An excerpt from The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King.
What remains distressing is that much of what passes for public and political discourse on the future of Native people is a discourse of anger, anger that Native people are still here and still a “problem” for White North America, anger that we have something non-Natives don’t have, anger that after all the years of training, after all the years of having assimilation beaten into us, we still prefer to remain Cree and Comanche, Seminole and Salish, Haida and Hopi, Blackfoot and Bellacoola.
All of which brings us to the perennial North American question.
Just what is it that Indians want? Sovereignty? Self-determination? A future? Good jobs? A late-model pickup truck? I get asked that question all the time. What do Indians want? The good news is that you could choose from any of the above and be right.
And you’d be wrong.
What do Indians want?
Great question. The problem is, it’s the wrong question to ask. While there are certainly Indians in North America, the Indians of this particular question don’t exist. The Indians of this question are “the Indian” that Canada and the United States have created for themselves. And as long as the question is asked in that way, there will never be the possibility of an answer. Better to ask what the Lubicon Cree of Alberta want or the Brantford Mohawk of Ontario or the Zuni of New Mexico or the Hupa of northern California or the Tlingit of Alaska.
But I’d just as soon forget the question entirely. There’s a better question to ask. One that will help us to understand the nature of contemporary North American Indian history. A question that we can ask of both the past and the present.
What do Whites want?
No, it’s not a trick question. And I’m not being sarcastic. Native history in North America as writ has never really been about Native people. It’s been about Whites and their needs and desires. What Native peoples wanted has never been a vital concern, has never been a political or social priority. The Lakota didn’t want Europeans in the Black Hills, but Whites wanted the gold that was there. The Cherokee didn’t want to move from Georgia to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), but Whites wanted the land. The Cree of Quebec weren’t at all keen on vacating their homes to make way for the Great Whale project, but there’s excellent money in hydroelectric power. The California Indians did not asked to be enslaved by the Franciscans and forced to build that order’s missions.
What do Whites want?
The answer is quite simple, and it’s been in plain sight all along.
Thomas King (The Inconvenient Indian) is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, and photographer. His many books include the novels Medicine River; Green Grass, Running Water; Truth and Bright Water; two short story collections, One Good Story, That One (Minnesota, 2013) and A Short History of Indians in Canada (Minnesota, 2013); nonfiction, The Truth About Stories (Minnesota, 2005); and the children’s books A Coyote Columbus Story, Coyote Sings to the Moon, Coyote’s New Suit, and A Coyote Solstice Tale. King edited the literary anthology All My Relations and wrote and starred in the popular CBC radio series, The Dead Dog Café. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Western American Literary Association (2004) and an Aboriginal Achievement Award (2003), and was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2004. He has taught Native literature and history and creative writing at the University of Lethbridge, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Guelph and is now retired and lives in Guelph, Ontario.
“No writer is better positioned than Thomas King to tell a richly Native history that reveals the common threads weaving North American patterns across the boundary line between Canada and the United States. The Inconvenient Indian sweeps up popular culture, law and policy, and the complexities of resistance and reinvention, framing all the tough issues through King’s powerful storytelling and penetrating eye.”
—Philip J. Deloria, University of Michigan