Monday, October 13, 2014

Thomas King. The Inconvenient Indian (2012)

     Thomas King. The Inconvenient Indian (2012) A book everyone should read. King gives us a history of White-Indian relations from the beginning to the present. He uses stories, with a few numbers and generalisations here and there, but mostly stories. They are not nice stories. King’s ironic asides make them palatable, just. It’s a book that can be life-changing.
     Seems to me that the conquest of the Americas happened at the time when Europe began to reconsider the relationships between conquerors and conquered. Human history is about genocide, mostly. The Bible records several times when the Israelites slew everyone of their enemies, men, women, and children. Or they killed everyone except the boys, who could be trained to be slaves, and the girls and women, who could be used for pleasure or as trade goods. The Iliad ends with the slaughter of Trojans. Ghengis Khan built a pyramid with the heads of the inhabitants of a city that wouldn’t surrender. But after the Hundred Years War, Europeans began to change their attitudes. It’s not that they gave up extermination. It’s just they began to feel, um, squeamish about it. So the problem of the original inhabitants of the Americas became just that, a problem. A few centuries earlier, the wars of conquest between the Spanish and the Aztecs would have continued and expanded until the whole continent was White. Or perhaps a patchwork of Native and White states.
     But by around 1600, a different relationship had evolved. It was Europeans’ desire for beaver fur that made the difference. The Natives become trading partners. They became useful, and even necessary. When the fur trade ended, around the same time that the Thirteen Colonies successfully asserted their independence because the home country wouldn’t accept them as equals, the fact of continued Native presence became, well, inconvenient. Explicit genocide was out (which didn’t prevent massacres and other practices which amounted to genocide). So there were treaties, and abrogations of treaties. Attempts at assimilation. Legal and illegal theft of land. None of which ever got rid of Indians. They are as inconvenient as ever.
     King has traced the history of this inconvenience. It’s not nice. No story of clashing cultures ever is. There are degrees of awfulness, of course, but people invade other people because they want what other people have. If the attempted conquest succeeds, then there is eventually an integration of the  two cultures. Each modifies the other, and if the conquest was far enough in the past, the descendants may even (inconsistently) celebrate both the invaders and the invaded as their common heritage.
     But right now, Native and White relationships are still marked by prejudice, by assumptions of cultural superiority, by thinly disguised attempts at theft, by violence. Neither White nor Indian culture is what it was four hundred years ago, of course, and that fact gives us a small hope that both can influence each other for the better.
     But I’m not holding my breath.
     Unless a lot more people read King’s book. ****

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