The history of Indians in North America is not a pretty picture. Beaten. Broken. Betrayed. Unfortunately, history has written a version of events that has made the Indian seem vicious and wild. In Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian (2013), the reader gets a different perspective on history. This perspective is not in textbooks nor portrayed on television or movies. King brings emotions to the forefront by using the term Indian instead of Aboriginal.
“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” King quotes the famous historical song. This is, however, not something Indians want to remember. Columbus is often remembered as a white man who pillaged villages and killed Aboriginals who got in the way of him getting land.
Another figure examined in King’s book is General Custer who is portrayed in history books as the greatest military figure. None of it is true, according to King. Custer had apparently “got his ass kicked in Montana” during Custer’s Last Stand. Not long after this defeat, it was up to Americans to create artistic portrayals of Custer looking valiant as he went into battle. As King points out, there were no cameras or cell phone videos in those days, so no artist can know what Custer did or how he looked.
Sometimes a promise is not worth the paper is it written on, which is the case with treaties signed by the Canadian government with Indians. If a treaty hindered the government from gaining more land and making more money, government officials would find some way around it.
Between 1492 and the 1800’s North America did not have a peaceful relationship with Indians. There were no fewer than 10 wars in the 1800’s over land rights or other disputes.
In the 1841 novel The Deerslayer, James Fenimore Cooper gave his own hierarchy of the races. According to Cooper, white is the best colour and therefore a white man is the best man. Black is next and is seen as tolerable. Red is last, but is seen to be no more than half human. Some might be angry at this mentality, but King points out that Cooper was echoing the sentiment of the time he lived in. These classifications were ordained by God in Cooper’s mind.
Historically, films portrayed Indians as one of three types. According to King, there was the noble savage, the dying savage, and the bloodthirsty savage. It was the bloodthirsty savages who often appealed to North American audiences: Aboriginal people portrayed as bloodthirsty savages who robbed trains, destroyed villages, and killed for no reason.
King brings up the idea of the Dead Indian. Those are the portrayals of Aboriginals, with headdresses on and traditional garb. General Phil Sheridan was quoted as saying, “The only good Indian I ever saw was a dead one.”
Land has always been a very important part of Aboriginal culture. King points out that land is language, stories, and histories of the people. Aboriginals don’t care about the resources the land contains as much as what the land means to them and their ancestors, according to King.
Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian is a crash course in North American history but not one taught in school. King’s book is just a glimpse into the lives that Aboriginals have lived, the rights they fought for and punishments they endured in the name of justice.