The first time I heard of this book was when Mercedes reviewed it on YouTube in 2016. It immediately went on my wishlist and waited there patiently until Christmas last year, when my sister gifted it to me. Now that I owned it, I knew that I didn’t want to wait long before I read it. It became the next book on my to-read list and the first book that I started this year. I’d wanted to read it for over two years, I wasn’t about to let another two years pass.
In The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King writes an account of the history of Native Americans in Canada and the US. He does not refer to this book as a history, because it does not follow a particular chronology, it has personal asides, and it has biases. All these aspects elevate the work. He also discusses his choice to use the word “Indian” when talking about Native American and First Nation people. He ends this discussion with the pertinent point that “there has never been a good collective noun because there never was a collective to begin with“.
King chose to shape his book by focusing the chapters on themes, instead of following a linear narrative. This was an excellent decision, as it allows the book to show how certain situations have developed over time and the lasting impacts of events. History is never a straight line; I find that if it is discussed as such, points get lost along the way. Whilst King does generally move forwards in time, we still find ourselves moving coherently back and forth throughout history. At the end of every chapter, I stopped to jot down the main themes that were discussed. I would go back to remind myself of the events that King examined and appreciate the overall concept of the chapter.
I know very little about the history of native people in North America and I learnt so much from this experience. From the role of Christianity in subjugating native people, to the representations of native people in media, to issues surrounding sovereignty, I feel much better informed. I do not think I could do justice to the arguments that King makes, but I found of particular interest his theory of “Dead Indians”, “Live Indians” and “Legal Indians”. I had no idea that native people were not necessarily seen as such by the laws of North America; the issues that this generates was equal parts fascinating and shocking. So much of this book was completely new to me and it has inspired me to do more reading on this topic.
One of the aspects that enhanced this book was King’s writing. It is direct, unapologetic and often imbued with a scathing tone. When I wasn’t underlining excellent arguments, I was underlining his biting remarks. One example of this is when he was dicussing how Canada has distanced itself from its mistreatment of First Nations people:
But all this fighting happened before British Columbia was a legal part of Canada, so I suppose we shouldn’t count it.
You could tell that he is traditionally a writer of fiction, as the writing flowed and was effortless to read. If I had not spent so much time taking notes and re-reading sections, I could have read it in no time at all.
The Inconvenient Indian is a book that everybody should read, especially if you have limited knowledge of this subject. It is accessible as well as incredibly informative, which is not an easy balance to strike. It is a book that shocked me and that often made me angry. If you haven’t already, then put this book straight to the top of your TBR. An essential read.