The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King
Doubleday Canada, November 13, 2012 (Nonfiction)
My rating: Outstanding Adventure (5/5)
Fictions are less unruly than histories.
It’s that time again, for my monthly foray into nonfiction all in effort of facilitating my book club at work. Last month I tackled WWI and this month it’s a more complicated and controversial subject, Native relations in North America. This was not my pick for this month’s meeting, and I wasn’t exactly filled with excitement to read this one, but it’s a nominee for this year’s Evergreen Award, and we wanted to support the program at our book club. I should have been excited for this one, was it ever good. And I’m always happy when discussion flows at our meetings, although with this one, discussion got a little heated.
In Inconvenient Indian King takes an immensely complicated topic and distills it into something that’s accessible, and not only that, he also makes it engaging and lively. The issue of Native-White relations is not something that you’d generally perceive as something that’s lively. Heart wrenching, controversial, yes, but lively not so much. But King is one of a hell of a writer. He continually acknowledges the tough stuff but always demonstrates this with wit and the occasional sarcastic comment, which drives home the difficulties in the many contradictory interactions between White people and Natives, and it’s easy to guess just who’s behaving in a contradictory manner.
While I loved King’s engaging and dynamic style of writing, the concepts that he brought up where also vastly interesting and have really opened my eyes to a history and political issue that I knew next to nothing about. Now, I remember those Canadian history classes from elementary school to university and they always cover the “contact” period between the Natives and the European settlers. That said, I don’t recall my history classes ever truly examining the severe ramifications of these two cultures meeting. King does this in a way that’s meaningful.
What I also liked was how King forces readers to consider how history is crafted in chapter one. I’ve thought a lot about how the media manipulates information, but this served as a reminder that someone is writing history as well.
Most of us think that history is the past. It’s not. History is the stories we tell about the past. That’s all it is. Stories. Such a definition might make the enterprise of history seem neutral. Benign.
Which, of course, it isn’t.
History may well be a series of stories we tell about the past, but the stories are not just any stories. They’re not chosen by chance. By and large, the stories are about famous men and celebrated events. We throw in a couple of exceptional women every now and then, not out of any need to recognize female eminence, but out of embarrassment.
And we’re not easily embarrassed.
When we imagine history, we imagine a grand structure, a national chronicle, a closely organized and guarded record of agreed-upon events and interpretations, a bundle of “authenticities” and “truths” welded into a flexible, yet conservative narrative that explains how we got from there to here. It is a relationship we have with ourselves, a love affair we celebrate with flags and anthems, festivals and guns (p. 2-3).
Reading this had me hooked. The fact that history is constructed for consumption is not a new idea for me, but King puts it here so succinctly that I think everyone should read this book. While King focuses on Natives in North America, you can apply his statement about history so much further and it’s that concept that I find so interesting. King succeeds in framing Native history in a way that brings a new understanding of the conventional lessons that are taught in the history classroom. Whether it’s media or a textbook, the consumer should always think critically about the content that they are engaging with. Someone has packaged it and with it, they have included their own biases and prejudices. With The Inconvenient Indian it is all too clear who has suffered from continued constructed history that has shaped beliefs and encourage behaviour among others. Folks, history isn’t a boring and lifeless thing, it always impacts the present for better or worse.
King speaks further on the importance of history when he considers the argument that the past is the past, why can’t Native people move on? This notion of forgetting the past in favour of moving forward is an important one since I think it’s one that’s all too easy to get caught up in. We live in a society where the focus is on the present more so than on the past or even on the future (to an extent). With an issue like Native-White relations how can the past be brushed under the rug? Where is the context for present day arguments? This is an important question to think about considering King’s focus, but it also has broad application for a whole host of other problems or global issues. Another reason that I think everyone should read the book.
Additionally, I also appreciated the fact that King’s scope encompasses Native-White relations in both Canada and the United States. I think this is partly due to the author’s own experiences, but also due to the fact that the border is a separate construct for Natives and created with little (more likely, none) regard for the Native peoples that straddled this line. It conveyed the huge diversity that exists among Native peoples and opened my eyes to this issue outside of a Canadian lens.
Ultimately, I think The Inconvenient Indian is an important book. The issues that King explores are timely and thought-provoking. This needs to be on people’s radar. What’s more is that King writes in such a way that this book will actually be read by more than academics; it’s accessible, it’s not a textbook. Everyone should read this book – so get thee to a library!
Thomas King also writes a lot of fiction. In fact, he comments in the book that he prefers writing fiction before non-fiction. I’ve only read one of his fiction works, Medicine River, during school. After finishing Inconvenient Indian, I do feel a desire to go back and read some more of his fiction, without the lens of forced reading to colour my experience.
Now I haven’t read Indian Horse, but it comes highly recommended from a number of staff members at my library. It is a fiction account, but it takes on a number of issues that arise in King’s Inconvenient Indian.