WHEN LITERARY AGENT Jackie Kaiser began shopping Thomas King’s 13th book The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America to editors at American publishing houses, she received 31 rejections before she at last found a home for the book at the University of Minnesota Press, which is publishing the American edition of the book this month. No surprise there, right? These are tough times in publishing, and a book offering a sprawling journey through the centuries of injustices perpetrated by white people against North American Indians hardly screams can’t-miss bestseller.
Except that north of the border the very same book has, in fact, dominated bestseller lists across Canada ever since its publication in November 2012. The book sold more than 20,000 copies in hardcover, and within weeks of going into paperback, its publisher Doubleday Canada had already printed 25,000 copies. “For Canada, that is amazing,” says Lynn Henry, King’s editor at Doubleday Canada. “Since we have one-tenth of the population of the US, we usually just add another zero to compare — i.e., a book that sells 25,000 here would be comparable to a book that sells 250,000 in the US.”
The book Canadians are snapping up hardly paints them in a flattering light. King’s tone is breezy and light, full of funny stories and self-deprecating jokes, but just below that geniality lies a deep reservoir of bitterness over the treatment of Indians in Canada and the United States that continues on to this day. White North Americans, he argues, prefer their Indians noble, primitive, and safely extinct, and actual, live Indians who stubbornly insist on their rights as an independent people they regard as at best a troublesome nuisance.
On its face, the wildly different response to King’s book — breakout bestseller in Canada, quiet academic publication in the US — is puzzling. True to its subtitle, The Inconvenient Indian gives equal attention to the relations between whites and Native peoples all across North America; indeed, one of King’s points is that the border between the US and Canada has little cultural meaning for Native people, many of whose tribal lands spanned the present-day border long before either country existed. And though King, who is now 70, has lived in Canada since 1980, he was born and raised in California and maintains dual US and Canadian citizenship.
The curious publication history of The Inconvenient Indian serves as a window into the wide differences in the way mainstream Americans and Canadians view the Native peoples in their midst. For one thing, the average white Canadian is more than twice as likely to run into an Indian than a white American is. The 2010 US census identified roughly 5.2 million Americans with Native heritage, or about 1.7 percent of the total, whereas Canada’s 2011 census identified 1.4 million people of Native ancestry, comprising about 4.3 percent of the Canadian population.
But more importantly, in Canada, which was founded as an independent nation later than the US and settled by Europeans more slowly and unevenly, the shame of the mistreatment of Native people remains more alive in the national psyche, and the questions of how to deal with contemporary conflicts over tribal land rights and other issues are far more politically fraught. “In Canada, you have a situation in which the issues — Who owns the land? Were the Natives ever conquered? Are they nations or not? Does our law apply to them? — all these questions are unresolved,” explains Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, director of the Indigenous Governance Program at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and a Canadian-born Mohawk Indian. “They’re constantly being fought on the [Canadian] social and political landscape, whereas in the United States, unfortunately in most people’s minds those questions are resolved.”
The Inconvenient Indian also caught a wave of public attention due to the Idle No More movement, in which Native activists and their supporters used hunger strikes, flash mobs, and marches to protest Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s efforts to gut environmental laws that protect wild rivers, many crossing Native land. The movement kicked off in December 2012, just after King’s book came out. Henry explains:
[It] caught a lot of non-Native people by surprise, and because it was such a grassroots force, a lot of people who might otherwise have been turned away by the usual politicking were suddenly searching for answers and seeking to understand First Nations issues. In essence: “What do Indians want?” was the question; and this book gave a frank answer.
The Canadian left’s position on hot-button environmental issues often dovetails with the land-rights stances taken by Indian — or First Nations, as they’re called in Canada — tribal leaders. For instance, in Vancouver, where I live and where The Inconvenient Indian is flying off store shelves, one of the biggest political issues is a proposed network of pipelines that would deliver crude oil from the Athabasca Tar Sands in central Canada to British Columbia ports. Two new multi-billion-dollar pipelines, staunchly opposed by West Coast environmentalists, would cross tribal lands, and, since 2010, a coalition of First Nations leaders have come out against the pipelines, creating a joint declaration now signed by members of more than 130 tribes. Thus, a Canadian progressive seeking to rally the troops against the hated pipeline projects can turn to The Inconvenient Indian, which is withering in its criticism of exploitation of the Tar Sands, to find fodder for an argument that the pipelines are not merely an environmental disaster, but yet another chapter in the long history of the racist trampling of First Nations sovereignty rights.
Born in Roseville, California, in 1943 to a Greek-American mother and a Cherokee father, Thomas King moved to Canada in his late 30s to take a teaching job at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. There, he met his wife, Helen, who figures in The Inconvenient Indian, rather charmingly, as a font of motherly wit and sanity, and settled into Canadian life. On the page and in conversation, King comes off as a scampish, grandfatherly figure, albeit one with a whip-crack sense of humor and a seemingly bottomless sack of tales of the white man’s depredations and deceit. He has turned out a steady stream of novels and nonfiction, but in Canada he is perhaps best known as for his starring role on The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour, a 15-minute sketch-comedy show that ran on Canadian public radio from 1997 to 2000. Canadians of a certain age have fond memories of The Dead Dog Café and its brazen, politically incorrect humor. (Typical joke: Why is it good to have Indians in Canada? Answer: Because the Royal Canadian Mounted Police need live targets to practice on.) The show made King’s reputation and is one of the reasons Doubleday Canada could publish a broadly discursive work of popular history from King and expect it to find an audience.
So there, you may say, lies the secret of The Inconvenient Indian’s success: Thomas King is a known quantity in Canada, folksy and funny, with the imprimatur of the country’s prestigious, slightly stuffy public radio station. Throw in a fortuitously timed grassroots protest movement raising some of the same questions as King’s book, and voilà — instant bestseller.
