The Inconvenient Indian



A sermon on Thomas King’s Book by Rev. Brian J. Kiely , March 29, 2015

READING – from The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

When we imagine history, we imagine a grand structure, a national chronicle, a closely organized The-Inconvenient-Indianand guarded record of agreed upon event and interpretations, a bundle of “authenticities” and “Truths” welded into a flexible, yet conservative narrative that explains how we got from there to here.  It is a relationship we have with ourselves, a love affair we celebrate with flags, anthems, festivals and guns.

Well, the “guns” remark was probably uncalled for and might suggest an animus towards history.  But that’s not true.  I simply have difficulty with how we choose which stories become the pulse of history and which do not.

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

On second thought, let’s not start with Columbus,  (My wife) Helen was right.  Let’s forget Columbus.  You know, now that I say it out loud, I even like the sound of it.  Forget Columbus… 

Too little information or too much, what history encourages us to do is to remember the hinderances that Native people have posed to the forward momentum of European westward migration, even though Native people were more often and assistance, showing Europeans river systems and trade routes, taking them around the neighbourhood and introducing them to family and friends.  I don’t mention this because I think such encouragements were a particularly good idea.  I bring it up because popular history for the period tends to ignore this aid and focuses instead on the trouble Indians caused.  Worse, when the names of Native people who did help Europeans or who did try to bridge the gap between the two groups come up, we don’t applaud their efforts.  In many cases, such as Sacajawea, we tend to look sideways at the alliance and wonder about their intent and morals. 

The sad truth is that, within the public sphere, within the collective consciousness of the general populace, most of the history of Indians in North America has been forgotten, and what we are left with is a series of historical artifacts and, more importantly, a series of entertainments.  As a series of artifacts, Native history is somewhat akin to a fossil hunt in which we find a skull on Almo, Idaho, a thigh bone in the Montana plains, a tooth near Powhatan’s village in Virginia and then, assuming that all the parts are from the same animal, we guess at the size and shape of the beast.  As a series of entertainments, Native history is an imaginative cobbling together of fears, loathing, romances and reverences, facts and fantasies into a cycle of creative performances in Technicolor and 3-D, with accompanying soft drinks, candy and popcorn.


Recently I attended western UU ministers’ retreat.  We spent several program hours with a Kwa’gil (or Kwakiutl) hereditary chief Wedlidi Speck.  This is the nation that carve the brightly painted totem poles you see in BC. Among many other accomplishments in his extensive resume, he teaches folks of all nations cultural competency – a combination of cultural sensitivity and cultural agility.  He was so good that we are bringing him to our national Minister’s gathering in 2016 for a two day program.

As that was taking place I was also mulling over this service and Thomas King’s excellent book.TomKing-cropped  Both men are getting at much the same thing, and that what they are getting at is far too complex to be covered in a 15 minute sermon.

But we now have a mechanism for fixing this as we start theme ministry next Fall .  Here we will focus on broad subjects in diverse ways over a month long period.  So today is an appetizer, a sketching of a couple of big ideas. In October, we will devote the entire month to looking at what it would mean to be people who truly embrace Canada’s First Nations heritage. We will also offer a UCE Reads program where all who are interested will have a chance to read and discuss The Inconvenient Indian together.  And if you have ideas about how we might approach these topics, or who we might bring in to speak with us, I would love to hear your suggestions.  As last year’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings showed quite clearly, if there is a shameful thing in Canadian history that we have to address and heal, it is the dominant culture’s relationship with the First Nations people.

So for today, I want to offer a couple of key ideas from the book that intersect with a couple of key things I learned at the workshop.  As I say, this is merely an appetizer.

In the reading, we heard Thomas King gently prod our acceptance of school book history.  “History is written by the victors,” said Churchill.  It is true in the case of natives and Europeans, especially since ‘history’ as we commonly understand the academic field is a European invention and not really part of the native story tradition.

Not only have those of us of European descent controlled the narrative, King asserts that we have increasingly taken control of the subtle and not-so-subtle images that define First Nations people for popular culture.  The real figures of who people were and how they lived are often buried under white created stereotypes.

In the end, who really needs the whole of Native history when we can watch the movie?

