On the road with the King

Thomas King tented his fingers, roll-tapping the tips, giving a wholehearted Mr. Burns-like, "Eeeexcellent," while looking out from under his brow.


Thomas King tented his fingers, roll-tapping the tips, giving a wholehearted Mr. Burns-like, “Eeeexcellent,” while looking out from under his brow.

It wasn’t the first time he’d done it this trip, and it wouldn’t be the last, but it was surprising.

Who would have thought the first-ever aboriginal Massey lecturer would imitate a Simpsons character, and Montgomery Burns of all Springfield’s stereotypes.

But on the six-hour drive to Dawson City there were plenty of surprises from the venerated Cherokee author and scholar, who was the mastermind behind the politically biting CBC radio comedy Dead Dog Cafe.

For example, only minutes into breakfast, King took out his insulin-pack to check his levels. That meant the sugar-dusted fruit salad, candied salmon and homemade chocolate chip cookies prepared for the trip would be staying in the cooler.

At a scheduled a stop at Baked Cafe before hitting the highway, King ordered a quarter coffee, the rest water. Gross.

But soon enough, watery coffee and sandwiches in hand, King and his wife Helen Hoy were on the road to Dawson City.

Hoy was also giving a lecture at the Danoja Zho Cultural Centre. She, like King, is an author and a professor of aboriginal culture, but her talk in Dawson City was about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder; a second calling that began when the couple adopted Elizabeth, who suffers from FASD.

King’s lecture was the first of a new Visiting Aboriginal Artist Series put on by a partnership between the cultural centre and the Yukon School of Visual Arts. And it was a first for him too.

He would be talking about another relatively unknown fact: photography was the first art form King ever picked up.

Like his later work in fiction and broadcasting, his preference is satirical photography with a political punch, he said, explaining one exhibition he’d done of Polaroid transfers of the Ten Commandments – for First Nation people.

“Thou shall keep thy God to thyselves,” he recited, slapping his knee.

Before he began writing, King tried making a career out of photography.

“But I hated doing weddings,” he said. “Everyone is so wound up. All the women are like predator birds, telling you where to go. And it never failed, when you finally did get them all together, someone would do this.”

His face contorted. One eye half-closed, his tongue partially poking out of the side of his mouth, all of the winkles in his 68-year-old face furrowed.

Despite his enthusiasm for comedy and cartoons, King’s age very suddenly became clear.

Discussing the world-premiere talk he’d be giving to a literally packed auditorium in about 10-hours time, he started to get nervous.

“You don’t want to make an ass of yourself,” he said about public speaking in general. “You want to do a good job.

“I think I’ll be finishing up doing lectures. I’m not sure I have much more to say. How much can you say in a lifetime? I’m getting tired of hearing my own voice.”

The conversation quickly spiraled into the toll touring takes on the senior couple.

“It’s a performance,” Hoy chimed about King’s talk-tours. “It’s tiring.”

And King’s health has given him a few scares lately.

“I’ve decided I won’t travel without her anymore,” he said, thumbing to Hoy behind him. “I get sick when she’s not there.

“Ohhhhhhh, isn’t that sweet,” he said, breaking the heavy air with an ever-ready quip.

During the ride, the conversation bounced around the truck, seeming to mirror the trip up the potholed Klondike Highway.

The discussion included King’s novels, whose characters are inspired by collaborations of some of his closest friends and are almost always set in the Prairies.

“I can’t seem to get artistically engaged anywhere but the Prairies,” he said shrugging. “It’s really where I became a writer.”

Hoy footnotes King’s conversation, adding details that qualify or explain the people he brings into it.

Clearly a dedicated fan, her footnotes turn into corrections during recounts of a few of his works.

King wrote a few episodes for the show North of 60, but that didn’t last because he and the producers didn’t agree on what comedy was, he said.

And sitting up, excited – despite the seemingly never-ending ride – King discussed one of his stories where, “just to see,” he changed all the mentions of “men” to “penis” and all the “women” references to “vagina.”

“It’s never been anthologized,” he said with a laugh. “Frankly, my non-native material doesn’t get nearly as much press as my native material.”

But that fact doesn’t seem to upset the widely published author, who also has a few detective novels on the go.

“I prefer writing about native people,” he added with a grin. “You never run out of subject material there.”

Sometimes the talk would turn serious, as when King meandered onto the subject of how people adopt a paternalistic tone when discussing First Nation issues.

“Victimization, in part, depends on you feeling like a victim and acting like a victim,” he said. “With residential schools, they knew they were destroying, they just hoped something good would come out of the destruction. The problem was, they weren’t betting with their own money. They certainly weren’t betting with their own children.”

We talked about Merrill E. Gates, an architect of American Indian policy, and whether his goal of assimilation was achieved.

“Discontent with the teepee and the starving rations of the Indian camp in winter is needed to get the Indian out of the blanket and into trousers – and trousers with pockets in them, and with a pocket that aches to be filled with dollars,” King recited with gusto.

“I love that,” he added, laughing and shaking his head.

The only “aboriginal problem,” are the divisions still festering in First Nations between families, half-bloods and full-bloods, said King.

And, do you know the difference between African Americans, French Canadians and aboriginal people? The main difference is title to land, said King.

And we talked about social welfare in general.

In 2008, King ran as the federal New Democrat candidate for the Guelph riding in Ontario. He can’t understand how any country can ignore the benefits – economic and social – of providing nationally funded health care and education.

“But all different things affect how well you do in school,” said King, admitting that his own success was borne from his stubbornness. “Part of it was racism and bigotry and me saying, ‘Fuck off, I can do this.’

“I knew I was as smart as they were and it bugged me to see my chances of getting ahead were fewer.”

But for most of the ride to Dawson, the conversation – which never stopped, or even paused – was sprinkled with comedy, even when the topic wasn’t particularly funny.

“Pardon me, bleeding piece of Earth, that I am meek and humble with these butchers,” both King and Hoy recited as we drove past the tangle of tailings in the Klondike Valley.

The two corrected each other on their Shakespearean quotation – it’s a game, said King.

“But when it comes to songs, I am the supreme master,” he added, as Hoy rolled her eyes and shook her head playfully.

(Another rarely known fact: King is one of the lead vocalists for an aboriginal singers and drummers group back in Ontario.)

And when it comes to stories, King is also a bit of a master – even if he starts retelling the same story twice.

“Just hold up to fingers if I do that,” he instructed me. “That’s what we do.

“But my feeling is, if you’ve got a good story, there’s no use of throwing it away.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at