The Inconvenient Indian

Rejection of a suggestion that Indians were like slaves sums up the feeling of The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. “That’s not accurate. We were more like . . . furniture.” He takes the reader on a trip through history as he chronicles the Indian experience in both Canada and the United States. He characterizes the attitude of the two nations, “as though both countries had stopped off at the mall and bought us on clearance.” His twists of irony keep the book interesting while his research keeps it accurate. It is a good read told from the viewpoint of one who has had that inconvenient experience.

I use the term “Indian” for this review as he did in the book. He did say one reader told him if he was going to use that term, he should call everybody else “cowboys.” He labels three kinds of Indians to tell the story – Dead Indians, Live Indians, and Legal Indians.

Dead Indians are the stereotypes in war bonnets, beaded shirts, and moccasins carrying feathered lances and tomahawks. They’re found in movies, football teams, Calumet baking soda, and Big Chief tablets. Yearbooks from my husband’s high school and my junior college feature them prominently. Old US coins in my husband’s collection bear their image. King’s portrayal suggests that both countries are fascinated with these Indians.

He characterizes perceptions of Live Indians as invisible, unruly, and disappointing. When they dance at powwows, North Americans see Dead Indians come to life. By contrast, in their own minds, they do the dances to remind themselves of where they came from and their relationship to the earth.

Legal Indians are those with enough native blood to be eligible to enroll in a recognized tribe. The Live Indians and Legal Indians are the inconvenient ones. Both Canada and the United States have a lively history of moving them from place to place [remember the furniture analogy?] while they make and break treaties with them. Thomas King gives a lively, sarcastic, and thorough view of this history from both sides of the border.

At one point, he says he looks for the funny bit in the historical record, the ironic slant, the chuckle, something to make a dull subject interesting. I’d say he succeeded. His “Indians” and “Cowboys” are not divided neatly into good guys and bad guys, nor does he offer easy solutions to the inconvenience fed by years of bad history. I found the book both enjoyable and thought-provoking and recommend it to those looking for a thoughtful view of history and/or justice.