by Barry Weisleder
A review of “The Inconvenient Indian – A Curious Account of Native People in North America” by Thomas King, published by Anchor Canada, a division of Random House, 2013, 314 pages.
Thomas King, best known as the creator and star of the hilarious CBC Radio One series “The Dead Dog Cafe Comedy Hour”, is the author of a funny book about the sad tragedy that is the situation of North American indigenous peoples. The book is a best-seller, proving again that a serious message can reach a huge readership through the medium of satire, without debasing the cause.
Born in Sacramento, California, Thomas King is of Cherokee, Greek and German-American descent. As an adult, he migrated to Australia, where he worked for years as a photojournalist. After moving to Canada in 1980, King taught Native Studies at the University of Lethbridge in the early 1980s. He also served as a faculty member of the University of Minnesota’s American Indian Studies Department. King is currently an English professor at the University of Guelph, about an hour west of Toronto. King was the NDP candidate for Guelph in the October 14, 2008 federal election, finishing fourth behind the Liberal, Conservative, and Green Party candidates.
“The Inconvenient Indian” is a short, post-modern version of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” King recounts the massacres inflicted by the European colonial powers, records many of the lies, broken land treaties, the physical displacement, and the cultural genocide that still masquerades as education. The author postures as the skeptic, and proceeds to eviscerate the skepticism that surrounds corporate media coverage of aboriginal issues.
Why does he use the antiquated word ‘Indian’ when First Nations is the term of choice in Canada, and Native Americans is preferred in the United States? King calls it “the North American default”. Then he amusingly disparages his decision to name the non-native population ‘Whites.’ “Well, I struggled with this one. A Japanese friend of mine likes to call Anglos ‘crazy Caucasoids,’ while another friend told me that if I was going to use the term ‘Indians’ I should call everyone else ‘cowboys.’”
King identifies three kinds of Indian: Dead Indians, Live Indians and Legal Indians. Dead are the ones that “are the stereotypes and cliches that North America has conjured up out of experience and out of its collective imaginings and fears.” Society sees “war bonnets, beaded shirts, fringed deerskin dresses, headbands.” “You can find Dead Indians everywhere. Rodeos, powwows, movies, television commercials.” They pose no threat to power.
Live Indians, on the other hand, were an “annoying part of life in the New World.” European diseases killed about 80 per cent of them. The American newspaper mogul Horace Greeley said in 1859, “The Indians are children… the very lowest and rudest of human existence… These people must die out – there is no help for them.” King sarcastically adds: “Problem was, Live Indians didn’t die out.”
The Canadian census of 2006 records the existence of 565,000 Status Indians. The total indigenous population in Canada then, including Indians, Metis and Inuit, was 1.2 million – not counting those living on at least 22 Indian reserves, overlooked according to Statistics Canada. In the United States, federal “recognition” is granted to tribes rather than individuals. In 2009 the U.S. Federal Register recognized 564 tribes, encompassing about 950,000 people. The total number of Indians in the U.S. is around 2.4 million, or a few hundred thousand more or less, given the vagaries of the census.
Legal Indians have certain rights and privileges – because of the treaties both countries signed with Native nations. About 40 per cent of Live Indians in North America are Legal Indians. King caustically observes that “while North America loves the Dead Indian and ignores the Live Indian, North America hates the Legal Indian. Savagely.” He acerbically describes the treaties as an error in judgement that the establishment has been trying to correct for the last 150 years.
Legal Indians are ‘inconvenient’. That’s because their legal rights stand in the way of Private Profit – er, I mean Progress. (Sorry, I’m starting to sound like the author.)
But why can’t indigenous people just melt into the population at large? Sure, they’ve been robbed, kidnapped, displaced, and much worse than decimated. But why can’t they just say let’s ‘let bye-gones be by-gones’, and just ‘get over it?’
Well, should Jews, gays and Roma people just ‘get over’ the Nazi holocaust? Ought Blacks just ‘get over’ the murderous Middle Passage and nearly three hundred years of slavery? Doesn’t the commitment to the idea of ‘Never again’ require an historical memory?
