With a long and decorated career, writer Thomas King looks back on the conversations he has been having with himself and others for most of his adult life about what it means to be an Indian. His thoughts appear in his latest book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Doubleday Canada 2012, University of Minnesota Press 2013). King has long spoken out for Native culture and rights, and has done so with disarming humor in his previous books, including Green Grass, Running Water (Houghton Mifflin, 1993); Truth & Bright Water (HarperCollins Publishers, 1999), and Medicine River (Penguin, 2005) and on the popular Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour, which ran on CBC Radio from 1997 to 2000. Indian Country Today Media Network spoke with King about his work and life.
Were you surprised by the book’s success, 20 weeks on the best-seller list when it came out in Canada last year?
Yes, I was surprised. By the time I finished, I was drained. Like my other books, I was sick and tired of it, and never wanted to see it again. But that’s over. I’m happy and into my next book.
When did you discover you had a talent for writing?
My mother always said as a child I was a great liar. Well, I took that to mean I was good at storytelling. When I was in my early twenties I began to write in Australia as a photojournalist. However, it was mostly fluff. I did write some fiction and sent it to my grandmother. She read it and told me not to quit my day job. I didn’t take writing seriously until I moved to Canada in 1980 and met Helen, who later became my partner. I learned she liked writers, so I tried hard to become one.
The Inconvenient Indian presents a powerful portrayal of how badly Natives have been treated by the mainstream. Do you think your book will make a difference?
I don’t know. Whites just want to continue lives of comfort. Even now some of the rare progress in sovereignty that I discuss in the book, like the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, are changing. Whites are not sharing as intended, and Natives are finding it’s not going so well. The Indian Land Claims Commission will do anything to redress past wrongs, but not give any land back. And it’s all about land.
I hope my book will get into university and high school systems. I hope it generates conversations.
What bothers you about today’s mainstream attitudes toward Natives?
If there’s a single thing I would like to see changed, it’s the prevailing notion that Indians are a conquered people and that as such, they ought to cede their land claims. The reality is that the two sides mutually agreed that fighting war was tedious and expensive—monetarily and in human lives. A shared decision to live in peace as separate nations was agreed. There was never a conquering. There was a series of agreements that have been broken over and over again.
Your father was a Cherokee and your mother of Greek and German background. You’ve traveled and lived all over the world. Why did you settle in Canada?
When I first arrived, I was impressed by the health-care system. My son cut an artery while carving and could have died. The hospital care was good, and I was expecting it to cost a fortune. But it was free. I was also impressed by the good education system. These two things are the backbone of a good society. I like that Canadians are pretty laid back. If they have a choice between going to war or not, they would not. For example, they didn’t join the U.S. in the Iraq war, in spite of strong car-salesman-type urging. Mind you, Canada has changed a lot since 1980, becoming more conservative. Philosophically, that’s a worry.
What’s next in your writing schedule?
I’m working on a new novel, Back of the Turtle. It will probably be my last long-form piece of writing. It’s apocalyptic, and the second draft is done. It should be finished by August and published by September 2014. Our process is that Helen reads and critiques the manuscript. Then I find a sleazy hotel and cut my wrists making the changes. She’s a very good editor.
Any chance of tackling some of the big societal issues you love to satirize, like the “military-political-corporate complex,” “supply-side economics” and the North American worship of profit?
Perhaps after my current novel. I’m thinking of writing about how we have organized the world, especially in North America. The title would be Quitting Golf, and I would tackle issues like health care, the environment and economics. Helen feels it could be make a powerful statement. But she advises me not to start trying to say profound things. Those will come by themselves.