The Inconvenient Indian, Reviewed by Ryan Mitton


Thomas King’s book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native Peoples in North America, is a recent popular work that seeks to provide an account of the history of native peoples in North America, chronicling their historical oppression and status today.  King’s narrative of Native history attempts to combine past and present in a witty, ironic, and even rueful manner to reveal the injustice faced by native peoples to a wider audience. This mass appeal qualifies the work as a piece of popular history. More importantly, what is immediately evident about the book is that its tone is conversational – a technique not commonly found in the historical practice. Due to the nature of analysis provided, and the significance of several techniques either employed or purposefully omitted by King, this book qualifies as a unique application of the indigenous historical method in a textual form. In this review, I argue that to a greater degree, King successfully provides a merging of oral history and text in a manner that seeks to convey indigenous history to a popular, western audience.

One of the first things made evident by King is that he has purposefully avoided the use of footnotes. This is not normally a stylistic choice to make note of, as many authors of popular history do not adhere to the use of footnotes. However, King goes so far as to directly tell the reader that he is not fond of them.[1] The writing style is thus not dependent on support from footnotes, but the consistency of the argument is contained within the body of the narrative. Because of this, stylistically King manages to create a flowing, almost conversational style of writing with which he uses to communicate his account of indigenous peoples in North America. This casual style serves to personalize the account that King gives. Historian Peter Nabokov further implicates the importance of the personalization of myths, legends, and stories as a characteristic consistent with indigenous oral history. Nabokov regards this historicity as “inclusive and nonscientific,” as personalization has been used as a cause for questioning the validity of indigenous oral history.[2]  However, personalization is better regarded not as a potential variation on facts but as a contribution of new information into the all-encompassing, collective history of a people. Commentaries on social conditions are thus enabled through the “flexibility” of dialogue.[3]

The personalization of King’s narrative also serves another purpose. Combined with a purposive omission of footnotes, an “oral-style” narrative would thus attempt to immerse the audience in the point of view of King’s narrative. The veracity of indigenous histories are not intended to be analytically doubted and subsequently proved insofar as sources are concerned. Per the viewpoint of Leonard Bruguier:

As a person in a university, I have to practice the method they taught me: be skeptical and use detective work to confirm what I’m told versus what I read in books and papers. In a white world myth is on a fictional plane, and oral history is acceptable as long as you check it out. In the Indian world, it’s all true. You accept it for what it is.[4]

Simply put, King’s narrative is meant to be accepted as fact. The credibility with which his account is to be taken is tied to him as both an author and storyteller. King does acknowledge the likely skepticism of his audience and provides sources for some of his claims. However, this is done in a manner that is largely tongue-in-cheek.[5] The idea, much like Bruguier’s notion of oral history, it to understand the significance of the events that unfold, not just their causality or chronological order. Ultimately, these goes to show how the King’s style of narrative is conducive to indigenous historicity by implicating elements found in oral history.

However, does King fully achieve the same degree of communication in authoring a textual document? One of the key elements of oral histories can be described by the saying “the medium is the message.” In examining facts of oral history not through the skeptical and objective criteria emphasized by western tradition, but as a history that is inductive and truthful, historians might be able to better gain insight into the importance and relevance of indigenous oral histories. For example, as Nabokov asks:

Why, for instance, does the “migration legend” appear so pre-dominant in the southeastern and adjacent Plains regions? Why did “war epics” play such a central role in Colorado River tribal traditions? How did the covert genre of “shaman’s” feats and “duel” narrative, found among the Abenaki and other cultures farther north, survive the colonial years when other forms clearly went under?[6]

The cultural context provided by these myths and legends lend to the concept of “social fact,” established by Emile Durkheim and further implicated by Nabokov.[7] Because of personalization of indigenous history, because of its ‘living’ nature through the way it is updated and changed to reflect contemporary events, indigenous oral history provides historical value, even by conventional western standards.

What instead challenges the congruency of King’s narrative to indigenous historicity is the fact that the narrative is written down. In becoming text, it cannot be denied that some of the flexibility or all-encompassing nature of an oral history is lost. Indeed, there is the very risk that narratives may be misappropriated. King points to instances where “[p]hrases such as “Mother Earth,” “in harmony with nature,” and “seven generations” have been kidnapped by White North America and stripped of their power.[8] For King, what enables these phrases to be manipulate is the dichotomy between “dead” and “live” Indians. To settler culture, “[d]ead Indians are dignified, noble, silent, suitably garbed. And dead. Live Indians are invisible, unruly, disappointing. And breathing.”[9] The static nature of the image of the dead Indian means that its image might be appropriated for use, just as the classic image of the ‘Indian Warrior’ has been in Hollywood. King describes one very incident where the image of a prominent Native American, Running Antelope, was featured on the five-dollar US bill. Noting the lack of accuracy in the image, King asserts that “[Running Antelope’s Headdress] looked exactly like the one Anthony Quinn wore when he played Crazy Horse in the film They Died With Their Boots On.[10] Ultimately, where the medium is the message, the fact that King’s narrative is constrained by its textual nature means that it cannot fully be consistent with indigenous historicity.

What does King achieve, then? Nabokov is careful to note, that indigenous peoples have tested “the contrasts between orality and literacy as a way of meditating upon and mediating between their separate worlds.”[11] King explores this very divide, and successfully so. Although there are risks to constraining stylistic elements of an oral culture to text, what King actually achieves is a subversion of the constraints of the analytical, deductive mode of western historical methods. King instead engages in an “account” of native peoples in North America – not a history. The elements of his narrative that are consistent with oral methods of history serve to engage a wider, likely colonial, audience in the indigenous viewpoint. A story that helps people understand, ever so slightly, the import of indigenous accounts of North American history on society and current social issues. King does not lose the full message in a different medium, as he manages to maintain control over his narrative by not passing it up to the western standards of historical scrutiny through factual verification and footnotes.[12]

Ultimately, through tactics such as communicating a purposive omission of footnotes, engaging in a conversational style, and addressing key issues such as ownership of narrative and injustices perpetrated against Native Americans in North America, Thomas King successfully merges elements consistent with the telling of oral history with a textual medium. Moreover, this book, as a popular history, further subverts western standards of skepticism and evidence while instead engaging its audience in a telling of the accounts of indigenous peoples that is meant to be taken as truth and accepted.

Works Cited:

King, Thomas. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. Anchor Canada. 2013.

Nabokov, Peter. A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History. New York: Cambridge Press. 2002.

[1] Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. (Anchor Canada, 2013) 4.

[2] Peter Nabokov, A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History. (New York: Cambridge Press, 2002) 90.

[3] Ibid. 113.

[4] Leonard Bruguier in Nabokov, A Forest of Time. 90 (footnotes).

[5] King. 9.

[6] Nabokov. 63-64.

[7] Ibid. 63.

[8] King. 67.

[9] Ibid. 66.

[10] Ibid. 38.

[11] Nabokov. 194.

[12] It must be noted that my analysis of King does the very opposite in analytically dissecting his work and substantiating it with footnotes. Some risk must be recognized regarding the misappropriation of his narrative.

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