This is all true enough, but it only points up a deeper truth, which is just how hard it is to conceive of a similar phenomenon in an American context. Try to imagine, say, Spokane Indian poet and novelist Sherman Alexie channeling Garrison Keillor and Saturday Night Live for a politically incorrect comedy show by and about Native Americans on NPR. Then imagine it staying on the air for four years. Alexie is a gifted writer, and he’s found an audience for his books and earned warm reviews for his 1998 indie film Smoke Signals, but an ongoing public radio show requires a well of national interest and curiosity to draw from, and that no longer exists in America.
Ask a typical American who doesn’t have Indian heritage or live near a reservation about Indians and he or she will likely conjure up two images: the war-whooping enemies from old Hollywood Westerns, and casinos. Most Americans, especially those of a more liberal cast, will acknowledge the genocide of untold millions of indigenous peoples, but in the American mind, that period is past — ugly and unfortunate, perhaps, but belonging to another era, one remembered primarily in sepia tones.
Patricia Nelson Limerick, a leading historian and faculty director of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, recalls a research project in which she and a few graduate students toured western communities asking local citizens what every Westerner should know. “We could be in Bend, Oregon or Sedona, Arizona,” she says:
And it was guaranteed that a mostly white group of western residents would say, “We must all remember the people who were here before us. It’s very important to remember that Indians were here before us.” We would just be on the edge of our seats waiting to see if someone would say, “And therefore we donate heartily to the American Indian College Fund,” or “We support the Native American Rights Fund,” or “We do something.” But nothing ever happened.
It wasn’t always thus. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, at the height of the protest years, American Indians briefly surged into the spotlight, first by occupying the former federal prison on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay in 1969 and then, four years later, by laying siege to the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for 71 days. King discusses both incidents in The Inconvenient Indian — King himself volunteered to take part in the Wounded Knee occupation, only to be turned back by police on the way there — as well as the wave of popular support American Indians rode during that brief time. Hollywood movie stars arrived by the boatload to show their support for the protestors in Alcatraz, and books like N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer-winning House Made of Dawn and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee became required reading for every right-thinking American.
Today, that political energy is gone, and outside areas of heavy Native population like the Southwest and Alaska, Indian cultural impact is quite nearly nil. Authors like Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich write respected novels about Indian life, but when American popular culture turns its eye to Native Americans, it ends up either with James Cameron’s idealized Na’vi from Avatar, or worse, Johnny Depp’s absurd dead-crow-wearing Tonto from this summer’s disastrous remake of The Lone Ranger.
Canada tends to inherit much of its pop culture from the great hegemon to the south, but at both the political and personal level Native people are far more visible here than in the States. Patricia Limerick offers a fascinating historical insight into why this might be so. As she notes, the fur trade was integral to the original exploration of both Canada and the US, but thanks to differences in climate and animal habitat, the American fur trade was pushed to the margins by the enormous inrush of farming settlers, whereas in Canada fur trading with Indians remained central to the national enterprise for much longer. By its nature, trade in fur tends to be less destructive of indigenous culture than farming. To settle a farming community, one has to rid the land of its previous occupants, either by killing them or driving them far away where they can’t steal one’s crops or livestock. Fur trading, no matter how corrupt or one-sided, remains a trade, a partnership between two groups, each of which needs the other.
Today, trade in fur-bearing animals has been supplanted by extraction of other natural resources such as oil, minerals, and timber. In the US, Native populations have been so much further pushed to the margins that it is relatively rare for a tribe to hold enough land to stop or limit mining or oil exploration, but in Canada, where tribal land holdings remain large, First Nations political views are more likely to be, well, inconvenient.
At base is the question of land ownership, and, not surprisingly, cultural attitudes toward land and its use are among the central preoccupations of The Inconvenient Indian. Late in the book, King poses the question he knows must be on his non-Native readers’ minds: “What do Indians want?” But he quickly turns the question on its head, saying that a better question for those wanting to understand contemporary North American Indian history is, “What do Whites want?” His answer is characteristically blunt: “Whites want land.”
The issue that came ashore with the French and the English and the Spanish, the issue that was the raison d’être for each of the colonies, the issue that has made its way from coast to coast to coast and is with us today, the issue that has never changed, never varied, never faltered in its resolve is the issue of land. The issue has always been land. It will always be land, until there isn’t a square foot of land left in North America that is controlled by Native people.
As he explains in an interview, non-Indians tend to see land in individual terms, while Indians tend to conceive of land ownership at a communal level. “Right now what you see is a push by the current government to revisit termination and allotment,” he says, “where you break reserves up into individual pieces, you give those pieces to individual members of the tribe in fee simple, and allow them to sell the land if they wish to.” While this may make sense to a Western mind, in practice it simply makes it easier for those who wish to develop the land to divide and conquer. “All of a sudden, the reserve begins to look like a piece of Swiss cheese, and that kind of situation can’t hold. It just means the reserve collapses and the people just sort of disappear.”
In Canada, thanks to its unthreatening tone and a bit of lucky timing, King’s cri de coeur appears to have risen above the din of popular culture and gotten a fair hearing among the Canadian public, to the point that the phrase “the inconvenient Indian” briefly entered the lexicon as shorthand for the difficulty the country’s mainstream politicians face in dealing with First Nations tribal leaders. In the United States, the same book, armed with the same facts wrapped in the same antic humor, has just been published. It remains to be seen whether it will be widely read, or will be, like so much else about Native culture in America, briefly praised and lauded before vanishing without a trace, out of sight, out of mind.
Michael Bourne is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.