The Inconvenient Indian, by Thomas King

Better Dead Than Alive? 'The Inconvenient Indian' Takes a Seriously Funny Look at Native History

Hans Tammemagi

Indians are most "inconvenient" when they are … alive. 

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. 

King may be one of the few authors who can bring as many laughs as tears to the subject. But that’s what he does in this scathing history of Native-white interactions from the beginning of European settlement to today. He exposes in detail the colonial viewpoint that still persists and outlines its supposed infatuation with the “Inconvenient Indian.” It’s serious stuff, but King’s unconventional approach combining humor and biting, clever wit makes the book readable, even enjoyable.

Reviewing incidents in the centuries-long dance between Natives and non-Natives—the book is thoroughly researched but with no academic trappings such as footnotes—King surveys treaties, removals, residential schools and relocations to conclude that these were simply ways “to shuffle Indians out of the way of white settlement and economic development.”

He detours to describe Hollywood’s love affair with the Indian, noting that the love, again, only extends to the “Dead Indian”—the romantic version—rather than to the “Live Indian” or the “Legal Indian.” They are the real, all-too-inconvenient Indians.

King not only debunks the role assigned to Natives throughout history but also shows the ways that such notions persist to this day. His humor and easygoing, fireside-chat style make the dark message clear and convincing. King frequently brings in his partner Helen’s ideas, as well as his own thoughts about how or why he should present something. That makes the work casual and endearing, and we can’t help but be drawn to and empathize with the author. 

King’s vista spans both the United States and Canada because the border doesn’t exist for most aboriginal people. It also reflects his bi-nationality: a Cherokee born and raised in California, now living in Canada and lecturing at the University of Guelph. 

When released in Canada nearly a year ago, The Inconvenient Indian became the number one nonfiction book in the country, remaining on the best-seller list for more than 20 weeks.

King’s account is gloomy indeed, but at the end he offers a glimmer of optimism. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement along with the creation of the Nunavut Territory in northern Canada, and the creation of Gwaii Haanas National Park and Haida Heritage Site in western Canada are all positives, recognizing Native sovereignty. But given King’s take on the past 500 years, such treaties may be destined to remain isolated tokens unless attitudes, both Native and non-Native, change dramatically. This book can help generate the needed dialogue.

Beyond being a good writer, storyteller and academic, King is a towering intellectual with an uncanny ability to cut through the balderdash spooned out by governments, corporations and the mass media. And he does it with delightful humor and self-deprecation. The Inconvenient Indian should be required reading in every school and university in North America.

RELATED: Thomas King Dishes on Being the Ultimate Inconvenient Indian


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Jasie Stokes's picture
Jasie Stokes
Submitted by Jasie Stokes on
It will be required in every Cultures of America class I teach from here on out.

Lech683's picture
Submitted by Lech683 on
I just finished King's book. Very interesting read, I learned much I didn't know. I have one minor quibble with what he put in the book. He includes among the Canadian reserves with a good economic basis the four Cree bands at Hobbema, 70 km south of Edmonton, Alberta. He is correct, so far as he goes, since Hobbema has received substantial amounts of oil royalties over the decades. He does not mention that the place is badly managed. One example of the bad management is the truck stop built by one of the bands on the main highway between Calgary and Edmonton. I have watched this business open and close several times over the decades. It is now closed yet again, and has been closed for several years. The place should be a gold mine because of its location, and provide employment on for a reserve that is badly needed. It is a sharp contrast to similar native-run businesses I have seen near Kamloops, British Columbia. The advantages of a decent economic potential have been severely eroded by what appears to be mismanagement. I wish he had written about Indian relations with Inuit (aka Eskimos). I know that hostility has existed between the two groups for centuries, but don't know why. Another item he might have raised was the matter of who is a Metis. The rules for qualifying as Metis make membership in the Cherokee Nations simple by comparison.