Thomas King asks: What do whites want?

Taylor Prize nominee argues the issue that came ashore with the French and the English was—and remains—land

Jaime Hogge

Jaime Hogge

For almost the whole of his 70 years, Thomas King, the California-born Canadian novelist, broadcaster and, more than occasionally, polemicist, has been having, inside his own irony-prone mind, the conversation captured in The Inconvenient Indian. King’s 12th book, which has brought him a RBC Taylor Prize nomination, centres on non-Natives’ continuing incomprehension of First Nations reality, as opposed to their mythic presence in our imagination. “What’s really hard for many people to get their heads around,” King says, “is that Natives control part of Canada,” including land we want to exploit for its resources. “But if Natives don’t want a pipeline running through their land, then they don’t have to have one.”

The following is an excerpt from King’s The Inconvenient Indian.

What do Indians want? Great question.The problem is, it’s the wrong question to ask. While there are certainly Indians in North America, the Indians of this particular question don’t exist. The Indians of this question are “the Indian” that Canada and the United States have created for themselves. And as long as the question is asked in that way, there will never be the possibility of an answer. Better to ask what the Lubicon Cree of Alberta want, or the Brantford Mohawk of Ontario or the Zuni of New Mexico or the Hupa of northern California or the Tlingit of Alaska.

But I’d just as soon forget the question entirely. There’s a better question to ask, one that will help us understand the nature of contemporary North American Indian history. A question that we can ask of both the past and the present.

What do Whites want? No, it’s not a trick question. And I’m not being sarcastic. Native history in North America as writ has never really been about Native people. It’s been about Whites and their needs and desires. What Native peoples wanted has never been a vital concern, has never been a political or social priority.

The Lakota didn’t want Europeans in the Black Hills, but Whites wanted the gold that was there. The Cherokee didn’t want to move from Georgia to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), but Whites wanted the land. The Cree of Quebec weren’t at all keen on vacating their homes to make way for the Great Whale project, but there’s excellent money in hydroelectric power. The California Indians did not ask to be enslaved by the Franciscans and forced to build that order’s missions.

What do Whites want? The answer is quite simple, and it’s been in plain sight all along.


Whites want land.

Sure, Whites want Indians to disappear, and they want Indians to assimilate, and they want Indians to understand that everything that Whites have done was for their own good because Native people, left to their own devices, couldn’t make good decisions for themselves.

All that’s true, from a White point of view, at least. But it’s a lower order of true. It’s a spur-of-the-moment true, and these ideas have changed over time. Assimilation was good in the 1950s, but bad in the 1970s. Residential schools were the answer to Indian education in the 1920s, but by the 21st century, governments were apologizing for the abuse that Native children had suffered at the hands of Christian doctrinaires, pedophiles and sadists. In the 1880s, the prevailing wisdom was to destroy Native cultures and languages so that Indians could find civilization. Today, the non-Native lament is that Aboriginal cultures and languages may well be on the verge of extinction. These are all important matters, but if you pay more attention to them than they deserve, you will miss the larger issue.

The issue that came ashore with the French and the English and the Spanish, the issue that was the raison d’être for each of the colonies, the issue that has made its way from coast to coast to coast and is with us today, the issue that has never changed, never varied, never faltered in its resolve, is the issue of land. The issue has always been land. It will always be land, until there isn’t a square foot of land left in North America that is controlled by Native people.

Land. If you understand nothing else about the history of Indians in North America, you need to understand that the ques­tion that really matters is the question of land. Land contains the languages, the stories and the histories of a people. It provides water, air, shelter and food. And land is home.

Excerpted from The Inconvenient Indian. Copyright © 2013 Thomas King. Published by Doubleday Canada. All rights reserved.

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Thomas King asks: What do whites want?

  1. How clever you are, and what assumptions you make! Of course there is no such group as “Whites” – we all know deep down that race is a human construct intended to create division and distract us from our similarities. Your so-called “whites” are from many different backgrounds, just like First Nations people are. At the end of the day, I believe we all want the same thing – a sound future for our children, a life of peace and security, and the freedom to live how we choose. Please don’t tell me what I want, and I will do the same for you.

    • But your “wants” have come at the expense of Native people. We also would like to live how we choose, on our land and in the way and by the traditions which the Creator gave us. The Whites want the supremacy and the “power” over all. You are very naïve if you think you actually have a viable argument. Well said Thomas King!!

      • “Your so-called “whites” are from many different backgrounds, just like First Nations people are.”

