By Hans Tammemagi
This stark, sardonic theme lurks beneath the narrative of Thomas King’s latest book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Doubleday Canada, 2012; University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
King stuffs the book with gems such as, “Christianity is the gateway drug to supply-side capitalism,” noting that the work is an expression of “a conversation I've been having with myself and others for most of my adult life.”
It’s not news to anyone that Natives have been duped, massacred, assimilated, deceived and often betrayed outright since the days of Christopher Columbus. But King racks up anecdotal evidence that, governmental apologies notwithstanding, the prevailing attitude is still more enamored of the dead Indian than the living.
By Hans Tammemagi
I don’t know. Whites just want to continue lives of comfort. Even now some of the rare progress in sovereignty that I discuss in the book, like the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, are changing. Whites are not sharing as intended, and Natives are finding it’s not going so well. The Indian Land Claims Commission will do anything to redress past wrongs, but not give any land back. And it’s all about land.
I hope my book will get into university and high school systems. I hope it generates conversations.
What bothers you about today’s mainstream attitudes toward Natives?
If there’s a single thing I would like to see changed, it’s the prevailing notion that Indians are a conquered people and that as such, they ought to cede their land claims. The reality is that the two sides mutually agreed that fighting war was tedious and expensive—monetarily and in human lives. A shared decision to live in peace as separate nations was agreed. There was never a conquering. There was a series of agreements that have been broken over and over again.
By Peter d'Errico
Native histories, he says, are presented as "entertainments…cobbling together…fears and loathings, romances and reverences, facts and fantasies…in Technicolor and 3-D, with accompanying soft drinks, candy, and popcorn."
King penetrates these "entertainments" with a light touch and a heavy critique. He sometimes starts with single words—"massacre," for instance: he presents dates, numbers, and references to show that, despite the common use of the word to describe what Natives did, "Whites were considerably more successful at massacres than Indians." He points out that such historical fact checking is often unpopular, because "research tends to destroy myths."
One of the greatest strengths of King's critique is his focus on the religious doctrines that accompanied the machinery of colonialism. He coins a brilliant turn of phrase to bring together the "hardware" of colonialism—"iron pots, blankets, guns"—and the "software"—original sin, universal damnation, atonement, and subjugation."
Many authors write about the "European" invasion of Native lands, but very few name this invasion for what it was in its own terms: a "Christian" invasion. As King puts it, the colonizers saw the world through "an elegant amalgam of desire and doctrine." He does not shy from stating this point with a fierce clarity: "Christianity, in all its varieties…was the initial wound in the side of Native culture."
Christianized Indians may bridle at King's words; but he is only saying what Deloria already pointed to in "God is Red," and what scholars like Francis Jennings (The Invasion of America) and Steve Newcomb (Pagans in the Promised Land) have exhaustively researched: "Missionary work in the New World was war."
In another flash of brilliance, King develops three categories of Indians—Dead, Live, and Legal—to characterize contemporary culture. "Dead Indians…are the stereotypes and clichés that North America has conjured up" as "signifiers of Indian authenticity." Dead Indians can be found in all the places contemporary pop culture reserves for images of the past.
"In order to maintain the cult and sanctity of the Dead Indian, North America has decided that Live Indians living today cannot be genuine Indians." Thus, "Live Indians" suffer not only from the "annoyance" of being invisible, but also from the "crushing" burden of being "inauthentic." He quotes a tourist overheard at Acoma Pueblo, upon seeing a television antenna on the roof: "Real Indians [don't] have televisions."
"Dead Indians are dignified, noble, silent, suitably garbed. And dead. Live Indians are invisible, unruly, disappointing. And breathing." When Live Indians dance at powwows with their families and relations, "North America sees Dead Indians come to life…."