The essential, inconvenient book for all Canadians

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November 26, 2012

Author Thomas King drew a huge crowd to First Peoples House November 16, 2012, when he visited Victoria to promote his new book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Doubleday, 270 pages, $34.95). “When we look at Native-non-native relations, there is no great difference between the past and the present,” King observes in his witty but serious way. Taiaiake Alfred, professor of Indigenous governance and political science at UVic, interviewed King about his new book, which is essential reading for Canadians of all colours and stripes.

The Inconvenient Indian delivers some hard truths and has a real edge to it. It seems, to me anyway, like a shift from the approach you’re known for, softening the blow using irony and humour. Are you getting bolder as you go along, or maybe angrier?

I’m too old for that now. I was a pretty noisy activist in the 60s and the 70s. I’d yell and scream and jump up and down. But I discovered that doing that, I was entertainment. I wasn’t having much of an impact . . . White organizations would invite me in and I would give them hell. They would all clap at the end. They enjoyed it, and I would go away. Besides, it just scared the shit out of me when someone did point a gun in my face. There were other guys who were a lot braver than I was. I just decided at some point that I had writing skills that I could use, and that’s what I was going to do. I’m not going to try and be something I am not. I just said. “This is who I am,” and if somebody doesn’t like it, well, I can’t do much about it. I discovered that humour and satire were much better weapons. As I’ve gotten older, I’m still using those narrative tools because I think they are very effective. But it hasn’t taken the edge off of my anger because I’ve lived long enough to see the same kind of shit just come around again and again and again. And people keep saying that things are getting better. If they are getting better, why are Native people still defending their land base? If things are getting better, why do we still have to justify our existence? Why do we have to keep telling non-native North America that treaty rights were not given to us like loot bags at a movie gala? So yeah, I still get pretty hot. But this book was my only kick at the can of non-fiction. I’ve gotten older so I can’t move quite as fast as I used to and I can’t write another one.

Is there a moment in your life you can point to that made you most angry in understanding our collective oppression as Indigenous people?

It was a whole bunch of little cuts and a couple of big whacks. I’ll tell you one thing that got me. There was a photographer out of Utah who had done a book on Native sacred places. He went around and photographed sacred places and what they look like now. One sacred place now has a Wal-Mart on it. Another sacred place is all paved over for basketball courts, stuff like that. I’m a photographer too, and I’d been going around taking portraits of Native artists in North America and so I saw his book and liked it. I wrote him and said, “Do you want to trade a couple of photographs?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll do that” because he’d seen my work. And so I got one photo from him of tombstones at the Carlisle Indian School, gravestones of kids who died there. I remember getting it in the mail, opening it up and framing it. It’s on the wall at my house right now. Just looking at that, you know, I’m reminded of all the kids who died in residential schools. I say in the book that [Whites] knew at the time there were problems with the residential schools, but they were betting that something good would come out of it. The only thing was, they could make that bet easily enough, because they weren’t betting with their money, they weren’t betting with their community, they weren’t betting with their kids. I think that really sort of summed it up for me, the residential school experience: “If we’re wrong, so what? It’s just, you know, it’s just Indians.”

Dead Dog Café, the iconic CBC radio show you wrote and performed in, was beloved by millions of people and influential in shaping the way people thought of Indigenous people. But things have changed since that show was on the air. Indigenous people are doing social commentary and comedy, not only on the radio but using social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook and podcasting. What do you make of this change in the media landscape and the opportunities or challenges it presents for writers?

