Friday, October 4, 2013

Thomas King, G.A. Custer, Lois Riel, David Thompson…..



Years and years ago, novelist Thomas King came to Fishtrap. Alvin Josephy had met him at a Sun Valley conference and recommended him as a reader and conversationalist. 

King ran for office in Guelph
King, tall, handsome, wearing a good white Stetson as I recall, lived up to promise, and two of his novels, Medicine River and Green Grass Running Water, remain personal favorites. I kept meaning to invite him back to Fishtrap—but he kept getting further away, going from the University of Minnesota to the University of Guelph, in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, where he is a professor of English today. He also has a radio show, “The Dead Dog Cafe Hour,” on CBC, and has written extensively on Indian issues on both sides of the border.

King was born in California, and his ancestors were Cherokee, Greek, and German, but he has managed to absorb Indian history and culture across national boundaries and written with authority on contemporary political issues involving American Tribes and Canadian “First Nations” since the 1980s.

This straddling of borders interests me, because I am beginning to think that some US history—and especially tribal history—has been forgotten and much distorted by national boundaries. National boundaries that were non-existent for millennia before there was a United States, and fluid for a couple of hundred years after our Revolutionary War.

I’m half way through King’s new non-fiction book called The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People of North America. It turns out that boundaries were indeed fluid—and that the lands within what is now Canada were often as contested and battle-filled, treatied and treaty broken, as our own Western lands. In an early chapter, he wonders why George Armstrong Custer, who “made a sophomoric military mistake and got himself killed,” remains an American icon while Louis Riel, whose life roughly parallels Custer, and who helped carve and form a provisional Metis government in former Rupert’s Land, was overthrown by pro-English sided Canadian troops, escaped to the US, returned to lead a Metis uprising, and was finally captured and hanged, gets no such space in our history.

The argument is interesting—Custer was White, Riel Indian; more importantly, we tell our history with Indians as the impediments to inexorable and inevitable westward movement, though, ironically, without Indian help in case after case after case, westward movement would have been much more difficult at best. Indians got in Custer’s way; Riel got in the way of white English speakers.

More interesting to me is how little we—Americans of the US variety—know about our cousins to the north. We have only foggy notions of Rupert’s Land, and how Canada emerged out of a British royal land grant and feuds and wars between the British and the French on both sides of the Atlantic. And we don’t know about Riel because it’s Canada and very few of us even know about the Metis! (although some of them are on our side of the border and have captured the attention of a Montana mystery writer named Peter Bowen, who has a Metis protagonist named Gabriel Du Pre).

We don’t pay much attention to the fur trade because the lands were trapped out and the Hudson’s Bay Company had won out over American fur companies well before white settlers arrived in the territory, and it all kind of ended up on that side of the border. As did David Thompson, North West Fur Company trader who traveled the entire length of the Columbia River and arrived at its mouth just behind the Astor party in 1811, who surveyed much of the Columbia River country and huge chunks of the US-Canada border. Josephy wrote about him, and there is a wonderful book called Sources of the River, which traces his journeys, but we don’t pay Thompson much attention in our US historical narrative.

Thank you Tom King for filling me in a little on these Indian issues across borders. I am going to track you down and invite you back to the Wallowas to hear more!

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