How about the question of Aboriginal self-reliance?
King writes: “I’ve been told any number of times that we have to learn to stand on our own two feet and develop the skills necessary to manage on our own, without relying on government generosities.
“In the same way that Air Canada, AIG, Bombardier, Halliburton, General Motors, and the good folks out in Alberta’s Tar Sand Project manage on their own, without relying on government handouts.
“I suppose I could have mentioned Enron, World Com, Bre-X, and Bear Stearns as well, but these disasters were more greed than incompetence. Weren’t they? Though I suppose the one does not preclude the other.
“So, if I’ve got it right, while North America is reluctant to support the economic “incompetence” of Native people, it is more than willing to throw money at the incompetence of corporations. And why not? After all, if we’ve learned nothing in the last century, we should have learned that government support of big business is capitalism’s only hope.”
That’s a surprisingly radical analysis for a one-time NDP candidate, even if it is not accompanied by a concrete programme for radical change.
Here’s another way to look at the self-reliance idea, as it’s posed under capitalism. Some workers belong to a union. That gives them strength lacked by workers who don’t. Some indigenous people have treaty rights, which gives them a toe-hold, and a bit of leverage on the capitalist state. In the absence of a cooperative commonwealth for all, does it make sense to give up the little they’ve got, however ‘inconvenient’ they may be to big business?
To be sure, “The issue has always been land” insists King. “It will always be land, until there isn’t a square foot of land left in North America that is controlled by Native people.” It’s a sensitive issue, as discovered by 13-year-old Tenelle Starr from the Star Blanket First Nation, 90 kilometres north-east of Regina, Saskatchewan. She was sent home from school in early January because she was wearing a pink hoodie bearing the slogan ‘Got Land? Thank an Indian’. The good news is that now Tenelle’s friends are sporting the slogan, and the social media is all a-buzz.
In the meantime, indigenous land titles continue to stand in the way of corporate resource extraction, even of military training bases (like the one at Stoney Point Ojibway reserve in Ontario where provincial police shot and killed native protester Dudley George in 1995).
Fortunately, indigenous peoples’ opposition to pipeline construction has helped to forge an alliance of farmers, workers and environmentalists concerned about pollution and climate change. This convergence is reflected in the broad public support for the Idle No More movement that arose in late 2012.
The path that capitalists and their governments have taken to remove the native land obstacle to profit maximization is called ‘termination’. If the policy sounds deadly, it’s no accident.
Neither is it anything new. After centuries of dispossession and genocide, ‘modern’ governments stepped up to the plate. Duncan Campbell Scott, head of Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs from 1913-1932 put it bluntly: “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department…”
In 1953, the U.S. Congress passed the Termination Act and the Relocation Act concurrently. It allowed Congress to terminate all federal relations with tribes unilaterally, while Relocation “encouraged” Native people to quit their reservations and move to the cities.
In 1969, the Canadian government tried to do the same thing with its White Paper. Then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau suggested that there is no such thing as Indian entitlement to land or Native rights, and urged First Nations people to assimilate into Canadian society. The reaction was massively and fiercely negative. What do you suppose would happen if Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau advocated that today?
While the Conservative government of Stephen Harper drags its feet, Tory ideologue Tom Flanagan openly campaigns for the termination of Native status, and for dispersal and privatization of aboriginal lands.
The interest of the working class lies in solidarity with Indigenous peoples. The reasons are clear. One is the practical need for unity between workers and all oppressed peoples against the bosses and their state. Another is based on recognition that the struggle of Indigenous people to preserve their collective land rights constitutes a powerful obstacle to the agenda of Capital – which is to turn all of nature into a commodity, for sale to the highest bidder, subject to ruthless despoliation.
Thomas King’s “The Inconvenient Indian – A Curious Account of Native People in North America” is remarkably witty, often hilarious, and a truthful companion for the important battles ahead. Read it, and use it well.