an excerpt from “The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative,” by Thomas King
I collect postcards. Old ones, new ones. Postcards that depict Indians or Indian subjects. I have one from the 1920s that shows an Indian lacrosse team in Oklaholma. Another is a hand-coloured rendering of the Sherman Indian School in California. A third is a cartoon of an Indian man fishing in the background while, in the foreground, a tourist takes a picture of the man’s wife and their seven kids with the rather puerile caption “And what does the chief do when he’s not fishing?”
One of my favourites is a photograph of a group of Indians, in full headdresses, golfing at the Banff Springs Hotel golf course in 1903. The photograph was taken by Byron Harmon and shows Jim Brewster and Norman Luxton, two Banff locals, caddying for what looks to be five Indians who are identified only as “two Stoney Indian Chiefs.” I like this particular postcard because there is an element of play in the image of Indians in beaded outfits and full headdresses leaning on their golf clubs while their horses graze in the background, and because I can’t tell if the person on the tee with bobbed hair, wearing what looks to be a dress and swinging the club, is an Indian or a White, a man or a woman.
But the vast majority of my postcards offer no such mysteries. They are simply pictures and paintings of Indians in feathers and leathers, sitting in or around tipis or chasing buffalo on pinto ponies.
Some of these postcards are old, but many of them are brand new, right off the rack. Two are contemporary pieces from the Postcard Factory in Markham, Ontario. The first shows and older Indian man in a full beaded and fringed leather outfit with an eagle feather war bonnet and a lance, sitting on a horse, set against a backdrop of trees and mountains. The second is a group of five Indians, one older man in a full headdress sitting on a horse, and four younger men on foot: two with bone breastplates, one with a leather vest, and one bare chested.
The interesting thing about these two postcards is that the solitary man on his horse is identified only as a “Cree Indian,” while the group of five is designated as “Native Indians,” much like the golfers, as if none of them had names or identities other than the cliché. Though to give them identities, to reveal them to be actual people, would be, I suppose, a violation of the physical laws governing matter and antimatter, that the Indian* and Indians cannot exist in the same imagination.
Which must be why the White caddies on the Banff postcard have names.
And the Indians do not.
-From the chapter entitled “You’re Not the Indian I Had in Mind”
*The Indian that King is talking about here refers specifically to the romanticist conception of the Noble, Dying Indian as a subject of the American colonial gaze. Elsewhere in this work, King presents examples of this “Indian” in the photography of Edward Curtis and in the literature of James Fennimore Cooper and Karl May, among others.
What makes this such a pertinent critique the interpellation of Indigenous Americans (Indians) into this romanticized subject is that it’s a subject that still persists. That’s remarkable in its relative longevity considering the shelf life of ideas in mass culture, and it is my belief that this subjecthood plays a significant role in the denial of indigenous humanity.
How can indigenous peoples be seen as people in the oh-so-noble humanist tradition if the only conception of us is a persistent and threadbare fiction?