        The crucial difference being that, unlike First Nations, those “white” backgrounds come from European lands that already protect and preserve their language, history and culture. In Canada, First Nations do not have that luxury, they live on land that preserves and protects a language and culture that is not theirs, a land whose head of state Queen Elizabeth is the Queen of England. This is the whole point of the article.

      • It is just as wrong to lump all white people as it is to lump all natives. Many people are of such mixed background now that it is stupid to bother distinguishing.

        Yes the settlers came here to take land from people they found that could not protect it. Yes they were wrong, but knowing that history will not reverse it.

        People should work and live together. Remembering and honoring the past is the right thing to do, but clinging to it and not letting it go is the wrong thing to do.

        Civilizations and individuals are not the same thing. While it is true that civilizations take over one another in ways that seem wrong and immoral, individuals are just seeking to live their lives. Individuals fighting one another doesn’t solve any problems, fighting one another is the problem.

        We need to stop being separate people. We cling to recent history that shows us to be divided, but deep history shows us that we are united. Just because we once separated doesn’t mean we can not come back together.

        • Let’s start by letting First Nations speak for themselves on what they want for the future instead of telling them they should not hang on to the past!

          • What the ‘first nations’ appear to want is more and more control over the indians who live under their tutelage.

      • bigot. if “redskins” is a derogatory term then so is “whites”

    • You seem to have missed the fact that “your so-called ‘whites'” created the legislation which defined them as “white”- as well as the legislation which disenfranchised and hobbled those who were defined as “non-white”.. To pretend that there could be some equivalence is to ignore a large part our common history – and much prejudice and structural inequality which continues to exist in our society today. Willful blindness is not “colour blindness”.

    • By saying “don’t tell me what I want” sourgrapes22 you are contradicting the statement that there is no such thing as Whites…. hmmmm double speak…. And then you assert your beliefs as though, like their right… hmmmm more double speak… do as a I say not as I do is that the take away here?

    • By insisting “don’t tell me what I want…” you are asserting that you ARE White… double speak? Then you go on assert YOUR beliefs that, “WE” all want the same things… more double speak. So as long as YOU assert it, it is acceptable? Perhaps taking some of your own advise is appropriate here!

  2. tough but fair.

    • “whites” comes from the same logic which created “indians”. those who have read the book will know. although as sourgrape22 did say – none of these really exists but in The History.

  3. I don’t know ‘king’ (& IMO, his name doesn’t deserve a capital ‘k’) personally & neither do I want to, however; if these words are truly a reflection of the way his mind works then I say, ‘what a hypocrite’! ‘king’ makes money off Indigenous peoples’ plight, experiences and history. It is the same population he was once ashamed to admit he was a part of. And now ‘king’ now has the audacity to take it upon himself to make these gawd awful, blanket statements on behalf of a population numbering over 4 MILLION?! Good gawd…Macleans! Couldn’t you at least interview the mind of a person (s) who actually has/have an Indigenous following? Perhaps one of the founders of Idle No More, Chief Nepinak even Crystal Shawanda. Geez! king statements do NOT reflect this Indigenous woman’s beliefs. IMO he’s actually perpetuating the stereotypical ‘uneducated indian’ by throwing around the words; ‘white’ this & ‘white’ that. Macleans, let ‘king’ go write a limerick or the alphabet … because he’s doesn’t speak for me. Further I have read ‘Green Grass Running’ so I know of ‘king’s’ supposed ‘writing style’ & the book’s ‘message’, read to me like the ‘White Paper’, which of course was written by Jean Chretien. IMO king’s book and Chretien’s White Paper’ both portrayed an ‘idealized Indigenous lifestyle’ that mainstream society (of the day) could feel COMFORTABLE with. What a joke!

    • This link was shared by the official Idle no more FB page for your information…..I recommend you read his book first , and talk after..

  4. So Naïve of you sourgrapes22. These words obviously coming from a person who has never had to hear the words of the dominant race in a negative sense, because you are of this race. I mean no personal offence sourgrapes22. However there are very sacred promises protected by the Royal Proclamation of 1873, signed by king George. They are called Treaties. Now these Treaties explain word for word, First Nations Rights in Canada. The rights are to protect the land, water and air. If these Treaties did not exist, than I as a First Nations Woman in Canada would be just like you or any other Non- First nation in Canada without these sacred rights. My ancestor’s for thousands of years have walked, hunted and lived this land until the Europeans came. My people were segregated, murdered, assimilated, and robbed of any dignity they may have. There is no record of any other “race” doing this in the world! EVER! Except for Europeans… Now I hardly doubt you have the power to stop the continued destruction of The Very Sacred Treaties, let alone the destruction of the Beautiful Sacred Land called Canada. Take a look at the HUGE corporations ripping up the land and poisoning our waters, I am Sorry… They are of European decent. I cannot agree with you when you say “We all want the same thing”, because if we all wanted the same thing, Treaties would not broken, and the corporations would not be wanting to kill the land. Any nationality that immigrates across the oceans to come to Canada were here for only one thing…Land… and when they could not get it…Corruption took place.

