The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America

by Thomas King


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The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King

In The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King offers a deeply knowing, darkly funny, unabashedly opinionated, and utterly unconventional account of Indian–White relations in North America since initial contact. Ranging freely across the centuries and the Canada–U.S. border, King debunks fabricated stories of Indian savagery and White heroism, takes an oblique look at Indians (and cowboys) in film and popular culture, wrestles with the history of Native American resistance and his own experiences as a Native rights activist, and articulates a profound, revolutionary understanding of the cumulative effects of ever-shifting laws and treaties on Native peoples and lands.

Suffused with wit, anger, perception, and wisdom, The Inconvenient Indian is at once an engaging chronicle and a devastating subversion of history, insightfully distilling what it means to be “Indian” in North America. It is a critical and personal meditation that sees Native American history not as a straight line but rather as a circle in which the same absurd, tragic dynamics are played out over and over again. At the heart of the dysfunctional relationship between Indians and Whites, King writes, is land: “The issue has always been land.” With that insight, the history inflicted on the indigenous peoples of North America—broken treaties, forced removals, genocidal violence, and racist stereotypes—sharpens into focus. Both timeless and timely, The Inconvenient Indian ultimately rejects the pessimism and cynicism with which Natives and Whites regard one another to chart a new and just way forward for Indians and non-Indians alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781517904463
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication date: 01/02/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 137,879
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

THOMAS KING is one of Canada's premier Native public intellectuals. For the past five decades, he has worked as an activist for Native causes and an administrator of Native programs, and has taught Native literature and history at universities in the United States and Canada. He is the bestselling author of five novels, including Medicine River, described as "precise and elegant" by The New York Times; Green Grass, Running Water, which Newsweek called "a first class work of art"; and Truth and Bright Water, a CBC Canada Reads 2004 Selection. He is also the author of two frequently anthologized collections of short stories, several books for children, and the 2003 Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories. He has been nominated for or won numerous awards and honours, including the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Governor General's Literary Award, the Trillium Award, the Commonwealth Prize, and the Order of Canada. He lives in Guelph, Ontario. The author lives in Guelph, Ontario.

Read an Excerpt



Out of the belly of Christopher's ship a mob bursts Running in all directions Pulling furs off animals Shooting buffalo Shooting each other
— Jeannette Armstrong, "History Lesson"

When I announced to my family that I was going to write a book about Indians in North America, Helen said, "Just don't start with Columbus." She always gives me good advice. And I always give it my full consideration.

In October of 1492, Christopher Columbus came ashore somewhere in the Caribbean, a part of world geography with which Europeans were unfamiliar, and as a consequence, he was given credit for discovering all of the Americas. If you're the cranky sort, you might argue that Columbus didn't discover anything, that he simply ran aground on an unexpected land mass, stumbled across a babel of nations. But he gets the credit. And why not? It is, after all, one of history's jobs to allocate credit. If Columbus hadn't picked up the award, it would have been given to someone else.

The award could have gone to the Norse. They arrived on the east coast of North America long before Columbus. There is even evidence to suggest that Asians found their way to the west coast as well.

But let's face it, Columbus sailing the ocean blue is the better story. Three little ships, none of them in showroom condition, bobbing their way across the Atlantic, the good captain keeping two journals so that his crew wouldn't realize just how far they had drifted away from the known world, the great man himself wading ashore, wet and sweaty, flag in hand, a letter of introduction to the Emperor of the Indies from the King and Queen of Spain tucked in his tunic.

A Kodak moment.

And let's not forget all the sunny weather, the sandy beaches, the azure lagoons, and the friendly Natives.

Most of us think that history is the past. It's not. History is the stories we tell about the past. That's all it is. Stories. Such a definition might make the enterprise of history seem neutral. Benign.

Which, of course, it isn't.

History may well be a series of stories we tell about the past, but the stories are not just any stories. They're not chosen by chance. By and large, the stories are about famous men and celebrated events. We throw in a couple of exceptional women every now and then, not out of any need to recognize female eminence, but out of embarrassment.

And we're not easily embarrassed.

When we imagine history, we imagine a grand structure, a national chronicle, a closely organized and guarded record of agreed-upon events and interpretations, a bundle of "authenticities" and "truths" welded into a flexible yet conservative narrative that explains how we got from there to here. It is a relationship we have with ourselves, a love affair we celebrate with flags and anthems, festivals and guns.

Well, the "guns" remark was probably uncalled for and might suggest an animus toward history. But that's not true. I simply have difficulty with how we choose which stories become the pulse of history and which do not.

