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'Inconvenient Indian' Selected for One Book Program

Author Thomas King boldly scrutinizes the history of Native people in North America
  • Book complements University’s ongoing Native American inclusion efforts
  • Author King: ‘I generally like my humor to have teeth. The sharper the better.’
  • Incoming freshmen receive free book; related programming held throughout the year
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Thomas King’s provocative and unflinching book “The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America” will be the One Book One Northwestern selection for the coming academic year.

King’s original account of the disastrous relationship between Whites and Native Americans will be given to all incoming freshmen students at Northwestern University in the fall of 2015 and serve as the centerpiece of a year’s worth of lectures, films and other programs related to issues raised in the book.

“It’s a history book that turns conventional wisdom on its head, but is told with a storyteller’s humor and elegance,” said Medill Professor and former Dean Loren Ghiglione, the faculty chair of the 2015-16 One Book One Northwestern program. “‘The Inconvenient Indian’ will help diminish the ignorance many of us have and focus on some important issues that don’t normally come to the fore in media.”

The themes of “The Inconvenient Indian” dovetail with Northwestern’s ongoing Native American inclusion efforts.

In response to a report from the John Evans Study committee, the University’s Native American Outreach and Inclusion Task Force recently recommended that the One Book program choose a reading on a Native American topic.

In light of this recommendation, “we were pleased to have received the nomination of ‘The Inconvenient Indian’ for review and consideration,” said Eugene Lowe Jr., the chair of the One Book selection committee and assistant to the president.

King, a retired professor of English at the University of Guelph, is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, photographer, woodworker and fledgling harmonica and flugelhorn player. “An Inconvenient Indian” evolved from a series of conversations and arguments that he has been having with himself and others for most of his adult life, he said.

An unconventional ‘history’ of White-Native American relations -- King eschews footnotes and lightly interjects his own biases and opinions -- the book “explores the alternately romanticized and demonized image of the Indian in popular culture, examines various attempts at cultural assimilation (including residential schools) and reveals enduring hypocrisies in the attitudes of whites toward Indians,” wrote the Canadian literary magazine Quill & Quire.

Unlike many accounts of Native American history, King’s book brings the reader up to the present day, showing that broken treaties, forced removals, murderous violence and racist stereotypes still exist, both in the U.S. and Canada.

“Ignorance has never been the problem,” King wrote. “The problem was and continues to be unexamined confidence in western civilization and the unwarranted certainty of Christianity. And arrogance.”

For King, the root of the conflict has always been -- and always will be -- land. “So long as we (Native people) possess one element of sovereignty, so long as we possess one parcel of land, North America will come for us, and the question we have to face is how badly we wish to continue to pursue the concepts of sovereignty and self-determination,” King wrote.

King, who describes himself as a “grumpy curmudgeon," leavens nearly every serious passage with his dark humor and sprinkles in wise observations from his partner, wife Helen Hoy. He muses over what it means to be ‘Indian,’ reflects on his own complicated relationship with activism, concedes that casinos and gaming hold “the most potential for the least effort” and demonstrates that Native American history is a circle in which the same tragic patterns are repeatedly played out.

“It’s a high-wire act dealing with some of the horrendous historical moments and trying to make them palatable,” he said. “But I generally like my humor to have teeth. The sharper the better. I like to make people laugh and think. I offer a combination of apple and rhubarb, rather than sweet apple pie.”

Last year, King won British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction for “The Inconvenient Indian.” His most recent book “The Back of the Turtle” won Canada’s Governor-General’s Literary Award for Fiction, a genre King prefers.

“Writing a novel is buttering warm toast,” he wrote in the introduction of “The Inconvenient Indian.” “Writing a history is herding porcupines with your elbows.”

The One Book One Northwestern Program is sponsored by the Office of the President.