Thomas King on finding humor in intolerable situations

Before starting this piece, let me clout myself on the head for not reading Thomas King all these years. There.

Thomas King is a Canadian (Cherokee) writer and broadcaster who advocates for First Nations causes. Now, I believe the First Nations people got one of the shittiest deals in the history of the world. Like, EVER. The story of their colonization makes the British occupation of India seem like dinner guests who stayed a tad too long. I’d reach the end of my natural life span before I could finish reading the list of crimes committed against these peoples.  (I’ve written earlier about residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996.) And this is not just ancient history–this is the stuff of our present lives. If you are a red-blooded organism, you should be very very angry.

King is indeed angry, but the first thing you notice about him is that he’s funny and affable.  Well, King explained that Native American issues are very harrowing for a general audience to engage with, and that he resorts to humor so as to keep his audience. In his radio show, for instance, in the segment titled 10 Reasons Why It’s Good to Have Indians in Canada, he listed the first reason as “they give the RCMP live targets to practice on.”  Smile. Wince. And…what’s the second reason?

King, who was born in California, spoke last night in my city–which  I learnt  is built on unceded Indian land (see stuff, present lives).  Happily, I seemed to be quite alone in my ignorance of his work.  King spoke in a gallery-style lecture hall designed to house several hundred skinny undergraduates, and the room was PACKED (and oh, those mingy chairs with those flip-top tables gave me a reminiscent chill). He was visiting for the launch of his new book The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, which explores what it means to be “Indian” in North America.

The cover shows an old advertisement for an European cruise ship line, and even my untrained eye can see so much going on here–the pink-white-beige ship, the flag fluttering as it plows through the boiling water, the black and red evocative of the devil…oh, I could go on and on. King began the evening by reading two excerpts from his book. He first talked about the apology issued by Canada (Harper) and the USA (Obama) to the native people of these two countries. It was a “disingenuous” apology, he said, in that they were willing to admit guilt but  no liability; the history of colonization and genocide was sought to be portrayed as “a no-fault fender-bender.” Besides being personable and inspiring and witty–oh, can he WRITE. He then spoke about the 1969 Native American occupation of Alcatraz, in which he was an active participant.  [Correction: he wasn't at Alcatraz, though he did set out (unsuccessfully) for Wounded Knee]. What if there were a do-over? Well, there’d be cell phones, they’d make sure they had a doctor in the group, and oh, they’d pack plenty of toilet paper…

King then took questions from the audience, some very moving. Asked if things have improved for Native Americans over the past hundred years, he replied in the negative–things might have changed but nope, they haven’t improved in his opinion. He said their single biggest achievement was that despite the years of genocide, despite systemic efforts to make the native people disappear by the end of the 21st century, they are still around. Then there was a gentleman whose daughter was a newly minted social worker in Whitehorse. Did King have any advice for her? Yes he did, and of the soundest variety: Pay attention, be respectful, don’t be a savior on a white horse (ha!). And on his next book–could it be called The Convenient Indian? As in: conveniently demonized to suit the settler agenda? King replied that he was almost seventy, so his book would likely be called The Incontinent Indian, and no, that wouldn’t be convenient at all. King recently retired as an (English) Professor; oh to have been a student in that class.

I’m too old for seriousness, he said, his face deadpan, and then brought the session to an end to a round of prolonged applause.  Quick, someone do a PhD on King’s use of humor as bait-cum-weapon-cum-alarm clock to alert us to the ongoing resistance of the First Nations people.

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21 responses to “Thomas King on finding humor in intolerable situations

  1. Interesting. My sympathies have always been with the Indians, hounded out and rounded up and settled in small pockets in their own land. As for “willing to admit guilt but no liability;” – I feel the sins of the forefathers cannot really be visited on the later generations.

    • Well, he made the point that the “sins of the forefathers” are an ongoing process–conflicts over the ownership of land continue even today. For e.g. the Caledonia dispute has in roots in land stolen back in the 1700s, but the peak of the protests were in 2006-2009. I see your point, but OTOH, I guess I don’t believe this history too old to be unactionable, for people to be held accountable. (I also think the British govt should return the Kohinoor to India!)

  2. I’m totally jealous, I love Thomas King. His Green Grass Running Water is an amazing hilarious and heartbreaking book that defies description, and although I hate making favorite book lists, it would absolutely be in my top 5.

  3. Wonderful post. Tom King has embraced the power of humour as a trenchant instrument of social change. A great writer…

    • Thanks for commenting here, Terry! He’s also a great speaker–very theatrical, he does accents really well, and he had the audience in splits :)

  4. Very interesting. Hadn’t heard of Thomas King. This post will change (and prolong) my TBR list. Damn you.

  5. So jealous of your chance to hear him. I adore his writing and have only heard him speak once, years ago, but I agree, he is spellbinding and funny and yet so sharp. Love him.

  6. The way the US government has treated Native Americans is beyond appalling. They have been treated worse than any other ethnic group – it’s not even close!

    Anytime I read about it, it makes so angry and sad – to the point where I often can’t continue and have to come back to the article later. So I understand what he means when says it’s too grim.

    Not yet available for the Kindle. It’s on the list. Thank you!

  7. Thanks for sharing your experience of King in person. I really like your insight about him dealing with the intolerable with gentle humor. Hadn’t known he’d occupied Alcatraz when young. Maybe he has mellowed.

    I hope to read King’s Medicine River in Feb., and the new one if I can get it. Watch for reviews.

    But I don’t agree that Native Americans had it worst. What while colonists did everywhere was unthinkably horrid. On this contintent, NA could move west for a couple of centuries till whites caught up after the Civil War. And more important, as soon the British got settled at Jamestown they starting importing Africans who as slaves became the major labor forces which made them even lower then Native Americans.

    • I’m an email subscriber of your blog, so I’ll definitely catch your review!
      I guess you were replying to the earlier comment re: the “worst” treatment of an ethnic group? But my own two cents: wasn’t the policy towards NAs based on their complete eradication–the “only good Indian is a dead Indian”? Not to create an hierarchy of suffering, but isn’t this even *worse* than using a people as a labor force?

  8. What a fantastic write-up, Niranjana. I have to confess that I had never heard of Thomas King either. I would probably get very angry and upset reading his books, but I will and have to do it. Hopefully education and awareness will prevent this sort of thing happening again, but in my dark moments, I have no faith in some humans and their capacity for evil and exploitation.

    • And the mainstream media is shameful in the (lack of) coverage of Native American concerns. Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence is on a hunger strike (to death), and there’s a surge of protests (check out Idlenomore.ca), but you’d think the world revolves around holiday shopping.

  9. Fantastic. Have you read The Round House? It has gone more high-profile since it won the national book award; Erdrich is Native American and set her story in a reservation.

    She too, treats a difficult subject with grace, and mentions how disconnected some US Presidents have been about native american welfare – Reagan apparently thought that the Indians lived on ‘preserves’.

    • I’ve read other works by Erdrich, but there’s a long queue in my library for this one. It’s on my TBR for next year!
      And not surprised at all by Reagan’s disconnect from reality. There’s so much willful ignorance surrounding these issues.
      Thanks for commenting! Your blog is great btw–i’ll be a regular visitor there.

  10. Thank you! I have just started, and that means a lot.

  11. Thomas King wasn’t involved in the occupation of Alcatraz, though he does talk about heading out, unsuccessfully, for Wounded Knee.