Review of The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by

Book cover for The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America

Just last week, CBC News announced it was closing comments on articles about indigenous peoples, because at the moment, it cannot guarantee sufficient moderation to sustain polite discourse. In addition to the usual trolls, some people were writing hate speech motivated by a misconception of the state of indigenous peoples in Canada. And while this is reprehensible, it probably shouldn’t be surprising. We white people are very good at ignoring indigenous people—until we want their land, that is.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America is Thomas King’s attempt to make some kind of sense of the conflicting narratives and myths created about the European occupation of North America. I approached this book as someone who is interested in gaining a deeper awareness of indigenous perspectives on indigenous issues. I’m already sympathetic to these ideas and have a surface-level understanding of some of the challenges Indigenous people face as a result of colonialism. I don’t think this book would work for someone who, say, is not so sympathetic or is actively labouring under the types of misconceptions that I hear all-too-often in Thunder Bay.

Unlike Stephen Harper, I have no trouble admitting that Canada has a history of colonialism. As King demonstrates in the Chapter 7, “Forget About It,” that colonialism is ongoing. It has never stopped. And while I thought I understood this prior to reading The Inconvenient Indian, the implications of this continuum of colonialism only crystallized for me after reading this book.

We don’t learn enough about our history of colonialism in schools. It’s convenient, for instance, for us to subscribe to the fiction that we aren’t responsible for anything that happened before 1867. That was Britain and France, we say—blame those European powers! (Strangely enough, we’re quite happy to claim we “won” the War of 1812 despite not being a country back then, either.) But for all the noise that provincial governments make about curricula, indigenous peoples were largely absent from my education. And while I understand now that the colonization and oppression of indigenous people is ongoing, it took King’s book to help me connect these two ideas—that is to say, our education system leaves us ignorant because colonialism is ongoing. I learned about the slavery and the triangle trade in history class, because these things are done and gone, and we can talk about them as “terrible tragedies” with the required distance of history. (N.B., I know that slavery is still a huge problem in Canada, and similarly, racism against black people is an ongoing issue we need to deal with as a society. But slavery is underground instead of legalized, and while racism against black people is endemic and systemic, it is not codified in our laws the way it is with indigenous people and the Indian Act.) But talking about our history with indigenous nations requires us to look at how things are “better” now … and as King points out, over and over in this book, things aren’t better; we’re just adept at discriminating in new and creative ways.

It’s this cyclical view that was the gamechanger for me here. I knew we had been colonialist in the past, and I knew we were being colonialist now, but King lines everything up and connects the dots in a way that shows how our current attitudes emerged from past ones. And so I can see now that a statement I might have made previously, like, “The situation of indigenous peoples in Canada is still pretty bad, but it has gotten a lot better in recent years” is just woefully inaccurate. Although it’s true that some bands and nations have made great strides in some areas, others have seen setbacks; it’s so difficult to quantify whether things are getting better or worse, because overall our society remains hostile and racist.

Disagree? I refer you to the CBC comments section.

Naturally, being a teacher, I’m all for education. But King has a wet blanket for me, too; he puts it very elegantly in the final chapter:

Ignorance has never been the problem. The problem was and continues to be unexamined confidence in western civilization and the unwarranted certainty of Christianity. And arrogance. Perhaps it is unfair to judge the past by the present, but it is also necessary.

He does go on to say, “If nothing else, an examination of the past—and of the present, for that matter—can be instructive,” so education is helpful—just not enough on its own. Because when you get right down to it, our governments, past and present, have always known what they were doing. They want “inconvenient Indians” to disappear. They wish that indigenous peoples were relegated to history like they are so often portrayed in Hollywood. And if we truly are a democracy where governments reflect the will of the people—where governments refuse to take a stand about land rights or missing and murdered women or police brutality because it would mean upsetting affluent white voters—then the will of the people sucks, and we should be ashamed.

I was reading a recent issue of National Geographic, and it had an article about a national park in Scandinavia. It mentioned the Sami people, indigenous peoples of that area. I did a doubletake. I didn’t know there were people indigenous to that area! (I knew there are plenty of indigenous cultures in various parts of the world, just not there.) Our society is not interested in highlighting the diversity of indigenous cultures anywhere, because it would mean admitting that we need to talk to the members of these cultures, to treat them like human beings, to deal with them fairly. And we can’t do that, because they have land we want. Land we deserve, I guess, because we’re better at exploiting it?

I should note that the above tirade is my own and not King’s. Actually, despite his hefty cynicism, King is fairly conciliatory in tone. He’s not here to accuse or point fingers at white people in general; he’s not saying you are a bad person. But acknowledging our privilege and the way we interact with our racist society is important.

As King mentions, this is all about the land. It’s not just a problem of racism; it’s a problem of capitalism. We live in a world that rewards a certain perspective, one in which property and people are both commodities valued only for what they can produce, not their intrinsic qualities. This is a noxious philosophy, but it has made many people rich, and so they defend it. And, unfortunately, attempts to improve or replace this system have sometimes backfired spectacularly.

The Inconvenient Indian is an account of indigenous peoples in North America rather than a history. King explains this choice in the prologue, and I understand. He’s not here to be a scholar—others have done that. He’s here to make a point. He does so eloquently and exhaustively. Each chapter is full of facts (as much as he maligns them) and anecdotes and impressive lists of dates and events. At every turn, he confronts us with the reality that the Canadian and American governments have never dealt with indigenous peoples in good faith, have broken treaties and promises whenever it suited them, and have alternatively attempted to exterminate or legislate indigenous people out of existence.

It’s a grim story. But it is our story. And King does, to his credit, try to end on a happy note. While he can’t point to things getting better, he highlights two “recent” massive land claims (in Alaska and in the creation of Nunavut) that have set some precedents. And he reminds us that whatever the past and present holds, the future is yet unwritten: indigenous cultures and people can change, just as the rest of society can change.

If we will it.

So educate yourself. Read this book. Get uncomfortable. Talk about racism. Challenge your behaviour and the behaviour of the friends. This won’t go away unless we do something about it.

Engagement

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