The Inconvenient Indian, by Thomas King

Cover of The Inconvenient Indian The Inconvenient Indian was one of the first books I chose for my Canada 150 project. I picked it up in the store, read a couple of pages, and was instantly hooked. Had it not been for my decision to read the books in chronological order, this would have been my first selection rather than my last, though perhaps it’s fitting to end the project here. The Inconvenient Indian was compulsively readable from sentence one, full of wit and charisma and righteous anger. It definitely made me want to read more of King’s work.

I’m not always comfortable writing about non-fiction; if you aren’t an expert in the subject—or at least have a solid grounding—then there’s not much you can comment on except the quality of the prose. And I’m certainly not a historian, an expert in Native1 cultures, nor on any of the specific political issues at play between Native people and the colonial governments of North America. I have some lived experiences, but those don’t really count for anything, and I definitely don’t want to be the guy who pretends to know something just because I’ve met some First Nations people. There are bad things down that road.

I will say I learned a lot from this book. Some of it was entirely new to me, like much of the specific legislation and policies the governments of Canada and the United States have had over the years, and some of it was stuff I thought I knew about2 but actually only understood in a vague, half-assed sort of way where I was getting more wrong than right. I read some of the reviews of The Inconvenient Indian on Goodreads and found the few negative ones to be fascinating in how thoroughly they missed the point. One irate reader ranted for many, many words about how King had failed to include wars between Native peoples that happened before Europeans arrived in North America, as though that somehow negates centuries of systemic and systematic injustice.3 Nowhere does King ever argue that Natives are some sort of mystical people so in touch with nature that they are above conflict, incapable of hurting anyone or anything unless first provoked, pastoral and unfathomably gentle; he simply argues that Natives are people, and because they are people they have the same rights—including the rights to self-determination and sovereignty—and deserve the same respect as anyone else, and that they have been denied these things. That such as statement is somehow controversial—that it was ever controversial—might be the most serious indictment of a society that I can imagine, and I am both ashamed an embarrassed that, as a Canadian, the only answer I can give to such and indictment is to acknowledge that we have not only failed to do right, but that we have actively done wrong and that we need to change in a fairly dramatic fashion.

I think it’s also important for me to discuss some of the personal issues that this book brought up for me. If you know me or follow me on social media it’s basically impossible to miss the fact that I’m from the North. I’m not from the North where city folk go for splashing around at the cottage in the summer, I’m from the North where the weather is a constant enemy, the insects leave you bloody, everybody hunts and fishes, and if you meet someone who isn’t white they are more likely to be Native than not. I’m also from the North that is racist as fuck and pretty open about it.4 I moved south when I was twenty on a part-time basis, for school, and on a full-time basis when I was in my mid-twenties, and I fully believed that I had left the racist attitudes of my community behind. And then in 2013 I went back to the North for work, only to discover that I had internalized more of that bullshit than I had previously realized. I worked side by side with First Nations people,5 for what I hope was to the benefit of those northern communities, and I saw in myself a discomfort, a lack of openness, that both surprised and shamed me. I felt very thoroughly disgusted with myself; I had thrown away all the big, visible racism of my community, the stereotypes that people would use to describe First Nations folks, the kind of gross stuff you see in movies and on television, but I found something subtle and ugly underneath that had lingered. I worked in Northern Saskatchewan for three-and-a-half years, and I spent the bulk of that time trying to rip that subtle ugliness out by the root. Reading The Inconvenient Indian allowed me to see both that I have made a lot of progress since 2013, but that I still have work to do.

Many of the people I have stayed in touch with from my hometown have acknowledged the community’s problem with racism and are actively working to be better. There’s a lot of work left to be done there, too, probably more than can be accomplished in one lifetime, but it’s heartening to see attitudes changing, being deliberately examined and deliberately changed.

I’m not sure where else to go with this, except to say that if you read no other book that I’ve written about for this project, read this one.

August

Writer. Editor. Critic.

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