Friday, April 12, 2013

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King

Thomas King tackles history with ironic dark humour in The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. He has distilled the centuries since European contact into 266 very readable pages. The facts are heartbreaking, but King's conversational style is entertaining. The views of his wife Helen occasionally provide counterbalance, as in the following section.
"Land. If you understand nothing else about the history of Indians in North America, you need to understand that the question that really matters is the question of land.
Land has always been a defining element of Aboriginal culture. [...]
For non-Natives, land is primarily a commodity, something that has value for what you can take from it or what you can get for it.
Helen thinks that this is a gross generalization. She believes that there are all sorts of people in Canada who have a deep attachment to land that extends beyond the family cottage on the lake, and that there are Native people who have little connection to a particular geography. I don't disagree. Individuals can fool you, and they can surprise you. What I'm talking about here is North America's societal attitude towards land."
Another big issue is sovereignty.
"Each time the subject is brought up at a gathering or at a conference, a hockey game breaks out. To be honest, I'm reluctant to mention it. But if you're going to talk about Indians in contemporary North America, you're going to have to discuss sovereignty. No way around it."
Residential schools are a defining element of Aboriginal history in both Canada and the USA.
"In 1850, attendance at residential schools became compulsory for all children from the ages of six to fifteen. Non-compliance by parents was punishable by prison terms."
"In 1907, Dr. Peter Bryce submitted a report to Duncan Campbell Scott, the Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, which set the mortality rate for Native students in British Columbia at around 30 percent. The rate for Alberta was 50 percent. [...] Scott dismissed the high death rate at the schools, insisting that 'this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem.
Final solution. An unfortunate choice of words. Of course, no one is suggesting that Adolf Hitler was quoting Scott when Hitler talked about the final solution of the 'Jewish problem' in 1942. That would be tactless and unseemly. And just so we're perfectly clear, Scott was advocating assimilation, not extermination. Sometimes people get the two mixed up."
A few years after Bryce's report, the Department stopped keeping mortality figures for residential schools. Officials knew that health conditions and services were substandard, that disease was rampant, malnutrition was a problem, and that children were being physically, mentally, and sexually abused. They did nothing. For generations.
"A great many intelligent and compassionate people have called residential schools a national tragedy. And they were. But perhaps 'tragedy' is the wrong term. It suggests that the consequences of residential schools were unintended and undesired, a difficult argument to make since [...] the schools were national policy."
King's examples of contemporary injustices are also poignant. He calls a personal one "just another of those sharp shards of bigotry you find when you run your fingers across the Canadian mosaic." I was reminded of the hateful anti-Aboriginal comments I overheard in public earlier this year, during the Idle No More protests in Edmonton.

The Inconvenient Indian is highly recommended for anyone who wants to have a better understanding of White--Aboriginal relations in North America today. I particularly appreciated its provision of a coherent context for the many Aboriginal novels that I've enjoyed.

My suggestions for further reading include these novels:

Porcupines and China Dolls (Robert Arthur Alexie)
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (Sherman Alexie)
Three Day Road (Joseph Boyden)
Nobody Cries at Bingo (Dawn Dumont)
The Round House (Louise Erdrich)
Kiss of the Fur Queen (Tomson Highway)
Green Grass, Running Water (Thomas King)
Ravensong (Lee Maracle)
Monkey Beach (Eden Robinson)
The Lesser Blessed (Richard Van Camp)
Keeper 'n Me (Richard Wagamese)

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