This week, the RBC Charles Taylor Prize will be awarded to one Canadian non-fiction book from the past year. We spoke to the nominated authors about their craft and the process of writing their shortlisted book. Here, an excerpt from Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian.
What do Indians want?
Great question. The problem is, it’s the wrong question to ask. While there are certainly Indians in North America, the Indians of this particular question don’t exist. The Indians of this question are “the Indian” that Canada and the United States have created for themselves. And as long as the question is asked in that way, there will never be the possibility of an answer. Better to ask what the Lubicon Cree of Alberta want or the Brantford Mohawk of Ontario or the Zuni of New Mexico or the Hupa of northern California or the Tlingit of Alaska.
But I’d just as soon forget the question entirely. There’s a better question to ask. One that will help us to understand the nature of contemporary North American Indian history. A question that we can ask of both the past and the present.
What do Whites want?
No, it’s not a trick question. And I’m not being sarcastic. Native history in North America as writ has never really been about Native people. It’s been about Whites and their needs and desires. What Native peoples wanted has never been a vital concern, has never been a political or social priority.
The Lakota didn’t want Europeans in the Black Hills, but Whites wanted the gold that was there. The Cherokee didn’t want to move from Georgia to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), but Whites wanted the land. The Cree of Quebec weren’t at all keen on vacating their homes to make way for the Great Whale project, but there’s excellent money in hydroelectric power. The California Indians did not asked to be enslaved by the Franciscans and forced to build that order’s missions.
What do Whites want?
The answer is quite simple, and it’s been in plain sight all along. Land.
Whites want land.
Sure, Whites want Indians to disappear, and they want Indians to assimilate, and they want Indians to understand that everything that Whites have done was for their own good because Native people, left to their own devices, couldn’t make good decisions for themselves.
All that’s true. From a White point of view at least. But it’s a lower order of true. It’s a spur-of-the-moment true, and these ideas have changed over time. Assimilation was good in the 1950s, but bad in the 1970s. Residential schools were the answer to Indian education in the 1920s, but by the twenty-first century governments were apologizing for the abuse that Native children had suffered at the hands of Christian doctrinaires, pedophiles, and sadists. In the 1880s, the prevailing wisdom was to destroy Native cultures and languages so that Indians could find civilization. Today, the non-Native lament is that Aboriginal cultures and languages may well be on the verge of extinction. These are all important matters, but if you pay more attention to them than they deserve, you will miss the larger issue.
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, the issue that has never changed, never varied, never faltered in its resolve, is the issue of land. The issue has always been land. It will always be land, until there isn’t a square foot of land left in North America that is controlled by Native people.
At the Lake Mohonk conference in October of 1886, one of the participants, Charles Cornelius Coffin Painter, who served as a lobbyist for the Indian Rights Association, pointed out the obvious, that the treaties made with Native people had been little more than expediencies. In his talk, Painter quoted General William Tecumseh Sherman, who had said that treaties “were never made to be kept, but to serve a present purpose, to settle a present difficulty in the easiest manner possible, to acquire a desired good with the least possible compensation, and then to be disregarded as soon as this purpose was tainted and we were strong enough to enforce a new and more profitable arrangement.”
This is the same General Sherman who philosophized that “The more Indians we kill this year, the fewer we will need to kill the next.”
Painter didn’t necessarily agree with Sherman, but he understood that the overall goal of removals, allotments, treaties, reservations and reserves, terminations, and relocations, was not simply to limit and control the movement of Native peoples, but more importantly to relieve them of their land base.
Land. If you understand nothing else about the history of Indians in North America, you need to understand that the question that really matters is the question of land.
Excerpted from The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. Copyright © 2013 Thomas King. Published by Anchor Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.