In 1890, when Thomas Edison began making images to showcase his Kinetoscope – the first motion picture viewer – the images he chose to make were of Pueblo villages…


In the 116 years between 1894 and 2010, Tinseltown conjured up an average of 3.5 films a year (some 400 hundred in all).  Films with Indian people somewhere in the frames.  Which more or less confirms Native filmmaker Chris Eyer’s suspicion that, “Indian people have been the longest running subject of films out of anyone.”

Film dispensed with any errant subtleties and colourings, and crafted three basic Indian types.  There was the bloodthirsty savage, the noble savage, and the dying savage. The bloodthirsty

Chuck Connors as the most famous 'renegade' Apache of them all, Geronimo.
Chuck Connors as the most famous ‘renegade’ Apache of them all, Geronimo.

savage was the most common.  This was the familiar character who rode around wagon trains, burned settlers’ cabins to the ground, bashed babies against trees, and trapped cowboys and soldiers in box canyons. 






The second type was the noble savage, an Indian who assisted Whites in their struggles with the bloodthirsty Indians, spoke fluent English and understood the basic precepts of supply side capitalism. 

Jeff Chandler portrays Geronimo's peace-loving brother-in-law in Broken Arrow, a landmark 1946 film portraying native culture in a sympathetic light.
Jeff Chandler portrays Geronimo’s peace-loving brother-in-law in Broken Arrow, a landmark 1946 film portraying native culture in a sympathetic light.









The dying Indian, on the other hand, was just that. Dying, not from a wound.  Not from any disease.  This was the Indian who was simply worn out, who was well past the “best before” date, who had been pulled under by the rip tide of western expansion, drowned and thrown up on the beach to rot.

Graham Greene (Oneida) offered a wonderful portrayal of the dying Indian as Kicking Bird in Dances with Wolves.  Greene's character was stuck touring a Russian prince around the west looking for authentic experiences, including a wonderful 'shoot an Indian' scene featuring Kevin Costner as the target.
Graham Greene (Oneida) offered a wonderful portrayal of the dying Indian as Kicking Bird in Dances with Wolves. Greene’s character was stuck touring a Russian prince around the west looking for authentic experiences, including a wonderful ‘shoot an Indian’ scene featuring Kevin Costner as the target.

You could mix and match these Indians… The good news is that none of these Indians was a threat.  To the White heroes in particular and to North America in general.  None of them ever prevailed.

We are all familiar with these iconic images, and I for one am hard pressed to deny that all of those cinematic images have had an impact on me … especially before I actually started meeting real native people.

But those are still pictures on a screen.  So after presenting the trinity of ‘bloodthirsty, noble and dying savage’ King offers a useful contemporary triumvirate: Dead Indian, Live Indian and Legal Indian.

By the way, King references the debate about what to call these people.  Every name has controversy attached to it and there is no widespread agreement.  For the purposes of the book, he settled, I think a little wryly, on Indian.





107897_rawThe Dead Indian, he contends, is not really a figure that ever lived.  The Dead Indian is that trinity we find in movies.  It is our rearward Hollywood projection of warrior chiefs in paint and feathers, or maidens in buckskin dresses or old women wrapped in blankets.  These are the iconic images that have been brought forward to be the mascots of sports teams, the symbols of automobile models and the logo for hundreds of commercial products usually marketed to mostly non-native people.

He contends that these folks never really existed, at least not in the way they were portrayed.  An image here or a person there has been universalized and made to represent all Indians.  In a way it’s as if today’s TV commercials that present the smart Mom and the stupid Dad (usually white) were deemed by future generations to define all men and women.  Whichever film or book one reads, there is a uniformity in dress and habit imposed on the Indians that never existed.

The Legal Indian, according to King, refers to what we call ‘status’ Indians in Canada, people whoeac3c9d3d9
, through a complex and often illogical and unfair bloodline process get to claim certain rights and benefits from the Federal government.  This is a big messy morass.  I encourage you to read King’s thoughts.  For this discussion it is enough to notice that only about one third of First Nations people in Canada have Status.

The Live Indian (which includes some Legal Indians) is a lot more perplexing to the dominant culture.  Why?  Well, they don’t look like Dead Indians – meaning they don’t look like they are supposed to look.  They don’t wear feathers or skins, they don’t live in quaint villages making bannock and beating drums.  A couple of weeks ago I was walking through the Fantasyland Hotel.  There was a major gathering of Band Councils and related organizations.