    • Queeny. You are completely correct about the treaties. And non-native Canadians need to learn more about the history of the treaties. But I take issue with your statement that no other group besides Europeans have “…segregated, murdered, assimilated, and robbed of any dignity…” from an entire other culture. This is simply untrue. Sadly the history of the world has many examples of genocide. Skin colour is no predictor of evil. By making such a statement about those of European descent you are not only inaccurate but you put up walls of protest inside the hearts of the people who need to hear you very important points about the treaties and the rights that native people have all across this country.

    • Queeny, you are so unbelievably racist. There are people of all nationalities “poisoning our waters”. People of European decent can be environmentalists and humanitarians too.

      • SOME Europeans can be environmentalists but the history speaks for itself: white Europeans are and were THE driving force behind capitalism and colonization around the world. It’s in the culture – still today – of “whiteness” to dominate, exploit and advance. I’m white and I can clearly perceive this abstraction. I don’t see anyone around the world trying to dominate the rest of the world the way Europeans have – namely, the British – and continue to do so today. And yes, there may be people of all nationalities poisoning waters, but who started the poisoning, all in the name of “advancement?” I’ll give you a hint: white Europeans. You can’t ignore the unpleasant history and reality of today’s white, dominant, Eurocentric mindset just because it makes you uncomfortable to admit that and have these discussions. By continuing to ignore it and making proclamations of “racism against white people” you are impeding the progress of reconciliation between colonizers and settlers.

    • “Now these Treaties explain word for word…”

      Indeed they do. The indian references in the 1763 Proclamation explicitly reserve to the Crown the right to change anything in them.

      In the Proclamation, under The Indian Provisions:

      one finds: “… presume for the present, and until our further Pleasure be known,” and: “… Our Royal Will and Pleasure, for the present as aforesaid…”.

      The Royal Will and Pleasure, and thus the authority to change any of the Indian Provisions, are now vested in the Government of Canada.

    • And in the Treaties themselves it is clear that the actual obligations of the Crown have been lavishly overpaid, in part due to governmental generosity and in part due to a perverse ideological bias by which the Supreme Court makes judgements favourable to either indians or ‘first nations’ (depending on the case) and directs subordinate courts to also render similarly prejudicial judgements.

      • Such an incredible fellow you are, Glenn. You know more about climate science than climate scientists, and more about the law than Supreme Court justices.
        Hard to believe you’re a bus driver.

        • I know that the SC takes it upon itself to change the Law to suit its inclinations.

          • Yup, you know that….just cuz.
            Another breathtaking display of yet another of your fields of expertise.

    • Thanks for your response Queeny, and for proving the point that a focus on race has not served us well in the past, and in fact serves as an emotional distraction from the real issues we face. Discussions of and emphasis on race and the many crimes of the past is holding Canada and Canadians back from a brighter future.

  5. Very true. And to that end ‘Whites’ want ‘Indians’ to assimilate….and to get jobs….and to live just like us….because that’s the only right way to be.

    Our tribe took over their tribe and they’re just being contrary.

    On edit: We need a sarcasm emoticon on here.

  6. Isn’t calling people “whites” counter productive? I come from a Prussian Mennonite family that payed every cent they had to escape here during WWII, and they never hurt anyone or stole land from anyone. It’s racist to assume that having white skin means a person’s ancestors were part of an imperialistic group that raped, pillaged, and plundered. It’s also racist to assume that because a person is white, that they want aboriginal peoples to assimilate. This whole article is hypocritical.

    • you obviously didn’t get it , the point he is making is not that all white people want indigenous people to assimilate but White patriarchal Eurocentric political Structures and people holding important Powers in this society want ” ”indians” to move out the way” so they can appropriate the LAND. If your family settled here in Canada, well chances are that it is stolen land that they settled, matter a fact , it is stolen land because Canada claimed sovereignty with a legal fictitious argument called ”doctrine of discovery”.It is well known now that this argument is bogus. Your family settled here and benefitted from the land illegaly appropriated by the Crown whether it was French or English. I understand your point when you say that its not ALL white people that came from monarchies or states with Imperialistic agendas but, in reality most people that settled here came from european empires. Maybe Mr King needs to nuance his point and define a little better ‘who are those White peoples that he is referring to” but this article is NOT hypocritical in any way, your dismissal is .

