Violence is one of the only options aboriginal people have left, says author Thomas King.
It’s a surprising statement coming from a Cherokee who, to his own bemusement, is known more for his radio comedy show than his Massey Lectures.
But the 68-year-old King has had plenty of time to ponder the subject of militancy.
And his newest work – a nonfiction history book – is, in simplest terms, the written version of a conversation King has had with himself for the past 45 years, he said.
“What I want to say is: The powers-that-be have put native people into a position where, unless they’re willing to put their bodies on the line, nobody pays attention.
“The legal system is not there to assist us – although it may from time to time – it really is there to slow us down. And that’s the way it’s been used over the years.
“Our relationship to the outside world is all legal. We build our lives with lawyers. It’s a hell of a way to live.”
Look at Oka, Quebec, he said.
The three-month standoff between Quebec’s Oka Mohawk people and Ottawa may be the most famous moment in Canadian aboriginal activism.
But it had nothing to do with a golf course, as many Canadian history books claim, said King.
“That was just the trigger,” he said. “North Americans don’t know their own history.”
The Mohawk warriors did not pick up arms and didn’t assemble the Oka barricade until after 273 years of peaceful protest.
Since Confederation, the Oka Mohawk wrote letters, signed petitions and filed lawsuits to have the land returned or protected.
In 1977, when the lawsuit failed to stop construction of a nine-hole golf course, the Oka Mohawk filed for a land claim. The claim was accepted, research was funded and, nine years later, the claim was rejected on the grounds of insufficient legal criteria.
Three years after that, when the city announced it was expanding the golf course and building luxury condominiums, even the federal government admitted the golf course was unfair to the Mohawk people.
It was at this time that the Oka Mohawk built a barricade and picked up arms.
“In Oka they said they wouldn’t negotiate until they put their arms down – hell, they wouldn’t negotiate until they picked their arms up,” said King. “I don’t like it, but violence is an answer to get the government’s attention. Once violence breaks out, government says, ‘Why don’t you try the legal system,’ and we say, ‘We did.’ That was Oka.”
After aboriginal groups from across Canada joined the Oka Mohawk and barricaded all traffic routes into the area, the army was called in and the Mohawk eventually agreed to take down the barricades.
Buttressing King’s argument, once traffic was flowing again, the Quebec government refused further negotiations.
“It gets to be a vicious circle,” said King. “Government and native groups go at it, back-and-forth, until what you’re fighting over is small pieces of property.
“The whole framework of native history is the issue of land, and who controls the land. The idea that North America has had, since the beginning, is that they don’t want native people in control of any land. Land is money, land is power, land is privilege.
“If you understand nothing else about the history of Indians in North America, the issue is land. It always has been. It always will be.”
And land claims won’t resolve it, said King.
No land claim has ever ended without the aboriginal group giving up land, he said.
The Alaskan land claim agreement is particularly distressing for King.
It turned the First Nations into corporations and the people into shareholders, he said.
“The Alaskan claim got settled because there was billions of dollars and oil at stake if they could not settle it,” he added.
While one may lead to the other, land is not the same as money.
Aboriginal people still have a connection – beyond bank statements and property tax – to the land they fight for, said King.
Just look at the Blackfoot in Montana who, to this day, consider Chief Mountain a sacred place. Or the Lakota in South Dakota, who continue to refuse money in exchange for their Black Hills, he said.
Of course, there are “chairmen who have screwed over their tribes,” and for some aboriginal people, it’s all about the money, said King.
“I’d be a fool to say, just because I’m native I don’t like money,” he said. “Poverty isn’t fun. I remember being poor. It’s no fun.”
Thinking out loud, King ponders – to himself more than anyone else – whether greed is taking over native communities.
“Everything I see suggests it is,” he said. “But everything I believe suggests it’s not.
“And even while the loss of native languages is a national travesty, I think we could still maintain our culture with the land.
“Lose the land base, you lose the tribes.”
But in the end, land claims are just another part of the legal system.
They are long, drawn out processes – because they are complicated – but also because “governments don’t really want to settle those things,” said King, admitting he doesn’t know much about the Yukon’s 11 final agreements.
“My concern is we’re giving away too much,” he said. “But I don’t have an answer, to be honest. My job is to go around and say, ‘Ah, that’s not right,’ and stick my nose into places it’s not supposed to be.
“And violence isn’t the first choice. But it has to be heard, and it needs to said.
“And people a lot smarter than me, and more eloquent, who have lived on reserves their whole life, have said the same thing I am. But we keep saying it and we will continue to.
“Nothing I do will change the world, but I get up every morning and I write for the hope that it will.”
King’s new book is called, Happy Trails: A Curious History of Indians in North America and is scheduled to be released by Doubleday in September 2012.
King and his wife Helen Hoy were in Dawson City on October 17 and 18 to kick off the Danoja Zho Cultural Centre and the Yukon School of Visual Arts visiting aboriginal artists series.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at