Thursday, August 15, 2013

American History, from the other side

The Inconvenient Indian
One of the best books I read last year was Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King.  I was very excited to see King has a new book out this year, The Inconvenient Indian:  A Curious Account of Native People in North America, and picked it up as soon as I could.  In his introduction, King says that he hates footnotes and hates citations.  He just likes to tell stories; he is a novelist.  And really - what is history but a lot of stories passed down over time?

The Inconvenient Indian is a book in which King tells us a story and then grudgingly gives us facts to back up his thoughts.  Just in case we need them for validation.  It makes what could be a dry recitation of wrongs and misunderstandings come to life with an immediacy that is certainly necessary when you consider the state of Native American reservations and schools today.  And King's conversational style is very powerful.  You think you're just in a casual chat with a friend and then he unleashes a series of atrocities that take your breath away and make you wonder - really, really wonder - just how much bigotry and racism can exist under your nose without your seeing it.

I grew up and still live in Chicago.  There are really no Native American reservations anywhere near me, and I don't really know that I have ever interacted with a Native American before in my life.  When race arises as a discussion topic near me, it's about African-Americans and Latinos.  Native Americans are never mentioned.  This is probably more often the case than not in many towns across the US.  Native Americans are not around us.  We don't really think about them.

In his book, King makes the case that Native Americans are, in fact, all around us.  We just don't see them.  He talks about the idea of "dead Indians" and "live Indians."  Dead Indians are the ones you imagine in your mind - the type featured on the cover of his book.  Headdress, muscles, mostly naked, lives in a tipi, smokes a peace pipe, cares about the environment, etc.  Those are the Indians we want in our movies, in our history, in our culture.  Live Indians, on the other hand, are those that actually exist in our world.  They dress like us, they talk like us, they have jobs, they speak English, and they try as best they can to keep their cultures alive in the world today.  We don't like these Indians because they don't fit our stereotype.  We don't know what to do about them.  We wish they'd just go away.  And, most importantly, we wish they'd go away and leave us ALL OF THEIR LAND so that we can can maximize its economic utility.

Often while reading this book, I couldn't help but feel defensive.  America has a lot of racial problems, but it can't be so horribly and obviously racist now, can it?  But then King would spout off his examples and facts, and I'd just be floored.  The US and Canada really have a terrifying record when it comes to care of Native peoples - not just historically, but in the present day, too.  For example, he shared a very disturbing story of police officers in Saskatoon who would pick up Native American boys in mid-winter and drop them off in the middle of nowhere.  Those young men would freeze to death, and the cops pretty much got away scotch-free.  Or there are the cases when energy companies want to build dams, and the only place that makes sense to them is to do so on Native American land, even if land owned by White communities makes more sense.  And then the government would just take that land through eminent domain laws and the tribes would have nothing to show for it.  It's a sad story that seems to repeat itself over and over, right up to the modern day, and what's most disturbing is that the story never seems to make the news so that all of us can get into an uproar and act on it.

But then again, one of King's challenges is:  would we get in an uproar about it?

Colonialism is a subject that both endlessly fascinates and endlessly disgusts me.  I hate this notion that one group of people thinks it is superior to another JUST BECAUSE, and it is so, so scary how dangerous this belief has been through human history, particularly when people face others with a different belief system.  King spends a lot of time talking about how European beliefs about individual ownership of land and the capitalist structure of "If you own it, build it up" just completely flies in the face of the Native American belief in stewardship of the land.  And that so many laws in both the US and Canada are so restrictive that Native American tribes can neither practice their own method of communal ownership nor can they really go into the world and try to succeed as individuals without losing their identity as members of sovereign nations.

This is an angry book.  You can tell that King is at boiling part.  There are too many injustices to list, and yet he takes the time to list so many of them, just to prove to us that it's not all in his head.  And while I know that his anger will turn some people off, or make some people defensive, I found it a real strength in this book.  It's time that people sit up and pay attention to what is happening around them.  Think about how their lives and the decisions they make can impact other people and other cultures.  I spent a lot of time last week in Glacier National Park in Montana.  Apparently, much of the part is disputed territory - the Blackfeet Indian tribe believes that half of the park belongs to them.  The US government is very unlikely to give it back to them.  And there I was, traipsing happily along beautiful trails maintained for me by a government that forcibly took them from another country for (I assume) far below market value.  There's an inherent racism there, in this belief that the US government or capitalist towns and companies can make better use of land than an Indian nation would.  And while I am still unsure of the impact that I can make to ensure that Native Americans get better rights and equal access to education and representation, I can at least learn as much as I can about American history from many perspectives.  And so I appreciate Thomas King's no-holds-barred approach to history here, even though it really, really scares me.

Note:  I received a complimentary copy of this book to review.


  1. You always think that you live in an enlightened age where all the wrongs have been put right but unfortunately it's never so. This looks like a book that everyone, American or not, should read.

  2. My book club is reading this in January. I'm really looking forward to it. I'm also terrified. I already have big problems with the way things are done with regards to Native people in Canada, but I also suffer from that "but what can I do about it?" problem. I just feel so impotent.

    I wonder, too what he would have done with the information that has just started coming out about the medical and nutritional experiments historically conducted by our governement on malnourished Native kids. Not enough people are furious about this. And our current government (like all governments before them) talk a lot and continue to do worse than nothing.

  3. I was stunned at how many of the events he talks about in the book happened recently, or are still ongoing (like the whole thing with Mount Rushmore). That's crazy to me. It's crazy because I kept reading and thinking, But surely someone would have done something about this?, and then remembering it was a nonfiction book.

  4. I just read in the newspaper today that dunno some organization is angry at Finland how we treat our native people. So we are all bad. Then again, Finns trample on my people too, so they like no one

  5. Anonymous8/18/2013

    So glad you read and are excited about this book. I want to quote you in a review about a book that I am reviewing on the way we ignore Native Americans and their history. I also share your love of King's writings. I like how he uses humor to soften but not stop his anger. I actually trust him more than Dee Brown whom I see you are also reading.
    Having trouble with commenting again, so I am claiming to be anonymous. Marilyn Brady

  6. I feel like raising awareness is key here. Like you I am not even sure I've ever spoken to a Native American. It astonishes me that even the little rights they have left are continually eroded away even now. Think this is a book I - and many other Americans - should read just to start understanding that this is something that is actually happening now.

  7. I agree about the anger, but what I think makes the work so brilliant is the use of humour. Who would have thought? When it is not at all "funny", of course. And, with that integrated into his approach, the observations are, I think, even more powerful. It's why I kept putting it down and then, often just a few moments later, picking it up again; without the wit, I would have been overwhelmed by the injustices, but with the wit, I was able to read on, and have recommended it many times since (in a way that I'm not sure I'd've done as freely, without that great tone he has used. I absolutely love this book!

  8. This sounds like a book that would be incredibly uncomfortable to read, yet one that I almost NEED to read. I don't think I would have known about it without this post - I'm going to look for it.

  9. I definitely want to read this. I feel like this is a subject I am woefully undereducated about it bothers me.


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