      • “… White patriarchal Eurocentric political Structures…”

        LOL… what sort of gormless courses did you take at the Uni?

        • lol at lease one of us is getting educated heh!?

          • LOL… indoctrinated into an ideological cult you are.

          • unlike you, i am not ”indoctrinated” ….i am a truth seeker……… if your knowledge is limited about the Doctrines, the Papal bulls, the privy councils vision of the new world, the various nation to nation treaties that have been signed , the Royal Proclamation, the Royal charter, the Macintosh case in the states an its implications in ”Canada” etc etc , it’s ok Glynn…. just be humble…..and leave your arrogant comments for yourself… meegwetch

  7. How come it’s only immigration and settlement by “whites” that’s so bad for North America’s native peoples? Is Thomas King not aware of the thousands of Islamists that have already settled in N. America and who hope to form Shariah jurisdictions as soon as they can get the critical mass they need? What about the Chinese nationalists who are here to provide a strong presence on the ground that would help the Chinese gov’t to dominate Canada and its resouces? Does Thomas King have anything to say about this or he is being paid to look the other way? It’s hard to know these days with all the Saudi and Chinese bribe money floating around and influencing the Canadian political process as CSIS has warned us so many times.
    Not too surprising that the Royal Bank of Canada would be interested in subsidizing this with a prize. Isn’t that the same outfit that got caught just last year trying to replace its Canadian tech workers with cheaper immigrants. For a refresher, just go to, April 2013, “RBC forces workers to dig own graves….”

    • Oh puleeze….stick to the topic and leave the conspiracy crap outside.

  8. This is an excerpt from his book, it is not an essay. Read the book. And it never fails, commentators get caught up in some detail and miss the message. What do the Non-Indians want? They want land and they want the wealth that comes from reaping the land’s resources. The Indians stand in their way.

    • Land does not bring wealth.

      Effort brings wealth.

      Labour, capital, and investment create wealth. The land generates nothing.

      No land yields crops without the farmer doing the work.

      Even the traditional hunter-gatherer existence depends on the work needed to hunt, fish, and seek out plant nourishment.

      And of course the indian ‘traditional way of living’ does not generate the wealth necessary to sustain the modern standard of living to which most people, including most indians, aspire.

      • So you obviously don’t object to giving the land back.
        And presumably you’ll all stop whining about the building a pipeline to the west coast. You don’t need BC to get oil to Asia, you just need effort.

        • Giving land to whom?

          It’s not ‘back’ to anyone.

          • Dementia is such a tragic illness.

      • Yes, and the “white” view is that by not investing labour, capital and wealth into extracting every tree, every mineral, and every drop of oil those lazy Indians are “wasting” the land.
        Which proves his point that the non-Indians see the Indians as “in the way” of exploiting the land.
        Get it?

        • The same our peoples dont care to be label as red skin oh I get it its all about frog money remember yesterday was history tomarrow a mistery today the present other words a gift from the great spirit be thankful for what you have and not what you have be sure to walk in beauty for beauty is behind beauty beside you below above and as always as you go forward beauty in front of you dohi

  9. Let’s keep the opinions to the excerpt itself shall we?
    What King articulates here is factual. As far as the definition of “white” is concerned…well Euro-Caucasians is the right term to employ. With regard to events in British North America (BNA) and yes that includes the United States, prior to 1776… none can dispute the end result of indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States.
    Arguments made by non-indigenous Canadians that past practice (the Indian Act) and consequent federal Indian policies by successive Conservative and Liberal governments; does not equate special distinction under the Charter of Rights…is erroneous.
    What Mr. King posits here, is correct; it is about land and natural resources.
    In today’s circumstances, the issue of what was deemed politically expedient, and socially permissible in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries carries a burden that is being rejected by their contemporaries.
    Non-indigenous Canadians and new immigrants are becoming indignant and quite repulsed by the notion of shouldering the calamities of past federal government policies; and judging by the Conservative Progressives in Canada… the Indian Status Card, and subsequent Treaty obligations on behalf of the English Crown needs to be extinguished.
    The question of what Indians want…what they are currently getting, and what if anything they should be receiving in the future is what Mr. King is alluding to.

    • Sorry? Indigenous people in North America? There is no such thing. We are all non-indigenous Canadians as recent dna studies have proven.