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

On second thought, let's not start with Columbus. Helen was right. Let's forget Columbus. You know, now that I say it out loud, I even like the sound of it. Forget Columbus.

Give it a try. Forget Columbus.

Instead, let's start our history, our account, in Almo, Idaho. I've never been there, and I suspect that most of you haven't either. I can tell you with certainty that Christopher Columbus didn't discover the town. Nor did Jacques Cartier or Samuel de Champlain or David Thompson or Hernando Cortés. Sacajawea, with Lewis and Clark in tow, might have passed through the general area, but since Almo didn't exist in the early 1800s, they couldn't have stopped there. Even if they had wanted to.

Almo is a small, unincorporated town of about 200 tucked into south central Cassia County in southern Idaho. So far as I know, it isn't famous for much of anything except an Indian massacre.

A plaque in town reads, "Dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives in a most horrible Indian massacre, 1861. Three hundred immigrants west bound. Only five escaped. Erected by the S&D of Idaho Pioneers, 1938."

Two hundred and ninety-five killed. Now that's a massacre. Indians generally didn't kill that many Whites at one time. Sure, during the 1813 Fort Mims massacre, in what is now Alabama, Creek Red Sticks killed about four hundred Whites, but that's the largest massacre committed by Indians that I can find. The Lachine massacre on Montreal Island in Quebec in 1689 killed around ninety, while the death toll in nearby La Chesnaye was forty-two. In 1832, eighteen were killed at Indian Creek near Ottawa, Illinois, while the 1854 Ward massacre along the Oregon Trail in western Idaho had a death toll of nineteen. The 1860 Utter massacre at Henderson Flat near the Snake River in Idaho killed twenty-five. The 1879 Meeker massacre in western Colorado killed eleven. The Fort Parker massacre in Texas in 1836 killed six.

It's true that in 1835, just south of present-day Bushnell, Florida, Indians killed 108, but since all of the casualties were armed soldiers who were looking for trouble and not unarmed civilians who were trying to avoid it, I don't count this one as a massacre.

By the way, these aren't my figures. I borrowed them from William M. Osborn, who wrote a book, The Wild Frontier, in which he attempted to document every massacre that occurred in North America. The figures are not dead accurate, of course. They're approximations based on the historical information that was available to Osborn. Still, it's nice that someone spent the time and effort to compile such a list, so I can use it without doing any of the work.

I should point out that Indians didn't do all the massacring. To give credit where credit is due, Whites massacred Indians at a pretty good clip. In 1598, in what is now New Mexico, Juan de Onate and his troops killed over eight hundred Acoma and cut off the left foot of every man over the age of twenty-five. In 1637, John Underhill led a force that killed six to seven hundred Pequot near the Mystic River in Connecticut. In 1871, around one hundred and forty Pinal and Aravaipa Apaches were killed in the Camp Grant massacre in Arizona Territory. Two hundred and fifty Northwestern Shoshoni were killed in the 1863 Bear River massacre in what is now Idaho, while General Henry Atkinson killed some one hundred and fifty Sauk and Fox at the mouth of the Bad Axe River in Wisconsin in 1832. And, of course, there's always the famous 1864 Sand Creek massacre in Colorado, where two hundred peaceful Cheyenne were slaughtered by vigilantes looking to shoot anything that moved, and the even more infamous Wounded Knee in 1890, where over two hundred Lakota lost their lives.

Of course, body counts alone don't even begin to tell the stories of these slaughters, but what the figures do suggest — if you take them at face value — is that Whites were considerably more successful at massacres than Indians. So, the 1861 Almo massacre by the Shoshone-Bannock should stand out in the annals of Indian bad behavior. After the massacre at Fort Mims, Almo would rank as the second-largest massacre of Whites by Indians.

Three hundred people in the wagon train. Two hundred and ninety-five killed. Only five survivors. It's a great story. The only problem is, it never happened.

You might assume that something must have happened in Almo, maybe a smaller massacre or a fatal altercation of some sort that was exaggerated and blown out of proportion.


The story is simply a tale someone made up and told to someone else, and, before you knew it, the Almo massacre was historical fact.

The best summary and critical analysis of the Almo massacre is Brigham Madsen's 1993 article in Idaho Yesterdays, "The Almo Massacre Revisited." Madsen was a historian at the University of Utah when I was a graduate student there. He was a smart, witty, gracious man, who once told me that historians are not often appreciated because their research tends to destroy myths. I knew the man, and I liked him. So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I have a bias toward his work.

