With characteristic levity, writer and activist Thomas King (right) spoke about his passion for storytelling, the power of humor and the bleak future facing Native Americans during the One Book One Northwestern keynote address Oct. 14 in Fisk Hall.
King’s provocative and searing book, “The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America,” was selected for the 2015-16 all-campus read. A darkly funny, no-holds-barred account of the turbulent relations between whites and Native Americans, “The Inconvenient Indian” serves as the cornerstone for related programming throughout the academic year.
Rather than delivering a formal keynote lecture, King preferred to hold a conversation with Loren Ghiglione, chair of the One Book steering committee and a professor and former dean at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.
Raised by a single mother – his Cherokee father left the family when he was three years old – King said he often made stories up in his head as a child to cope with his family’s marginalized position in society. “You tell those stories enough and you believe them very early on,” King said. “That’s how I began storytelling.”
King, a novelist, screenwriter, playwright and a retired professor of English at the University of Guelph in Canada, may be best known for using humor to delve into delicate situations.
As an activist and counselor for native students at the University of Utah in the 1960s and 1970s, King said he brimmed with anger over the past and present treatment of Native Americans. But he also learned that when he shouted, people stopped listening.
“I discovered humor was the way to get past that,” he said. “People like to laugh. And while they are laughing, they don’t realize how close you’re getting. Humor really lets me get into difficult conversations and stay there. I discovered humor deepens tragedy and that tragedy sharpens humor.”
For King, land will always be the root of the conflict between non-Native Americans and Native Americans. To his surprise, he learned while writing “The Inconvenient Indian” that attitudes and policies have changed very little over time.
“Native American land has been under attack from the very beginning,” King said, after Ghiglione asked whether he was optimistic about the future. “Only now the culprit is different. Before it could be anyone from settlers to government officials to missionaries; now it’s corporations.”
King pointed to tribes in British Columbia, who are fighting the Keystone pipeline, an oil pipeline system in Canada and the U.S.
“It bothers me that I don’t see any way to stop that invasion of land, and once we lose that land base, we lose just about everything,” King said. “They may be reservations and we may have been stuck on them against our will, nonetheless, they are ours.”
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.
“The Inconvenient Indian” was selected in part as a response to a report from the University’s Native American Outreach and Inclusion Task Force, which recommended that the One Book program choose a reading on a Native American topic.
The Task force followed The John Evans Study Committee report, commissioned by Northwestern, which addressed Evans's responsibility for the Nov. 29, 1864, massacre in which an estimated 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children were slaughtered.
In addition to King’s events, dozens of other events related to the One Book selection are scheduled or under way. “November Morning – the Sand Creek Massacre,” an exhibit currently showing through Oct. 25 in the Dittmar Gallery at the Norris University Center, features work by artists who are descendants of the Cheyenne and Arapaho victims at Sand Creek.
King’s book also inspired the first essay contest in the 11-year-history of the One Book program. Students were invited to write 1,000 words or less on how King’s discussion of the identity of Native people made the student think about his or her own identity. Celestine Emberton, a student in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, won the $500 first place prize and a One Book T-shirt for her essay “I am Malagasy.”
One Book One Northwestern, a community-wide reading program, is sponsored by the Office of the President.
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