The story of Canada is the story of her relationship with native people. Despite the clamouring of history to pull us into the full sweep of accepted history – the one that starts with “discovery” segues into brave “explorers” and into the notion of “two founding nations” – the real history of Canada begins with native people. Similarly, the story of North America. In 1492, native people discovered Columbus. That’s the plain truth of it. Ever since that moment, the history of the continent has been interpreted and articulated through settler eyes. That there are gross inaccuracies and outright omissions is all too evident in the relative mainstream ignorance of all things indigenous circa 2012.
The truth, as it were, lies somewhere between what is taught and what is endured by indigenous people themselves. So it is that Cherokee/Greek author Thomas King offers us The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People In North America. Though it is built on a foundation of historical fact, King insists that the book is an “account,” resting more on storytelling technique than a true historian’s acumen.
We’re glad that it is. Because this accounting dredges up little-known facts that illuminate the lack of comprehension about the role of indigenous people on the national consciousness of both Canada and the United States. Then it lays them out in frequently hilarious, sagacious, down-to-earth language that anyone can understand. Reading it, you can hear minds being blown everywhere.
“Most of us think that history is the past. It’s not. It’s 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.”
From there, King leads us through accounts of the massacres of settlers that never happened to massacres of Indians that did, the true nature and intent of treaties and government apologies, the whole issue of land and a rollicking, gut-busting portrayal of Dead Indians, Live Indians and Legal Indians that perfectly outlines the whole issue of misperception.
It’s all couched in a plainspoken forthrightness that shocks as often as it demystifies. In an examination of treaties, and the perception of Canada and U.S. governments as benevolent and generous, King declares, “The idea that either country gave first nations something for free” is malarkey.
Later, in an examination of what Indians want, when King refocuses the question on what white people want, he lays it out without question: “Whites want land.
“The issue that came ashore with the French and the English and the Spanish, the issue that was the raison d’être for each of the colonies, the issue that has made its way from coast to coast to coast and is with us today, is the issue of land. The issue has always been land.”
With that understanding firmly stated, the whole nature and mechanics of history as inflicted on Indians in North America can be understood. It’s not an easy acceptance. It takes some grit and desire.
But the book is ultimately about healing. As much as he uncovers the dirt of history, King shines a light on what is possible in the advancement of Indians to an equal place in both countries. It is essential reading for everyone who cares about Canada and who seeks to understand native people, their issues and their dreams. We come to understand that Indians are inconvenient because, despite everything, we have not disappeared.
Thomas King is beyond being a great writer and storyteller, a lauded academic and educator. He is a towering intellectual. For native people in Canada, he is our Twain; wise, hilarious, incorrigible, with a keen eye for the inconsistencies that make us and our society flawed, enigmatic, but ultimately powerful symbols of freedom.
The Inconvenient Indian is less an indictment than a reassurance that we can create equality and harmony. A powerful, important book.
Richard Wagamese is native and committed to remaining as inconvenient as possible. His most recent book is the novel Indian Horse.
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