Bias or no, Madsen's research into Almo settles the question. No massacre. As Madsen points out in his article, attacks by Indians did not go unmarked. The newspapers of the time — the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, the Sacramento Daily Union, the San Francisco Examiner — paid close attention to Indian activity along the Oregon and California trails, yet none of these papers had any mention of Almo. Such an event would certainly have come to the attention of Indian Service agents and the military, but again Madsen was unable to find any reference to the massacre either in the National Archives or in the records that the Bureau of Indian Affairs kept for the various states and territories. Nor does the Almo massacre appear in any of the early histories of Idaho.

You would expect that the rescue party from Brigham who supposedly came upon the carnage and buried the bodies of the slain settlers — or the alleged five survivors who escaped death — would have brought the massacre to the attention of the authorities. Okay, one of the survivors was a baby, but that still left a chorus of voices to sound the alarm.

And yet there is nothing.

In fact there is no mention of the matter at all until sixty-six years after the fact, when the story first appeared in Charles S. Walgamott's 1926 book Reminiscences of Early Days: A Series of Historical Sketches and Happenings in the Early Days of Snake River Valley. Walgamott claims to have gotten the story from a W.M.E. Johnston, and it's a gruesome story to be sure, a Jacobean melodrama complete with "bloodthirsty Indians" and a brave White woman who crawls to safety carrying her nursing child by its clothing in her teeth.

A right proper Western.

That the plaque in Almo was erected in 1938 as part of "Exploration Day," an event that was designed to celebrate Idaho history and promote tourism to the area, is probably just a coincidence. In any case, the fact that the story is a fraud didn't bother the Sons and Daughters of Idaho Pioneers who paid for the plaque, and it doesn't bother them now. Even after the massacre was discredited, the town was reluctant to remove the marker, defending the lie as part of the culture and history of the area. Which, of course, it now is.

But let's not blame Almo for spinning fancy into fact. There are much larger fictions loose upon the land. My favorite old chestnut features Pocahontas and Captain John Smith. The original story, the one Smith told, is that he was captured by the Powhatan in 1607, shortly after arriving in what is now Virginia. He was taken to one of the main villages, and just as the Indians made ready to kill him, he was saved by the daughter of the head man, a young woman whom all of us know as Pocahontas.

It's a pretty good tale. And 1607 wasn't the first time Smith had used it. Before he came to America, he had been a soldier of fortune, had found himself in a number of tight spots, and, according to the good Captain, had been befriended and/or saved by comely women. Smith makes mention of three such women in his writings, the Lady Tragabigzanda in Turkey, the Lady Callamata in Russia, and Madam Chanoyes in France, all of whom "assisted" him during his trials and tribulations as a young mercenary.

Lucky guy.

Of course, the story of heroes being saved by beautiful maidens is a classic and had been around for centuries. Personally, I don't believe that Smith knew Pocahontas. I certainly don't believe that she saved him or that they had any sort of relationship. His first mention of her doesn't come until Pocahontas arrived in England in 1616. By then, as an authentic American Indian princess, she had acquired a certain fame and notoriety, and Smith, I suspect, eager to bathe once again in the warmth of public glory, took the stock story out of storage, dusted it off, and inserted Pocahontas's name in the proper place.

Helen likes details, and she is inordinately fond of footnotes. I'm not. But because I love her, I try to accommodate her needs. So, here are the facts, as we know them. Smith does come to Virginia in 1607. He is most likely captured by the Powhatan people. Whether they want to kill him or not is a moot point. The reality is they don't. He gets back to the colony in one piece, is injured in a gunpowder explosion, and returns to England in 1609. Did he know Pocahontas? There's nothing to indicate that he did. Did he have a relationship with her as the Disney folks suggest in their saccharine jeu d'esprit? Well, at the time of the supposed meeting, Smith would have been twenty-seven and Pocahontas would have been about ten, maybe twelve years old. Possible, but not probable.

Still, the story, false though I believe it to be, has been too appealing for North America to ignore. And we have dragged the damn thing — with its eroticism and exoticism, its White hero and its dusky maiden — across the continent and the centuries.

There's an 1885 musical called Po-ca-hon-tas, or the Gentle Savage by John Brougham, a 1924 film directed by Bryan Foy called Pocahontas and John Smith, a racehorse named Pocahontas, a Pocahontas train that ran between Norfolk, Virginia, and Cincinnati, Ohio, for the Norfolk and Western Railway in the 1950s and '60s, a Pocahontas coal field in Tazewell, West Virginia, a Pocahontas video game, as well as the towns of Pocahontas in Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Virginia.

