The Inconvenient Indian (Thomas King) Book Review

Thomas King does a wonderful job of introducing readers to Aboriginal history in North America in his page turning book, The Inconvenient Indian. Written for the historical laymen, the book covers many key periods in Aboriginal history in detail through a masterful demonstration of cynical, opinionated yet humor-filled storytelling skills.

Although King makes no effort of hiding his bias in favor of Aboriginals when storytelling, he supports it by giving numerous detailed examples of the “ill-advised and failed endeavors” of European settlers and/or Canadian and US governments to prove his points. Whether it be policies of termination, relocation, removal, allotment, rapprochement, etc. King posits that all they’ve served to accomplish is more of the same: loss of Indian land, sovereignty and commoditization of Indian culture.

The most poignant example for me is the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the story of General Custer (1876) which illustrates how far removed most North-Americans are from the realities of Aboriginal history.  This battle was one of the biggest American defeats against First Nations in history. Yet, General Custer was touted as a hero defending America from the threats of the Wild West when in fact, he was there to oust the Sioux who had missed a federal deadline to move to another reservation, gold having been found on the current reservation… In my eyes, this battle served to galvanized the commoditization of Indian culture and the haughty attitude of North Americans towards it. To illustrate, paintings of the battle were commissioned by a beer company (see below), “Wild West” shows started touring the Eastern seaboard and “Indian” became a brand associated with adventure in the West, connection with the wild and a certain foreignness and persists to this day (with brands such as the Washington Redskins or the Spirit Cigarettes mascot for example).

Custer’s Last Fight (1884) painted by Cassilly Adams and commissioned by Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association (one of the earliest pieces of breweriana)

This “Indian brand” correlates with what King refers to as “Dead Indians”; the kind of Indian that now only exists in our collective imagination.  In the rest of the book, he goes onto define “Live Indians” and “Legal Indians” and the grim realities that await the Indians in these two categories in coming years.  Acknowledging that “Indians aren’t special”, he suggests that the only way Aboriginal culture can survive over time is with sovereignty.  This is in line with demands of many other communities (e.g. separatists in the province of Quebec or secessionists in the state of Texas) in North-America.  He also posits that auto determination may not provide the answers quickly enough but that “more of the same” is most certainly not the answer for thriving Aboriginal nations.

What I liked.

  • Cynicism, humor, history and storytelling. A unique, powerful and captivating combination.

What could have been better.

  • The chapters, although always effective a proving their respective points, pull us in and out of different periods throughout history, never really guiding us through the motivations behind the jumps. The chronology could have been better. However, King does make a point of clearly spelling this out in his prologue, mentioning that he did not want to “be obliged to pay attention to the demands of scholarship and work within an organized and clearly delineated chronology” which is why the subtitle of the book contains the word “account” and not “history”. He does also give readers a long list of books they can reference if they are looking for other points of view or a more scholarly analysis (see Author’s Proposed Reading List at the bottom of this post).

Rating: 4/5

Personal Library Worthy? Yes.  You can purchase it by clicking here.

I can just imagine my idealist teen picking this up from the coffee table, reading it in the context of a high school history class, getting in a heated debate with classmates and/or the teacher the next day and getting a phone call because they swore in class.  Can’t wait.  But seriously, this should be required reading in our high school history classes.

As you can see, I did quite a number on this one… The book was selected for the Canada Reads series in 2015.

Author’s Proposed Reading List (In Order of Appearance in the Book)

The Wild Frontier (2001) – William M. Osborn
Reminiscences of Early Days: A Series of Historical Sketches and Happenings in the Early Days of Snake River (1926) – Charles S. Walgamott
Son of the Morning Star (1997) – Evan S. Connell
Custer’s Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth (1994) – Brian W. Dippie
Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870 (1996) – Sylvia Van Kirk
The Natural Varieties of Mankind (1775) – Johann Friedrich Blumenbach
The Descent of Man (1871) – Charles Darwin
The Deerslayer (1841) – James Fenimore Cooper
Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags (1829) – John Augustus Stone
Hobomek, A Tale of Early Times (1824) – Lydia Maria Child
Should Only Native Actors Have the Right to Play Native Roles? (2001) – Tomson Highway, Prairie Fire Magazine
The Twilight Craze: The Rise of Native American Actors in Hollywood (2010) – New Tribe Magazine
Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality (2000) – Lisa Aldred
Song of Hiawatha (1855)– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Poem)
Custer Died for Your Sins (1969) – Vine Deloria Jr.
The Book of Mormon (1830) – Joseph Smith
Sacred Clowns (1993) – Tony Hillerman
How to Write the Great American Indian Novel (1996) – Serman Alexie (Poem contained in The Summer of Black Widows)
Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996)
The Invasion of America (2010) – Francis Jennings
The Churches and the Indian Schools, 1888-1912 (1980)– Francis Paul Prucha
The Problem of Indian Administration or The Meriam Report (1928) – Lewis Meriam
House Made of Dawn (1968) – N. Scott Momaday
Wounded Knee: A Personal Account (1993) – Stanley David Lyman
Are We Giving America Back to the Indians? (1976) – Leonard Peltier
Helpless: Caledonia’s Nightmare of Fear and Anarchy, and How the Law Failed All of Us (2011) – Christie Blatchford
Bill C-31 (1985) – Government of Canada
First Nations? Second Thoughts and Beyond the Indian Act (2008) – Thomas Flanagan
The Unjust Society (1969) – Harold Cardinal (White Paper)
Now That the Buffalo’s Gone (1984) – Alvin M. Josephy Jr.
Aajiiqatigiingniq (2008) – Ian Martin (White Paper)

What were your thoughts on the book?  Did you find M. King’s views too extreme or did you agree with him?  Do you think it should be required reading in high schools?

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