Acclaimed Canadian novelist explores the history of aboriginal and non-aboriginal relations

Thomas King says he has spent a lifetime thinking about what it means to be an aboriginal in North America. Born in California in 1943 to a Greek mother and a Cherokee father, King immigrated to Canada in 1980 to teach native studies at the University of Lethbridge before moving on to teach English and drama at the University of Guelph.

The author of a number of acclaimed novels, including Green Grass, Running Water which was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award in 1993, King also created and starred in the CBC Radio One show Dead Dog Café. In 2003 he became the first aboriginal person selected to deliver the Massey Lectures and in 2004 was named to the Order of Canada.

King relates his own experience of activism in The Inconvenient Indian.

Photo by Karry TaylorKing recently published his 13th book — The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. The book, which King refers to as “part history and part memoir,” looks at the long history of aboriginal and non-aboriginal relationships in North America. Employing a tone that is not generally found in history books, King is by turn sarcastic, humorous and reflective about his subject matter.

King recently discussed his new book with Calgary Journal reporter Karry Taylor.

What led you to write this book?

I say in the introduction to the book that it’s a conversation that I have been having with myself for the past 50 years, at least.

One problem I see in native and non-native relationships in North America is that non-natives know very little about native history. What they see as anomalies — protests that have happened at Caledonia or Oka — they believe that these things just come out of nowhere and have no history behind them. Or if you take the road that is trying to be punched through a native reserve here so that Calgary gets a ring road around it — that has a very long and interesting history. I find that most people don’t know that history. They think that these things are 20th or 21st century anomalies. They aren’t.

So I thought that one of the things that I could do with a history book is to try to explain, not the history itself, but the arcs of the history — the kinds of policy decisions and events that have led to all this. I wanted to show the reoccurring patterns. Native history is really just a series of reoccurring patterns. We don’t move forward so much as we literally just repeat the same things over and over. The terms of reference may change, but the ideas behind those policy decisions really don’t.

I also wrote it for native people because sometimes we don’t understand our own overall history. We understand tribal histories and band histories. But we often don’t understand the overall history of Indians in North America any better than anybody else.

This book has a very particular voice — you use humour, satire and sarcasm. Why did you decide to write the book this way?

I could have written a straight history book—the kind where you keep your biases hidden and you make it seem like you are a neutral and unbiased observer. That is a perfectly good way of writing a book. But it’s not my way.

I decided to make it a personal book and to make it part history and part memoir. It was easy for me to write it that way. I wanted it as a conversational piece as if I am sitting down and having a cup of coffee with you and we are yapping about native history.

You used the term Indian in the book’s title. In your opinion, is that a problematic term?

It is a problematic term. I think now, in Canada especially, people would prefer the term First Nations. That is fine with me. But I would prefer to use just band designation like Blackfoot, Cree and Coast Salish.

“I think that as long as North America comes after native land the way that they have in the past, and the way that they do right now, that it is simply going to cause more confrontations.”

– Thomas King

In the book I talk about native peoples as a whole entity. They don’t exist as a whole — but I do talk about them that way. So I needed some sort of collective term.

I had some choices. There is Amerindian, which I hate because it’s an anthropological term. There is First Nations, First Peoples, Native Peoples, Indians — all those were available to me. I had to decide on what my main term was going to be. So I decided on Indian. Not that the other terms are not as good. Some of them are even better. It’s just that in the North American imagination — which is outside of native peoples, Indian is a term that still has purchase.

You talk about a long North American tradition of native cultures being co-opted and commercialized in things like movies and advertising. Where does this fascination come from?

It’s a European fascination with native people too. But in terms of commercial renderings of native people, because we are associated with land husbandry we are then are also associated with spirituality and purity. Everybody from environment companies to Victoria Secret likes to use Indian iconography. Victoria Secret just had a show where they had one of their models come down the runway in a full, feathered headdress that reached the floor.

People say to me, ‘Well those things have changed.’ But then I see the Victoria Secret thing and I say, ‘No, they haven’t changed that much.’ From an advertising standpoint, Indian iconography is still a powerful thing. Westerns are still being made. And when you make a western, you need to have Indians in feathers and leather.

Although he says he was initially reluctant to write a history book, King says he hopes his book will eventually be adopted as a university text book.

Photo courtesy of Doubleday CanadaIf you look at all the advertisers who use Indian iconography, it’s a fairly large lineup — everything from Indian Motorcycles to Land O’ Lakes butter. This list just goes on and on. But all that is not about native people. Its about a particular image that exists in the North American imagination that really has very little to do with native people — especially with contemporary native people. But it’s still a powerful symbol.

You write in this book that native cultures are remarkably tenacious and resilient. Are you hopeful for the future?

I am a pessimist. I don’t think things are going to get better. But I wake up every morning and I am hopeful that they will.

I think that as long as North America comes after native land the way that they have in the past, and the way that they do right now, that it is simply going to cause more confrontations. There’s always an oil company that is looking for land to drill on or for land to build a pipeline through. There’s always a corporation wanting to take over part of native land for some type a project.

I suspect that none of this is going to stop until there is not one square foot of native land left in native hands. That is depressing for me because if we lose our land base, we lose everything. I hope I am wrong about that.

Am I hopeful? I would be more hopeful if native people were better organized to fight it. We need to be a heck of a lot more proactive as a group. The hard thing is that the tribes and the bands are so different, with different languages, meaning there has never been a fully functional national native organization. Certainly the Assembly of First Nations is doing some of this. They represent many of the tribes and bands — but not all. So I don’t know.

This has been a departure from what you normally write. What’s next for you when it comes to writing?

Fiction. This book was, in many ways, my first work of non-fiction. But now I am going back to fiction. I like to create the world myself. I don’t like facts getting in my way. I like to control any word that comes out of everybody’s mouth. It makes things much easier. And I like fiction. It pleases me to write it.

I don’t dislike nonfiction, but I have to struggle more at it. Although with this book — it took me six years to write the silly thing— once I got into it, I did enjoy it.

ktaylor@cjournal.ca 

Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.