Looking at the Tragicomedy of Canadian Native-White Relations with Thomas King
Thomas King is one of Canada's most celebrated contemporary authors, often providing a portal into life as a First Nations person few would otherwise be engage with. With his latest book,<I>The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in...
Thomas King, one of CanLit's most celebrated literary figures. Photo via Lorenz Calcagno.
Thomas King is dangerous. The threat he poses isn’t, however, the result of his six-foot-six, 250-pound frame. King is educated, empowered, and enlightened. His latest work is no exception. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America is an altogether sad and funny historical investigation into white-native relations in the US and Canada. VICE caught up with the award-winning author to discuss his book and the two things they say you should never talk about with strangers: politics and religion.
VICE: You do an enviable job of riding a unicycle down the thin line between comedy and tragedy with The Inconvenient Indian. To what do you credit that impressive balancing act?
Thomas King: I suppose it’s the way in which I’ve developed a storytelling technique over the years. Certainly a lot of it is reserve humour. Storytellers on the various reserves that I’ve hung out on have a particular way of telling a good story that puts comedy next to tragedy, and vice versa. Maybe it’s just looking at the world and realizing that it’s a pretty crazy place.
You’re 71, a celebrated author and a respected member of this country’s intellectual elite, but are there still time when you get cut by those “sharp shards of bigotry you find when you run your fingers across the Canadian mosaic”?
Oh yeah. Not so much anymore, because people are willing to treat me with a particular deference. But when I’m roaming around the countryside, I’ll hear things. I was up at Manitoulin Island not too long ago and there was a guy who was pontificating about lazy, welfare indian bums. It’s out there. You can’t be a native in North America without knowing that, at your back, it’s there.
The book was said to have opened old wounds for you. Other than the noted racism you were inevitably forced to revisit in the process, what other injustices did you relive while writing?
The old wounds were some of the fights we got in over native rights and how little we were able to change. To go back there and see what kind of high hopes we had for our efforts and to see how little we changed the world is pretty disturbing. The old wounds were some of the friends that I lost in that fight, both to the political and social turmoil that we went through in the 60s and the 70s, and also to things like alcoholism and drug abuse.
Native people make up four percent of the Canadian population but account for an astounding 18 percent of federal prison inmates. To what do you attribute this cataclysmic discrepancy?
I think that the kinds of political efforts, policies, that have been inflicted on native people has made it very hard if you’re on a reserve to make a living. Federal policy has not been kind to native people, no matter what anybody says. And poverty will beget all sorts of other social ills.
Democracy is not simply a form of government but, as you write, “an organizing principle that bundles individual freedoms, Christianity, and capitalism into a marketable product.” Can you elaborate?
We’ve come into a world where capitalism has changed. It has become a much greater force in our social and political lives. I suppose it always had a guest bedroom in politics, but now it’s sort of taken over all of that. And so we get this bundled arrangement in the same way that we get our cable and internet and home phone bundled. It’s a bothersome arrangement. I’m not sure why—maybe I’m just an old fart and I get cranky when I see change.
Taking aim at Stephen Harper’s government, you’ve alluded to legislation they’ve proposed or signed into law as the cause of your ire. What bills or policies were you talking about?
Certainly some of the omnibus bills that the Conservatives passed, bills that had within them the idea that we could turn native treaty land into fee-simple land, in other words break up the tribal estate. The Conservatives have gone further than that. The new Fair Elections Act, which is such an oxymoron; the throwing away of the long census; the shredding of scientific knowledge. All of those things just really get me cranked up. There’s no reason for that kind of nonsense and stupidity.
You said that Harper “has no love for native people whatsoever.”
I don’t think that Mr. Harper has Canada’s best interest at heart. I know that he does not have First Nations’ interests at heart. Love is probably too strong a word; he doesn’t have much of an interest, and if he does, it’s to get rid of native land. One of the problems with pipelines is that they have to run across treaty land. And I think, in his heart of hearts, Harper would like to have all aboriginal treaties abrogated.
Do you think the current government can survive another election?
Oh sure. So far as I can tell, there’s nothing much out there to stop them. Thomas Mulcair and the NDP may get some good purchase; I’d love to see that because I have no idea what the NDP would do in power federally. The Liberals don’t seem to be doing much of anything right now. I don’t know how Justin Trudeau is going to lead that party to a victory. It’s not that we don’t need change. I just don’t see where change is going to come from.
The cover of King's latest award-winning book.
In 2008, you ran for the federal NDP in a failed bid for a seat in the House of Commons. Would you consider running again?
That’s easy: no. The fact of the matter is I don’t see where I can make much of an impact politically, or as much of an impact as I can if I’m free in society without a leash on me. Federal politics require teamwork, and that teamwork means that you have to be willing to say and support things that you may personally not believe, and I simply found I couldn’t do that.
Your beef with Christianity dots the manuscript but comes to an adversarial, perhaps even confrontational, zenith in one chapter. Do you truly feel that the Christian faith is “the gateway drug to supply-side capitalism”?
I think in many ways it is. I don’t have much complaint with Christianity in theory. In practice, it’s another thing. Christianity says do unto others as you would have them do unto you, right? And yet, Christianity was responsible, in large part, for slavery and for native residential schools. In practice, it’s not a generous doctrine. It doesn’t like gays and lesbians and it doesn’t like people who are different.
Would it be safe to say you don’t have much good to say about any organized religion?
No, it wouldn’t be, because there are parts of organized religion that are laudable. My problem is the way in which they practice those tenets. Most all religions have generosity, equality, love as part of the doctrine. But it’s how they practice, or how they define it, that is my problem.
Are you an atheist?
I’m nothing, to be honest with you. I make my way through the world. I don’t need Christianity or atheism or anything else to tell me how to act, how to run my life. I’ve got a fairly good sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s moral, what’s not. I don’t need a priest to tell me that, I don’t need a minister to tell me that, I don’t need a God to tell me that.
Is it true that The Book of Mormon teaches that “dark-skinned Lamanites,” or natives, will turn white as they accept the Mormon gospel?
Yeah, that’s the very general reading of it. The term is “turn white and delightsome.” They may have changed that language, but that was the language that was available when I was living in Salt Lake City and dealing with native people from the Southwest in the Mormon Church. The expectation was that dark-skinned people, who were not quite as good as the rest, would in fact turn white.
In matters of spiritual, social, and political significance, there is a chasm that exists perennially between fact and fiction, between what is and what is perceived to be. Has authentic native history been lost to that proverbial gap?
A great deal of what native people had passed on from generation to generation was lost in the time that native people and Europeans were trying to get along together. How much of that was lost, nobody knows anymore, so I really don’t know. Whenever you say something’s authentic I get a bit nervous and begin to squirm in my seat; I don’t like to call anything authentic. There’s a problem with that word for me. It gets used too much. It’s a word that’s supposed to ground something in the truth that may not even exist.
Finally, your book has been called an “alternative history” to white-native relations. Would you agree with that statement?
I think it’s a history of white-native relations. I don’t think it’s an alternative anything. It’s as mainstream a history as many of the histories that are written. It’s different angle, certainly. And if alternative means that, then sure, it’s an alternative history. It’s another way of looking at the same history—a way that we don’t normally look at the history of North America.