3448943748_bac23a0238In the hallway some dancers were getting ready for their entrance in jingle dresses with the drummers warming up.  A white person walking near me saw this and said, “Oh my, how cute they look!” as if she was cooing at a baby.  This was what King meant.  She was looking at Dead Indians, not live ones.

Later, in the mall proper, if she saw them in street clothes I wonder if she would have said the same thing? I wonder if she even would have noticed them?  I wonder if she would have been wary or afraid?

From an Idle No More rally in Edmonton.
From an Idle No More rally in Edmonton.

The dominant culture sees Live Indians as inconvenient.  White culture doesn’t really know what to do with them.  In our history, we have tried to kill them off physically, then kill of their cultures, languages, customs and family ties in the residential school and reserve system.

Those strategies failed and have left Canada with a terrible social, economic and human rights situation that successive governments have avoided or mishandled in new and exciting ways.  Since about 1830 the government record has been a tragedy of ill conceived racist policies tinged by greed and bad science.

And so, today we have an estimtated 1.5 million ‘inconvenient’ citizens, not to mention the millions more who have at least some First Nations blood.  And we still don’t know what to do with ‘them’.

Of course, it’s not really our place to do anything ‘with’ them or ‘for’ them.  That implies that we actually have the power to ‘fix’ the First Nations situation.  We don’t anymore than men have the authority to fix women (or vice versa).  We have to work together, cooperatively, which is not something Canada has often tried to do.

DSC_0102-e1378870143452To conclude, I wish to touch again briefly on the workshop by Wedlidi Speck.  Working in issues of homelessness and interfaith I have been perplexed at how difficult it is to get native participation.  One reason is that there is a reluctance to speak on behalf of other tribes and nations when one has not been given the clear authority to do so.

But another reason has to do with how First Nations people are addressing their own issues.  Wedlidi offered a simple graph.

Cinder Edna 2

The axis that runs south to north he calls ‘Modern’. It represents the kinds of education and both professional and social skill sets that help people succeed in Canadian culture (meaning white culture).  This can include academic degrees, but also things like using banks, internet, accessing government offices, and managing bills and grocery shopping.  It’s about knowing how to fit in with the dominant culture.  Generally, the better you are at those things, the easier it is to be successful in our society.

The axis that runs west to east he calls ‘Traditional’. It represents the cultural values and traditions and knowledge of First Nations.  This includes spiritual skill sets, drumming, prayers, story, dance, hunting, living well on Reserves or in the bush.

This leaves four quadrants, of course.  In the SW section are the Transitional people.  These are folks who are low in both tradition and skills.  These are the folks who often wind up in the streets and in the shelters. They have few guides.

In the SE quadrant we find the Traditionalists who have learned the old ways and believe with a passion that following this Red Road is the way forward.  Wedlidi describes these most conservative traditionalists as being like fundamentalist Christians, people who have found something that works and believe in it with a passion and commitment leaves them suspicious of other choices.

In the NW quadrant we find people who, though native, primarily grew up in the dominant white culture.  They are educated, versed in European ways, and succeed in the workplace.  They are modern in every sense. Some may have lost touch with their traditions and roots.

Finally, the NE quadrant holds those First Nations people who have become truly bi-cultural.  They know, understand  and honour the traditions of The People.  They participate in the sweat lodges and dances and pow wows.  But they also function well in Canadian culture.

None of these quadrants are good or bad per se, but I found them useful generalization.  When I speak with someone from the First Nations community or read something in the papers, the chart gives me a little insight into where the person speaking is coming from.  It doesn’t define them or limit them, but it helps ME with one of my highest personal cross-cultural goals: avoiding saying something stupid, insulting or inappropriate.  According to Wedlidi that can be the beginning of the development of cultural agility.

Our Social Justice Committee is working hard to develop a habit of educating ourselves first about issues.  They challenge us to learn more deeply and to listen to the people who have real experience.

I have only – and very belatedly – begun to learn about the issues affecting our First Nations people.  I have no conclusions to offer.  But I hope this taste will whet your appetite and you will choose to join in October’s theme explorations.