There's a town in Alberta just a little north of Jasper called Pocahontas, where you can rent your very own cabin (with kitchenette) in the heart of the heart of nature, relax in the curative waters of Miette Hot Springs, and enjoy a meal at the Poco Café.

I don't know about you, but it's on my bucket list.

The irony is that there are a great many stories that are as appealing as the story of Pocahontas and that have more substance than the fiction of the Almo massacre.

The Rebellion of 1885, with Louis Riel playing the lead, is one such story, as is the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, starring George Armstrong Custer. Each is a moment in the national identities of Canada and the United States, though in terms of prominence and fame, they are not historical equals. While the 1885 Rebellion as a historical moment and Louis Riel as a name are well known throughout Canada, the event and the man hardly register in America. I would say that they don't register at all, but I ran into someone in San Francisco about twelve years back who knew something about Batoche and was able to use "Duck Lake" and "Gabriel Dumont" in the same sentence. On the other hand, Custer's name and the legend of the Little Bighorn are well known in both countries, even though the battle in Montana was not nearly as important or as long as the Métis fight for independence. In part, that's not history's fault. You can blame the extra brightness of Custer's star on nineteenth-century American outrage and twentieth-century Hollywood.

Nevertheless, each of these events gave us a man of historical note. To call them "heroes" might be stretching the noun, for, while Riel and Custer are enduring, larger-than-life figures, they also have mixed reputations. Riel may have negotiated the terms under which Manitoba became a part of Canada, but he is also remembered as a messianic nutcase. Custer may have been a successful Civil War commander and one of the officers on hand at General Robert E. Lee's surrender, but he is also burdened with a reputation as an arrogant officer who made a fatal mistake and died fighting a superior force. One man was Métis, one was White. Custer died on the battlefield from wounds that were, in a manner of speaking, self-inflicted, while Riel was hanged for treason at the insistence of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald.

In Prairie Fire, their 1984 book on the North-West Rebellion, Bob Beal and Rod Macleod argue that "when most Canadians think of the North-West Rebellion of 1885, they picture a righteous and determined Louis Riel leading, for the last time, a band of dissatisfied Métis in a desperate reaction against the Government's treatment of their people." I don't disagree with that general image, but most Canadians, like most Americans, have a shockingly poor grasp of their own history. Dates, people, the large and small nuances of events have all been reduced to the form and content of Classic Comics. This isn't a complaint. It's an acknowledgment that people are busy with other things and generally glance at the past only on holidays. Given our hectic schedules, the least I can do is to provide a little historical background so no one will feel left out when our story gets complicated.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn. Or the Battle of Greasy Grass, as it is also known. The 7th Cavalry, under the command of George Armstrong Custer, versus the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne, led by Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Gall, et al. Five companies under Custer's command — 258 soldiers — were wiped out, along with 7 civilians and 3 Arikara scouts.


Excerpted from "The Inconvenient Indian"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Dead Dog Café Productions, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of University of Minnesota Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Prologue: Warm Toast and Porcupines
1. Forget Columbus
2. The End of the Trail
3. Too Heavy to Lift
4. One Name to Rule Them All
5. We Are Sorry
6. Like Cowboys and Indians
7. Forget about It
8. What Indians Want
9. As Long as the Grass Is Green
10. Happy Ever After


Reading Group Guide

1. Consider the evolution from the title Pesky Redskins: A Curious History of Indians in North America to the book's title The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Indians in North America. Why did King come to the conclusion that this book is not a history? What do you think is the significance of the terms "Redskins" and "Indians"?

2. On several occasions King reveals the futility of writing a history. "One of the difficulties with trying to contain any account of Indians in North America ina volume as modest as this is that it can't be done" (xiv). He goes on to concede he prefers fiction to fact (xi), and that he is not keeping his biases in check (xii). Is bringing these issues to the forefront an effective strategy? How might shedding light on historical incongruity such as the Almo massacre and the story of Pocahontas impact the way you read historical accounts in the future? What does that tell you about how history is written and taught? 

3. King writes, "Gazing through the lens that seventeenth-century Christisanity provided, most were only able to see the basic dichotomy that framed their world, a world that was either light or dark, good or evil, civilized or savage" (23). How has the lens through which White North America looks altered since the seventeenth century? How has it remained the same? If North American history is written froma White consciousness, as King suggests, in what ways is this book different, coming from a Native writer and perspective?