I’m so technologically ignorant; I don’t know where YouTube or tweeter … twitter … twitter. I couldn’t find my butt with a board along the Internet . . . So I don’t know who’s doing what. It’s not me . . . . I could have written this book and just put it on line. But I’m an old fart and I like looking at a book. When Dead Dog was on, CBC wasn’t looking at any of the other shows. They had their “Indian” show. That’s unfortunate. I’d like them to have said, “Dead Dog Café was a success. Let’s do some other shows with Indians at the same time.” But they didn’t do it because of course you got your Big Indian on Campus and once you have one, you don’t need any others . . . . my sense of humour when I was 25, 35, 40 years old was pretty stupid. It wasn’t Dead Dog humour. But when I got up into my 50s and my 60s, I think I started to refine that. Sometimes I think you just need some age behind you to do certain things. And it may be that Dead Dog was successful because I was old enough to pay attention to what I was doing, rather than just go for the funny laugh. I mean the one segment I always liked was, 10 Reasons Why It’s Good to Have Indians in Canada, and the first reason was because they gave the RCMP live targets to practice on. I thought for sure the lawyers would shut that down and they didn’t. So it told me right there that I could come really close to the edge. I could really push this thing on CBC as far as I wanted to. So we did.

What’s it like being a perpetual exmatriate living away from your homeland? How do you maintain your connection to your Cherokee heritage and nationality?

That’s a tough one for me because I was born and raised on the West Coast. My father is Cherokee. He came out to the West Coast during [the Second World War] and met my mother. My mother is Greek. My father took off when I was about three years old, just after my younger brother was born. We never saw him again. So that part of the family, we know part of the history on it and other parts of the history we don’t know . . . . it really is almost impossible. For one thing, I don’t have the “Cherokee by blood” card, and there is little chance that I will ever be able to get it. I have been back to Oklahoma a number of times, checking in with relatives. But being raised on the West Coast and not being raised within the Nation, it’s tough. So what I’ve decided is that I’m a sort of nomadic Cherokee, if you will. Like a turtle. I just carry myself and the culture and everything else that I have been able to pull together around with me like a turtle does. As a matter of fact, on my jacket lapel, I always wear this turtle pin just to remind myself that it’s okay.

I think that your book Truth and Bright Water truly captures what it is like to live on an Indian reserve, and to be a First Nations person confronting the realities of our colonized existence. Soldier, the rez dog, as a character, the lost White girl looking for her duck, the pathetically beautiful imagery of Tecumseh and Swimmer bringing the buffalo back to the prairie, I loved it. That book was published in 2000. What book is yet to be written about Native American life and who do you think is going to write it? Better yet, who should write it?

Oh boy! I should of course. Well, oddly enough I’m working on a book right now called The Back of the Turtle. And what I’ve decided to do is take the stories that have literally fallen from the sky, the Creation story. I’m trying to craft a story that talks about the contemporary world in which we live, Native and non-natives, but using a Native narrative strategy, not something like Green Grass, Running Water. I mean, Green Grass was serious but this is a more serious piece, a more satiric piece. I love satire; I think it moves people a lot more than anything else does. It’s a great weapon. I don’t know if that’s the kind of book that still needs to be written. It’s the kind of book that I need to write. And I think that’s what you’re going to find. You’re going to find Native writers who, as they move along, say Sherman Alexie, as he moves along, and Louise Erdrich, as she moves along, maybe deciding that as they get older there’s one book that they have to write. I think you’ll find it coming from one of the older writers, only because we can’t fool around with just knocking out books. There are some writers who just pump them out as fast as they can because they’ve got to pay the rent. At this point, I don’t have to pay the rent like that. I could take my time. Louise could take her time. Sherman could probably afford to take his time. I don’t know where it’s going to come from. I don’t even know what it’s going to look like. I do know that Truth and Bright Water is my favourite novel that I have written. Oddly enough, it got the least amount of play. I think it’s because people have decided that Green Grass, Running Water was my masterwork, so now they can leave me alone and find somebody else. Writing’s a funny business. The Inconvenient Indian was six years in coming. And in the meantime, I sort of lost my place in the great mandala. So now I’m happy it’s out there. But all that means is now the clock is ticking on the next one.

Taiaiake Alfred is working on a memoir about his father and Mohawk ironworkers.

 

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