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King turns witty eye to ‘inconvenient Indian’

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"STAY calm, be brave, wait for the signs." This advice accompanied the CBC radio show The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour that ran on CBC Radio in the late 1990s.

The author of this maxim, indeed of the program script, was ad th Th Co ra th ma pr Thomas King, an American who has lived in Canada since 1980. He revealed himself to be a master of offbeat wit and sharp comment that provoked thought, both through his role as "the White Indian" and those of the other regulars on the show, Jasper and Gracie.

Set in a café in a fictional southern Alberta town, the program was witty, as is King’s novel popular Green Grass, Running Water , a finalist for the 1993 Governor General’s Award for fiction.

In his new non-fiction book The Inconvenient Indian , King, 69, disclaims the label historian, but that’s the function he takes on. He does warn readers that he will not be the kind of historian they expect.

But they get a candid and marvellously researched account of natives and their North American experience. His documentation of this account demonstrates its factual quality and insight.

King is meticulous in identifying terms as they apply differently in north and south of the border. For example, in the U.S. the area that people occupy is called a reservation, whereas in Canada the term used is reserve. Even King finds himself conceding that "terminology is always a rascal." But he handles the rascal very well.

You find yourself rolling through the pages. Paradoxically, the text is actually complex, with paragraphs typically packed with facts, ideas and points of view.

King’s wit and mastery of English (not bad for one whose background includes Cherokee, Greek and German) — he is a professor of theatre and English at Guelph University — contribute to a style that is rich and articulate. Readers may find that King challenges their understanding from time to time. He argues that he is not writing history per se.

He comments that "writing a novel is buttering warm toast, while writing history is herding porcupines with your elbows."

He explains further that he draws more on storytelling techniques than historiography. He warns that any discussion of Indians in North America "is likely to conjure up a certain amount of rage. And sorrow. Along with moments of irony and humour."

King’s original style could be described as a mix of factual information-giving, definitions, surprise (the latter deriving from the range and sharpness of facts presented).

As the story unfolds, it moves into polemic and a kind of urgency. Impatience and flashes of anger increase as he laments the lack of progress in improvements in the condition of the "inconvenient Indian."

The Inconvenient Indian boasts some of the same clever use as The Dead Dog Café, but the tone is serious. The title is a clue to the content, to the subtlety of King’s criticism of the North American context of aboriginal people.

King uses stories to turn history upside down. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he presents history with a candour and honesty rarely found in usual accounts of the interaction of aboriginals and nonaboriginals.

Somehow King manages to balance his treatment of native people in Canada and the United States. His range is absolutely brilliant, including issues and major figures, from Gen. George Custer to Louis Riel.

Though he identifies himself as a "nonhistorian," he weaves a profound analysis of major historical developments, political as well as economic and social.

His thoughtful commentary on the importance of land in aboriginal thinking is perhaps his most powerful set of insights.

His reflection on the difference between native perception and the typical view of non-natives, his clarification of the significance of land in native spirituality, could inform profoundly the thinking of people in general.

 

Winnipeg writer and historian Ron Kirbyson has long experience working in native education.

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