The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native Peoples in North America – Thomas King (2012)

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“While the hardware of civilization (iron pots, blankets, guns) was welcomed, the software of Protestantism and Catholicism – original sin, universal damnation, atonement – was not and Europeans were perplexed, offended and incensed…”

This was a fascinating read about the troubling history of Native Americans in both the U.S. and Canada and written by an eloquent English professor who is also Cherokee (and Greek, as it so happens) so it was a perspective that was very unusual for me. It was also so interesting especially after having learned so much about the U.S. historical background of African-Americans last month. There are a lot of overlaps unfortunately – not the same, but definitely some issues in common.

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Author Thomas King. (Photo credit: Hartley Goodweather.)

It was also interesting as I happen to live in West Texas which was/is the large original home for the Apaches, the Comanche, and the Arapaho, and so our local history is peppered with references to battles and treaties developed throughout time. (It must be added that the history tends to reflect a very one-sided perspective of things… Guess which one?)

(If you’re curious to know more about the Indian Nations of Texas, this is a good introductory site from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. It’s much more complicated than a John Wayne movie, let me tell you.)

This title was actually more of a collection of thoughtful essays with the common theme of the history of Native Americans in Canada and the U.S.

Goodness gracious me – how this group has been mistreated by governments over the years. Coming as it does through the author’s eyes, it’s not a straight history but more of a conversation over coffee with the author, and I think that this worked really effectively as you, the reader, were exposed and immersed in the anger and frustration of the author as he reflects over the events.

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One of the Native Americans at a local tribal celebration here in West Texas.

Essays covered a wide spectrum from how the early settlers set treaties with a particular tribe (and then broke them very easily) and this was a thread throughout the whole collection, really. It was tough to read the endless broken agreements over the years, and knowing this now, it’s more understandable to me how some of the Native American nations are mired in poverty, unemployment and other social ills.

One of the essays covered how Hollywood used the Native American and created a particular image for its own ends. According to the author, between 1894-2000, Hollywood made more than 300 movies featuring Indians (an accepted term for the author) as characters but rarely using a Native American as the actor. Producers were seeking “real” Indians and “authentic” Indian culture. To get a picture of the most frequent image of Native Americans for Hollywood, think of the well-known sculpture, “The End of the Trail” by James Earl Fraser in 1915. (See below.)

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Author Thomas King. (Photo credit: Hartley Goodweather.)

Other tidbits:

  • At one point, Canada produced a dollar coin that featured a totem pole with a raven in its design. Some of the Indian groups viewed this design as very insensitive and called this the “Death Dollar” as the raven is a sign of death for some tribes.
  • Will Rogers (U. S. actor/satirist) was a Cherokee, but in all his films, he never once played an Indian. (Compare with the painful effort that Johnny Depp did in “The Lone Ranger”.)
  • Re: the Hollywood Walk of Fame (the stars in the pavement project): there are more cartoon characters and dog actors represented in this than there are Indians. There are only two stars for actors who were selected to play an Indian character, and one of those was actually Sicilian.
  • There are more than 600 individual and recognized tribes in Canada and more than 550 nations in the U.S.
  • There were two main foci to “handle” the Indians in the early years: Extermination or assimilation.
    • Extermination of Native peoples was “acceptable” due to the concept of “Manifest Destiny” (i.e. “this new land is meant only for us” [i.e. Christians]). It was justified by the concept of “natural laws” and “survival of fittest” (twisting of Darwin’s evolution idea which was pretty new at that time).
    • Assimilation: Indians were seen as “savages” who had “no understanding of orthodox theology, devoid of complex language and lacking civilized manners”. White people (and mostly religious groups) saw the savages as needing to be saved from themselves and made into the image of white people (or how they saw themselves). There was no compromise.
  • The crux of the problem, according to the author (and many others) was land as Will Rogers said: “Buy land. They ain’t making more of the stuff.”
  • King notes that land was “the defining element of aboriginal cultures” whereas for white people, land was only a commodity which had value only for what you can take from it or for what you can get for it.

So – this was a powerful book that was really well written (although I would have like a bibliography). It wasn’t a scholarly book with footnotes or anything (and very openly reports that it’s not at the start of the book) , so through that lens, it really worked as a perspective of someone who has been in the trenches and knows of what he speaks. It was a fascinating look into Native Americans and their history.

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One of the Native Americans at a recent tribal celebration in Lubbock, Texas.

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