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Dr. Thomas King delivers keynote address at Canadian Studies Ph.D. 10th Anniversary Symposium

Lecture focused on native land claims

 Thomas KingThe joint Trent-Carleton Canadian Studies Ph.D. program celebrated its tenth anniversary with a two-day symposium, May 13 – 14, 2011. Events kicked-off with a keynote lecture by renowned native Canadian author, Dr. Thomas King at Traill College’s Bagnani Hall.

Dr. King’s lecture, entitled “Home and Native Land: First Nations and the Politics of Property” was received by an audience of about 80 people including current and former students of the graduate program, faculty, and members of the public. His lecture, while focusing on native land claims, ranged broadly over many topics including funding of the arts, environmental degradation, voter apathy, and the privatization of natural resources. Dr. King handled his subject matter with a characteristic mix of pointed observations, and acerbic wit.

“What do Indians want?” According to Dr. King, he is asked this question a lot. For Dr. King, however, the better question to ask is “What do Whites want?” “Native history in North America has never really been about native people,” he explained. “It’s been about whites and their needs and desires. What native people wanted has never been a vital concern; it has never been a political or social priority. What do whites want? Well the answer is really quite simple: land. Whites want land.”

For Dr. King, land sits at the heart of native-white relations from their first encounters, to this very day. “That issue that came ashore with the French and the English and the Spanish, the issue that was the raison d’etre for each of the colonies, the issue that has made its way from coast to coast to coast, the issue that is with us today, the issue that has never changed, never varied, never faltered in its resolve, is the issue of land. It 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.”

Dr. King focused on the land disputes in Ipperwash, Oka and on Musqueam lands in B.C., tracing the historical development of the disputes, and drawing parallels between the cases of unfulfilled government promises, and the unwillingness of government to protect native land rights in the face of corporate development.

“One of the complaints that whites have had about Indians and land is that native people don’t know what to do with land or that they weren’t using the land to its full potential,” he explained. “Land has always been a major part of aboriginal culture. Land contains the stories and the histories of the people; it provides air, water, shelter, medicine, food; land participates in the ceremonies and the songs; land is home – not in any abstract way. For non-natives land is primarily a commodity - something that has value for what you can take from it or what you can do with it or what you can get for it.”

Dr. King pointed to the Athabasca tar sands as an example of a non-native approach to land use, calling it “environmental destruction on a grand scale.” “In corporate North America,” he concluded, “there’s no such thing as too much devastation because there is no such thing as too much money. North America will never develop a land ethic until the population at large educates and energizes itself. So far that hasn’t happened.”

While Dr. King called the stories he had related that night “little more than tasty tidbits within the panorama of the Canadian narrative,” he hoped that the audience, even those not directly affected by native land claim issues, would see the lecture as a cautionary tale. “A cavalry is coming,” he warned his audience, “and they’re not coming for Indians – they’re coming for you. In bygone days the cavalry used to shoot Indians, they killed off food sources such as buffaloes to starve bands into submission; they used to contrive treaties to help themselves to native lands. Genocide is the word that gets bandied about for this kind of behavior, but it’s such a derogatory term. The new cavalry – the military-industrial complex, the G20 cavalry, the multi-national cavalry - doesn’t want to injure anyone in any noticeable way. The new cavalry just wants to privatize the world. Here they come, and here we stand at the side of the road to cheer them on.”

“Am I hopeful?” he answered in reply to an audience member’s question. “I’ve become a bit of curmudgeon, I suppose. I want to hold out hope, I really do because I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh that grouchy old Thomas King was on campus and said there’s nothing you can do about it, it’s all going to hell in a hand basket.’ I’m not saying that, I’m just saying that if you want it to change there’s going to be a lot of hard work that has to go into that.”

Thomas King received his Ph.D. in English literature/American Studies from the University of Utah. He came to Canada in 1980 to teach Native literature and history in the Native Studies department at the University of Lethbridge. Critics and reviewers have praised King’s poignant portrayals of Native people. While his characters are strong in the face of oppression and prejudice, they are also fallible in endearingly humorous ways. In addition to literature, King has worked in radio and film. King’s radio show, The Dead Dog Café, ran on CBC for ten years from 1996 to 2006, and he has written and directed two short films, I’m Not the Indian You Had in Mind (2007) and Totem (2009). In 2003, King was the first Native scholar to deliver the prestigious Massey lectures which were published as a book, The Truth About Stories, in the same year. King currently teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Guelph where he is working on a narrative history of Indians in North America.

The Trent Ph.D. Program began in 2001 and is offered jointly between the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University and the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. This unique joint Ph.D. is the only full interdisciplinary doctoral program in Canadian Studies in Canada, combining the longstanding strengths of both institutions in this field. The program is founded on the premise that many complex problems and issues cannot be understood satisfactorily from the vantage point of a single discipline and that a more comprehensive understanding of Canada can be achieved through integrated and systematic interdisciplinary scholarship.

Posted on Friday, May 20, 2011.

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