        • I don’t care what Uvic says. Recent discoveries in both Siberia and Montana state otherwise. Check National Geographic.

          • meh….until you refer to a specific website or url…

  10. From Wikipedia. “America was first settled from Asia by people who migrated across Beringia”, Whats the difference if it happens 30,000 years ago or 200 years ago? Get over yourselves.

  11. Interesting perspective by Mr. King, and there’s probably a lot of truth in there. But I infer some disturbing implications. The question “What to Indians want?” could be answered the same way: they want land. As a land-owner (I have a house) who bought his land in good faith from someone who bought it in good faith, all the way back to the someone who just took it, I am put into a difficult position. Do I just abandon this place because a long, long time ago it was not owned by whites? I was born and bred here and this is my home. I have no where else to go. In that way, I am just as much a native of this place as any Indian.

    The problem is that Indians and Whites (how I hate those terms) want the same thing. And as has been the case throughout history, conflicts arise when people want the same limited resource. And, historically, the outcome is rarely favourable to all parties.

    • Moreover, indians have just as much right to access Crown land development as anyone else. Their ‘fair share’ can be had by getting skills, education, training, and a job… same as anyone else.

      There seems to be some sort of ideology of dichotomy, as if developing mineral resources or installing infrastructure somehow deprives indians of the use of the land.

      • Really? They get decide what is developed and how, and then determine and collect taxes and royalties?
        Who knew!

        • The point is, there is no “they”. We impose such definitions out of fear: fear of embracing the future, fear of changing, and fear of the unknown. Changing our thinking to embrace the wholeness of humanity is the most difficult task we will ever face, but the most liberating. It will give us powers we never realized we had.

  12. Kinda like the age old question, “What does it mean to be a white person in Canada today?”

  13. Thomas King
    is correct in that the primary goal of the exploitative capitalist ruling class—from
    colonial times to the present—is acquisition of land, because all wealth
    originates in the natural resources of the Earth. No human being has ever
    created matter from nothing. But King, like most of the colonialized, deluded “western
    world” is misguided and furthering a greatly mistaken notion of what human
    beings are by simply labeling the perpetrators of American colonialism under the
    label “White,” even though they were of European origin. During the first 130
    to 150 years of North American colonialism, approximately 70 to 80% of the
    European colonists were indentured servants, or what I also refer to as “slaves…for
    a limited time only” (typically bound for five to ten years). Prior to boarding
    the ships, they were landless “peasants” or serfs, subject people, subject to
    the ruling classes of France, England, Spain, or the Netherlands—the 2 to 5% of
    those parts of Europe who owned all of the land in vast estates the size of our
    present day counties (from “land of the Count”). Not only did those “Land
    Lords,” or peers of the monarchs, own all of the land, but they claimed to own
    every living thing upon the land: the woods, the water, the deer, the fish, and
    the peasants themselves. It was the ruling class who pushed colonialism and
    received nearly all of the plunder and all of the land in America that they
    claimed for their dominions, which is, like King said, still the goal of imperialists

    The purveyors of American colonialism had no allegiance nor any sense of equal
    humanity with the peasant bodies that they exploited both at home and abroad.
    But, soon after American colonialism began, the ruling class developed a clever
    idea for enhancing their land-grabbing, dominion-building venture: a new twist
    on divide and conquer called “race.” They realized that if they called themselves
    and the peasant class/working class grunt laborers of colonialism “White people”
    and allowed them a small portion of the plunder, which was more than the
    peasants ever had in Europe, including land ownership, and applied labels to
    all of the other exploited peoples in America that would clearly distinguish
    them from “Whites,” such as “Blacks,” “Red Men,” “Moors,” “mulattoes,” and “savages,”
    etc., they could thereby secure both the allegiance of their peasants, their
    military service, and their continued, minimally-rewarded labor, and thereby
    secure their claimed lands and empires.

    We ignore the cogent reality of class and replace it with the ill-defined, illusory
    entity called “race” at our own peril. Our indigenous ancestors defined
    themselves through their distinct cultures and had no “race” concept before
    colonialism. The peoples of distinct European nations also did not have the
    race concept before then. The perpetuation of racial labeling, racialist thinking,
    and some other forms of colonialist discourse only serves to further divide and
    conquer the 99%, separate us and alienate us from potential and real allies,
    while aiding and abetting our common enemy, the corporatocracy/plutocrats/industrialists
    who are indeed waging war on all of us (all species, globally) and the Earth
    itself. Playing into that old divisive scheme is not what we need to be doing
    now, at the time of the greatest crisis that life on Earth has ever faced.