|Karl Bodmer: Indians hunting the bison. Maximilian Prince of Wied's Travels in the Interior of North America, during the years 1832–1834; published London 1843–1844. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
|Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, 1885 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Novelist Thomas King’s remarkable book about his people, the indigenous of North America, was published two years ago, but somehow or other I never picked up on it until this last week, when, on vacation in Europe, I finally found time to read it. It is called The Inconvenient Indian, a slightly throw-away title that gives a clue to the humorous, ironical tone in which the book is written.
King has sub-titled his book A Curious Account of Native people in North America and again here the use of the word “curious” is rather ambiguous. Curious, in what way?
His early chapters --- curiously enough, as I thought while reading them --- contained long lists of Indians who had been actors in Hollywood movies, of non-Indians who had portrayed Indians in Hollywood movies, and various other things like that which to a serious-minded student of the history of these people all seemed slightly facetious.
Maybe it was King’s way of suggesting that one shouldn’t be too solemn about these things, but the serious purpose appeared to be the emphasize that non-Indian people throughout North America had been schooled to see Indians as stereotypes, not as real, live people, but as constructs of someone’s entertainment sources (for example.) This point was more than adequately made when he revealed that by 1883, when Buffalo Bill Cody started his famous Wild West show, the self-perception of North American indigenous people was already so degenerated, even among those who had led the resistance, that many of the latter-day “Indian” heroes were lining up to join Cody’s show. Before the 1880s were out, such leaders as Red Cloud had joined the circus, followed in 1885 by Sitting Bull, later the Metis leader Gabriel Dumont (1886), while heroes such as Chief Joseph and Geronimo had joined Col Frederick T. Cummins’s Life on the Plains exposition when it opened in New York in 1903.
“Whatever else these shows were,” comments King, “they were an intriguing alternative to being locked down on a reservation or sitting alone in a prison cell. Keep in mind, many of these individuals were considered dangerous by North America. After all the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee were still in the rear-view mirror, and at the turn of the century, no one was quite sure what might appear up ahead through the windshield.”
Allow me to draw attention to King’s use of yet another ambiguous adjective:”intriguing.” Like “inconvenient” and “curious” in his book’s title, these three words are used in an ambiguous sense, and since King is an expert novelist, we can assume his use of them in this way was deliberate.
Now any reasonably objective person who has examined the historical record of European colonialism, wherever it manifested itself, would surely have to agree with the following proposition: wherever the colonialists landed, they wanted the land, and everywhere they took it. That is what happened in Africa, Australia, New Zealand and throughout North and South America. And the differences between these places were merely ones of degree, all within the ambiance of their wanting and taking the land, and to hell with the consequences. Finding the lands in these places populated by peoples whom they considered inferior, they used every stratagem at their disposal, including the mind-blowing assumption that these lands were unoccupied, to justify what was, in effect, their theft of someone else’s property. It was fortunate for the colonialists that the indigenous people whom they found already in occupation did not think of the land and their ownership of it in the same, grasping, greedy way as did their invaders. In the words of a Cree hunter whom I interviewed in the 1970s, their concept of “ownership” was entirely different, all wrapped up with their subsistence on the land, along with that of the animals on whom they depended for their food. “Do you own the land?” I asked him, a question that was asked in the middle of a hurricane-like assault on his land by invading Euro-Canadians. “Well,” said Sam Blacksmith, who had lived his entire life in the northern Quebec bush as a hunter and trapper, “people tell us we own it. But in the end everybody dies, so nothing can be predicted.” Talk about ambiguity: one understands where Thomas King gets it from!
Around the 100-page mark, King gets serious, and I noted these two vigorous paragraphs:
“…for the (English) or (French)…. Indians were simply humans at an early point in the evolution of the species. They were savages with no understanding of orthodox theology, devoid of complex language, and lacking civilized manners. Barbarians, certainly, and quite possibly minions of the devil. But human beings, none the less. And as such, many colonists believed that Native people could be civilized and educated, believed that there was, within the Indians, the possibility for enlightenment.
“Extermination dominated the early contact period, assimilation the latter, until finally, in the nineteenth century, they came together in an amalgam of militarism and social theory that allowed North America to mount a series of benevolent assaults on Native people. Assaults facilitated by force of arms, deception and coercion, assaults that sought to dismantle Native culture with missionary zeal and humanitarian paternalism, and to replace it with something that Whites could recognize.”
The rest of Thomas King’s book is an eloquent filling-in of the details of these various assaults. In the following paragraphs he gives primacy to the warrior work of the Christians --- Jesuit, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Puritan, Baptist, Quakers, Franciscan and even Russian Orthodox --- all of them played their part in the conquest of North America. Bruce Trigger’s monumental historical masterpiece The Children of Aataentsic (1975), establishes beyond a doubt the efficacy with which these Christian groups --- in his case he was dealing with the Jesuits, and their impact on the Hurons --- as soon as they came in contact with indigenous Americans, completely undermined their belief systems, weakening them to such an extent within 20 years that, attacked by the Iroquois, they collapsed like a pack of cards, all their certainties about their lives having been demolished.
I have read a lot of the written record and I cannot say I found a single fact or opinion in King’s book with which I do not agree. In some places he seems to have been too soft in his denunciations. For example, at one point unless my memory betrays me, he says various efforts were made to turn Indians into farmers, and here I thought he could have been even tougher, more condemnatory than he was, because of the the historical record (read Sarah Carter’s studies of Western Canadian history, particularly Lost Harvests written in 1993.) In that carefully researched book she shows that, having responded to the call to them to become farmers, indigenous people were then deliberately deprived of markets for their produce. In other words, the colonizers were determined that the indigenous people could never win, no matter what they did.
In this infamous tale King gives equal billing to the United States and Canada, the major difference being that in the United States military means were the major weapon of assault, in Canada it was all done rather by legislation, generation after generation of legislation designed to deprive indigenous people of everything that meant anything to them --- rituals, beliefs, languages, and above all, their economies, especially those like that of the Ojibway of the Lake of the Woods area which were diversified and soundly based. King’s indictment is severe, but it could have been even more severe, if proving the infamy of the attackers had been his primary object.
These are not serious criticisms of King’s book, which is beautifully written, entirely convincing, and a major weapon for public education on a subject that, somehow or other --- we cannot suppose this was accidental --- has somehow fallen between the cracks of our educational system.