Wednesday, July 15, 2015

July's Book: The Inconvenient Indian

The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King
Non-Fiction (2013 - 266 pp.)

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America is not trying to be an academic tract, about which Thomas King is vocal throughout. It is a Native perspective of the history of Native Americans/First Nations in North America, starting with Christopher Columbus the fictitious Almo massacre, in which Natives supposedly slaughtered 295 white Americans even though no such event occurred. As someone who has read oodles of work on early modern Spain but had never known Almo existed, I appreciated that touch. The lack of footnotes or endnotes makes his references to various historical events just something the reader has to believe - and why not? It is the presentation of a perspective, and if King believes the events happened as they did, or if a general Native mind does, they may as well have happened that way. The non-academic formatting also makes the book a far quicker read, which is convenient for anyone uninterested in taking notes.

My favourite parts of the book are near the start, during King's exciting discussion of the use of Native imagery in pop culture. I am, after all, unafraid of controversial TV shows or questionable treatment of game show contestants. I had never known so much about Will Rogers until King told me. (39-41) I have read political rant after political rant, so getting to read about the movies is fun for a change. King's contention that "Indians were made for films" (34) is well-supported and thought-provoking. The chapter of images of Natives - "Dead Indians", "Living Indians", and "Legal Indians" - is especially interesting in the wake of learning about Natives in film. In short, Dead Indians are the popular images of headdress-adorned, tomahawk-flailing warriors, Living Indians are current Native people, and Legal Indians are ones who carry status cards. To note the first category, I had forgotten there was a Native American woman's image on the label of Land O' Lakes butter, (57) for example, but I remember how tasty that brand of butter was in the caramelized onions I made a few years ago. I also had an urge to buy Big Chief jerky that I had never had before. Living Indians and Legal Indians factor more into subjects like Indian gaming (180) or the compelling comparison between George Custer and Louis Riel (10-11).

After that, King treats us to an in-depth discussion of everything from the 19th-century US Supreme Court (81) to Stephen Harper's apology for residential schools (124). Much of it is upset, angry, and firmly in political rant territory at least as much as the links I posted in the preceding paragraph. The more serious content wears a little in that King sounds more serious, which is fitting for a history book but is a 180 from the earlier raucous discussion about cartoon characters. (41) King maintains his sharp wit throughout the book, though, as in his analysis of how Legal Indians can lose status. (168) The book's final chapter, on the Alaska and Nunavut land claim settlements, departs from the rage of the preceding seven or so chapters. King makes a good point about lack of Inuktitut-language education in Nunavut elementary schools, (261) although understandably runs into the problem of how little-used Inuktitut is outside of Nunavut. Geographically, Inuktitut feels more like Gaelic than a more commonly used language like Spanish or German, so it may run into funding problems for that reason.

As with many books that are remotely teachable in a classroom setting, this one has study questions at the end. Theoretically, I like these. They are good for discussion. The ones in The Inconvenient Indian, though, read like ones King has already answered. The big deal made about the title of the book ("Inconvenient" instead of "Pesky", "Indian" instead of "Redskin", and "Account" instead of "History") is one that King explained perfectly well in the introduction without a study question being asked of it in the appendix. (287) I identify that one in particular because unlike, say, a question about a historical event that can be debated until the buffalo* come home, (288, questions 3-5), the nomenclature of the book is a question King actually can answer definitively. The meaning of race can be decided any number of ways. A basic question about authorial intent can merely be answered by the author.

Ease of Reading: 7
Educational Content: 6

NOTE: On page 39, King correctly points out that Rogers hosted the 1934 Academy Awards. Less than a page later, King refers to 1928 as "five years before his death". This implies that Rogers hosted the Academy Awards posthumously, which, while poetic in the context of King's Dead Indian narrative, simply is not true. Rogers died in 1935. This is a minor point but it made me do a double-take so I thought it was worth mentioning here.

*Sorry. I had to.

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