Review: The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King; or, a simple desultory philippic

NetGalley is a dangerous place for a curious girl with an ereader. I always want to go through and request everything every university press produces. It’s good because I have to read nonfiction books fairly promptly if I get them through NetGalley, or else I’ll lose them. They expire. I can’t fall prey to that thing where the nonfiction books end up at the bottom of my TBR pile just because fiction books move faster and I’m worried about screwing up my posting schedule.

As is evident from his book Green Grass, Running Water, Thomas King is interested in the mythologizing around (American) Indians. If there can be said to be a focus to The Inconvenient Indian (Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), it’s that: What mythologies exist, what purposes they have served and do serve, and what relation they bear to the lived experience of North American Indians.

I say if there can be said to be a focus, but I don’t mean it as a criticism, so I hope it won’t be taken as one. King is not attempting to write a comprehensive history of Indians in Canada and the US. He frequently refers readers to other sources, and I ended up writing down a bunch of book titles to go investigate hereafter. The Inconvenient Indian is about the efforts of the US and Canadian governments and citizens to wrangle Indians into a form that felt manageable; to create a narrative of Indianness that was comfortable for white people and engendered no sense of obligation. And yet, as King repeatedly demonstrates, Indians have doggedly insisted on their own mythologies, their own personhood, and their own narratives.

Dead Indians are dignified, noble, silent, suitably garbed. And dead. Live Indians are invisible, unruly, disappointing. And breathing. One is a romantic reminder of a heroic but fictional past. The other is simply an unpleasant, contemporary surprise. …Let’s be clear, Live Indians dance at powwows. And when we dance, when we sing at the drum, when we perform ceremonies, we are not doing it for North America’s entertainment. Where North America sees Dead Indians come to life, we see our families and our relations. We do these things to remind ourselves who we are, to remind ourselves where we come from, and to remind ourselves of our relationship with the earth.

Some of King’s stories were familiar, like the lionizing of a failed military operation we call Custer’s Last Stand; the loss of life on the Trail of Tears; the Christian boarding schools that took young Indian children from their families, abused them, and taught them to forget their own languages and cultural traditions. But many other stories were new to me, particularly stories that had happened in the twentieth century. Teddy Roosevelt created Wheeler Park in 1906 by taking almost 50,000 acres from the Taos Pueblo, including a lake that is sacred to them. Sixty-four years and numerous insulting compromise offers later, the Taos got their land back.

Usually nobody gets their land back, even after many decades. Usually — as in the case of the Lakota, whose 1868 treaty guaranteeing them land was ignored and one of whose sacred mountains was turned into the tourist attraction Mount Rushmore — whoever took the land keeps it. I knew that Mount Rushmore should properly belong to an Indian tribe. I didn’t know that the US Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that the Black Hills were illegally taken from the Lakota, and that the US Congress could permit the Lakota’s claim to be heard again (it had previously been dismissed in Claims Court). And then the US still did not give the land back to the Lakota. That is still going on.

Some tribes — King admiringly notes — are buying up land and asking the government to add that land to their reservation.

This is not merely a return to a communal past. It is a shrewd move to preserve and expand an indigenous land base for the benefit of future generations.

It’s an excellent idea, although it apparently brings out a lot of ongoing prejudice and paternalism. I stopped bookmarking pages that quoted white people who justified theft and treaty-breaking by complaining that the Indians weren’t using the land for anything productive anyway so why shouldn’t there be a dam/factory/whatever on that land? People said too many appalling things. It was too many bookmarks. I gave up. Two-thirds of the way through the book, I didn’t even bookmark a quote where Mayor Bloomberg (this mayor! our current mayor!) advised the then-governor of New York to get a cowboy hat and a shotgun for use in a dispute with the Seneca.

(Yes, he said that. Those words. “Get yourself a cowboy hat and a shotgun.”)

Thomas King is angry, and The Inconvenient Indian will make you angry. It’s good. It is worth being angry over. The book is a quick read, because Thomas King makes jokes and because it’s not a history book, and it’s a very worthwhile (and enjoyable, in a lot of ways) read. Highly recommended.

Note: I received this review copy from the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Also, if you buy a book through one of my affiliate links, I get a small amount of money.

14 thoughts on “Review: The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King; or, a simple desultory philippic

  1. (I feel the same way about the title of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together”) I don’t know if I’m ready to be angry about this, but will put it down my pile of things to read for when I get ready.

  2. Jenny, I can tell from your review that there must have been dozens of quotes you could have chosen for this review, but the one you picked felt like a tree that planted, rooted, and grew a thousand feet in the ten seconds it took to read it. Perfect choice, and the book sounds fantastic.

    • Same here! I spoke to my grandmother the other day, and she said that she’ll read one fiction book, then one nonfiction book — it made me feel like such a slacker!

  3. This book sounds lovely but also so depressing. I hate unfairness of all kinds, and that quote about Indians not using the land for anything just drives me hopping mad. The nerve. It’s their land, their choice,

  4. I have to check this one out! I’m a NG addict. I also got The Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan from NG. It is about photographer Edward Curtis’ attempt to document through photos all of the tribes. Monumental goal that he pursued through some 22 volumes. Excellent.

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