almost cyclical fashion whenever relations become too strained.
“Termination has been tried any number of times,” he says. “The first sort of official run at it was in the ’50s in the States, but then Chrétien and Trudeau tried it with the 1969 White Paper — it’s an idea that’s been kicking around for years,” he says.
Part of the problem, as presented by King, is in the way the non-native world perceives indigenous peoples, which is to say, not as people at all, but as he puts it, as a “simulacrum” or a “dead Indian” — an amalgamation of clichéd and stereotypical signifiers in the form of war bonnets and face paint.
It’s an identity issue that even affects natives themselves, says King. In the book he recounts with a “chill” the bone-choker necklace and feather in his hair he wore as a young man….
“I knew at the time, no matter what the cultural value the outfit had for me, it was my way of announcing to the world that I was native and don’t mistake me for anything else,” he explains when queried as to what the harm was in expressing cultural pride in his manner of dress. “I also knew that I was playing to a particular stereotype and cliché that had currency within the larger society….
“I was basically saying I can’t exist as an Indian unless I look like this. It took me quite awhile to get past that. It was not an easy thing to get past because people would come up and say, ‘oh wow, you’re Indian?’ Yeah, what was your first clue? The bone choker or the feather in my hair?”