4. What does King's statement, "the need for race preceeds race" (29) signify? The author goes on to note that while General Custer became a staple in American history, individuals like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull remain minor figures. Why is it important to keep what history made of Custer in mind? In what ways is racism still, as King says, endemic and systemic in North America?

5. King writes, "Most of us this history is the past. It's not. History is the stories we tell about the past" (2). What does this say about the oral and written traditions of telling stories? Discuss the implications and effectiveness of King's decision to tell anecdotes rather than limit the book to dates and statistics. 

6. On page 20, King asserts that "Native history is an imaginative cobbling together of fears and loathings, romances and reverences, facts and fantasies" as portrayed on the silver screen by Hollywood. What was—and is—the impact of having this history promoted through the entertainment industry? How do film and television today reinforce stereotypes and an incomplete history of Aboriginals in North America?

7. Discuss the differences between what King calls Dead Indians, Live Indians, and Legal Indians. How does the idea of the Dead Indian affect Live Indians today? Is it promoting a myth that is ultimately detrimental, or, as is said on page 74, serving a purpose by preserving a culture? 

8. In the prologue of the book King states, "when we look at Native-Non-Native relations, there is no great difference betweenthe past and the present" (xv). In what ways has Duncan Campbell Scott's move to "get rid of the Indian problem" (72) evolved in Canadian government policy in the last 100 years? Is there evidence that this sentiment still exists? Canada is known as a cultural mosaic, widely appreciated for embracing cultrual and racial differences. In what ways does this hold true in the case of Indians? In what ways is it an untrue understanding? Is Stephen Harper's apology for residential schools still legitimate when he later denies a history of colonialism?

9. The cover image of this book is taken from a mid-1900s promotional poster for a shipping company. What does this say about the era's marketing of the Dead Indian? What effect does today's marketing of "Native" crafts, medicines, and retreats have on Natives and Native history?

10. Consider the incongruities of identity for a Native that King describes: on one hand is a culture of young Indian children who wished to dress up as cowboys (22), and on the other, a contemporary actor who seemed to acquire an "Indian identity" after acquiring a role as an Indian (45). What implications does this have on Natives' identities? In what ways has Indian policy, as King says on page 177, discouraged the retention of such identities? 

11. King enlists satire and humour throughout The Inconvenient Indian. Does this make you consider things differently than you would in reading the same sentiments in a traditional history book? Why might maintaining a sense of humour be important to King in writing this book and persuading his readers? Is it an effective tool?

12. An early intention of the residential schooling system was to "kill the Indian in order to save the man" (107). What are the immediate and long-term impacts of this assimilation on Native people? Consider the conditions and philosophies of the schools, and discuss whether they blur a line between "assimilation" and "extermination," as King explicates on page 101. In what ways is King's comparison  of Natives to the holocaust on page 114 a fair—or unfair—comparison? King associates the Trial of Tears to the twin towers (88); European colonialism to malaria; and Reservations to Alcatraz prison (141)—are these convincing analogies?

13. Do you think taht sovereignty should be a right of Native people in North America? What impact would it hold compared to a more comprehensive tribal membership or resource development systems, which King promotes on page 202?  

14. In the last chapter of his book King points to two positive developments for Natives in North America: The Alaska Native Claims Settlement and The Nunavut Land Claims Settlement. What impact do they have on the tribes who inhabit these areas, and on all tribes in North America? In what ways is it not, as King warns on page 249, an outright victory or triumph?

15. King offers Bill-C31 and the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples as examples of government legislation which harmed Native people (167, 170). How do Bill-C45 and the Idle No More Movement or other recent government legislations relate to this? In what ways has the Canadian government evolved in its treatment of Natives since the colonial period, and in what ways is it similar?

16. How has this book influenced your idea of how far North America has come and how much further it needs to go in regards to Native-Non-Native relations? What hope and what warning does King close his book with? What else do you think should be done to improve relations, rights, and reserves for Natives in North America?

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The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
rdjehn More than 1 year ago
Owing to the author's wonderful, sly sense of humor, I laughed through most of the first two chapters. But the story he tells is simply too harsh to keep laughing. This is an absolute must read for every person who idolizes Native Americans, who discriminates against them, or who is interested in the true story. Thomas King will keep you riveted to his story, and he will teach you things you will wish you did not know, but ignoring this history is a criminal act.
mobile More than 1 year ago
The title says it all! This one is a must read!