His award-winning fiction works, some under pseudonyms, explore the worlds of Native life in North America. His writing is full of psychological and sociological insight, expressed through a wide range of characters and settings.
King's latest book, The Inconvenient Indian (UMinn Press), steps away from fiction, but maintains and intensifies his trenchant approach to the cultural divide that separates Native peoples from Western civilization. Amazingly, his non-fiction prose is as sharply humorous as his fiction, while yielding nothing to those who laugh at Native cultures. The humor is not by way of cheap laughs at the white man, but rather a tool by which King manages to cut into the absurdities of the long and continuing Anglo invasion of the continent.
If there were a Vine Deloria Jr., Award for the writer most talented in presenting Native theology, history, and activism, Thomas King should surely get it. From the first page to the last, The Inconvenient Indianshoulders the American Indian burden of helping the White Man understand what it means to be a natural person, a human being. This was Deloria's work and King carries it forward with spirit and enthusiasm.
Deloria carried the Indian's burden during a time ripe for activism and protest. Vine knew the mindset of western civilization as well as he knew Native ways, and for that reason was a leader for the American Indian Movement and a way-shower for Anglos trying to understand and learn from Indigenous ways of life.
Thomas King has picked up Vine's torch and is carrying it with the strength of his own deep understanding of what motivates and troubles human beings in our efforts to be natural persons. King's account of Native Peoples in North America comes at a time of renewed activism, especially in the North, where the Idle No More movement is taking on the array of extractive industries that define the core of Western civilization.
In The Inconvenient Indian, King takes aim at the core beliefs and practices of the 500-year long (and counting) assault on Native Peoples and their lands. He starts with the understanding that history is not "the past"; rather, he says, it is "the stories we tell about the past." This is a crucial point: "how we choose which stories become the pulse of history" sets the stage for what is taught in schools, presumed in law and politics, and reinforced in popular culture.
Native histories, he says, are presented as "entertainments…cobbling together…fears and loathings, romances and reverences, facts and fantasies…in Technicolor and 3-D, with accompanying soft drinks, candy, and popcorn."
King penetrates these "entertainments" with a light touch and a heavy critique. He sometimes starts with single words—"massacre," for instance: he presents dates, numbers, and references to show that, despite the common use of the word to describe what Natives did, "Whites were considerably more successful at massacres than Indians." He points out that such historical fact checking is often unpopular, because "research tends to destroy myths."
One of the greatest strengths of King's critique is his focus on the religious doctrines that accompanied the machinery of colonialism. He coins a brilliant turn of phrase to bring together the "hardware" of colonialism—"iron pots, blankets, guns"—and the "software"—original sin, universal damnation, atonement, and subjugation."
Many authors write about the "European" invasion of Native lands, but very few name this invasion for what it was in its own terms: a "Christian" invasion. As King puts it, the colonizers saw the world through "an elegant amalgam of desire and doctrine." He does not shy from stating this point with a fierce clarity: "Christianity, in all its varieties…was the initial wound in the side of Native culture."
Christianized Indians may bridle at King's words; but he is only saying what Deloria already pointed to in "God is Red," and what scholars like Francis Jennings (The Invasion of America) and Steve Newcomb (Pagans in the Promised Land) have exhaustively researched: "Missionary work in the New World was war."
In another flash of brilliance, King develops three categories of Indians—Dead, Live, and Legal—to characterize contemporary culture. "Dead Indians…are the stereotypes and clichés that North America has conjured up" as "signifiers of Indian authenticity." Dead Indians can be found in all the places contemporary pop culture reserves for images of the past.
"In order to maintain the cult and sanctity of the Dead Indian, North America has decided that Live Indians living today cannot be genuine Indians." Thus, "Live Indians" suffer not only from the "annoyance" of being invisible, but also from the "crushing" burden of being "inauthentic." He quotes a tourist overheard at Acoma Pueblo, upon seeing a television antenna on the roof: "Real Indians [don't] have televisions."
"Dead Indians are dignified, noble, silent, suitably garbed. And dead. Live Indians are invisible, unruly, disappointing. And breathing." When Live Indians dance at powwows with their families and relations, "North America sees Dead Indians come to life…."
As an alternative to the "impossible tangle" of Dead Indians and Live Indians, King says, "Thank goodness there are Legal Indians." I was especially interested to find this part of the book, because I used to teach a Legal Studies course called, "Legalization of American Indians." That was my effort to analyze federal Indian law as an extension of the colonial enterprise.
King analyzes the Canadian counterpart to federal Indian law—the Indian Act—as "the main mechanism for controlling the lives and destinies of Legal Indians in Canada." We are on the same page here: I sometimes refer to the U.S. framework as "federal anti-Indian law."
It's not a simple problem, because it's not binary (all or nothing): various components of the legal system that target Indians for federal control may also have the function of limiting state (or provincial) control. The net effect for Indians is to be bounced back and forth between groups of competing control systems. "Recognized [Indians]" King says. "I like that term. Makes me feel almost real."
"The Inconvenient Indian" is a powerful reminder of the big picture and a close look at the details—of Indian history and of contemporary Indian life. King is bold enough to discuss the ways in which Live Indians differ in their views about all this. He looks at the casino phenomenon and manifestations of Indian sovereignty, including a thoughtful look at the various "tribal enrollment" controversies.
He closes the book with a crescendo on land: "Land. If you understand nothing else about the history of Indians in North America, you need to understand that the question that really matters is the question of land." "[T]here is little chance that North America will develop a functional land ethic until it finds a way to overcome its irrational addiction to profit."
In the coda, he returns to the opening theme: "Ignorance has never been the problem. The problem was and continues to be unexamined confidence in western civilization and the unwarranted certainty of Christianity."
The Inconvenient Indian is a major work. Read it and weep for the insanities. Read it and rejoice for the "remarkably tenacious and resilient" persistence of Native cultures.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.