Thomas King on The Inconvenient Indian

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First aired on Q (13/11/12)

Thomas King has spent a lifetime thinking about what it means to be Aboriginal in North America. The author of a number of acclaimed books, including the novel Green Grass, Running Water, King also created and starred in the popular CBC Radio show Dead Dog Café. In 2003, he became the first aboriginal person to give the Massey Lectures.

In his new book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, King shares the fruits of his extended reflection on native identity. It's part humour, part history, part analysis and part personal meditation. King recently dropped by Studio Q to talk about the book.

King told guest host Brent Bambury that the book is an account of the conversation he's been having with himself for most of his life. "I'm basically a fiction writer. I did non-fiction for the Massey Lectures, and this is my second non-fiction book," he said. "The narrative structures in this book probably take more from fiction than they do from historiography."


King struggled to write it: it took him six years, and he wrestled with "getting the facts, as we know facts, lined up with storytelling techniques," he explained. "One of my complaints with a great many history books is that they imagine that history is something that happened a hundred years ago, or at least 50 years ago. And I wanted to bring this story right up to the present day. Right to now. "

The book deals with "these large historical arcs...that speak to the interrelationships between natives and non-natives, between government policy as it follows us through the years," King said. "And what I wanted to show was that much of the ideas, much of the mindset that occurred in the 17th or 18th century is really the same mindset you have in the 21st century."

King's approach is to leaven the seriousness with humour, and he doesn't try to tell his readers what to think. "If I present a story that stimulates their imagination or gets them thinking about the situation, then there's a chance that maybe I can change their minds," he said. "Am I going to change the world? I sort of doubt it. But every morning I get up and I start writing with the idea that maybe I can."

A major theme in the book is how much the entertainment industry has shaped non-Aboriginals' notions about Aboriginal people. "On the one hand it's served us in that it's kept that sense of the Indian, and Indianness, alive within the public sphere," King said, adding, "Europe has the Greeks and Romans as their antiquity. What North America has are the Indians."

But this has also "frozen us in place and in time." In his book, King distinguishes between what he calls live Indians and dead Indians. The latter "are the stereotypes and the clichés that exist in the North American imagination, and the European imagination, and nowhere else. They have some relationship to native people, but the relationship is really fleeting and very thin and brittle. Live Indians are just sort of everyday, contemporary Native people who are kicking around loose."

According to King, non-Aboriginals don't really see live Indians: they're inconvenient. "We get in the way," he said, "especially for the movers and shakers in North America, because one of the main issues in native country is native land."

In fact, King believes that land is the fundamental issue for aboriginal people, even more than assimilation, education, language or culture. "Land is currency. Land is wealth in many cases. And control of land in North America is one of the paramount issues that has been going on ever since Europeans got to North America."

The birth of activism is a turning point in the narrative of The Inconvenient Indian. King has sympathy for individuals caught in the middle of land claim disputes. But he added: "When you have this long history of injustice, at some point that bill's going to have to be paid. At some point you're going to have to stop and say, Okay, we gotta fix this. And when you do that, people are going to be inconvenienced, if you don't mind the pun. I can be sympathetic, but only to a point. Because in terms of inconvenience, we've been inconvenienced a heck of a lot longer."

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