For almost the whole of his 70 years, Thomas King, the California-born Canadian novelist, broadcaster and, more than occasionally, polemicist, has been having, inside his own irony-prone mind, the conversation captured in The Inconvenient Indian . King’s 12th book, which has brought him a RBC Taylor Prize nomination, centres on non-Natives’ continuing incomprehension of First Nations reality, as opposed to their mythic presence in our imagination. “What’s really hard for many people to get their heads around,” King says, “is that Natives control part of Canada,” including land we want to exploit for its resources. “But if Natives don’t want a pipeline running through their land, then they don’t have to have one.”

What do Indians want? Great question.The problem is, it’s the wrong question to ask. While there are certainly Indians in North America, the Indians of this particular question don’t exist. The Indians of this question are “the Indian” that Canada and the United States have created for themselves. And as long as the question is asked in that way, there will never be the possibility of an answer. Better to ask what the Lubicon Cree of Alberta want, or the Brantford Mohawk of Ontario or the Zuni of New Mexico or the Hupa of northern California or the Tlingit of Alaska.

But I’d just as soon forget the question entirely. There’s a better question to ask, one that will help us understand the nature of contemporary North American Indian history. A question that we can ask of both the past and the present.

What do Whites want? No, it’s not a trick question. And I’m not being sarcastic. Native history in North America as writ has never really been about Native people. It’s been about Whites and their needs and desires. What Native peoples wanted has never been a vital concern, has never been a political or social priority.

The Lakota didn’t want Europeans in the Black Hills, but Whites wanted the gold that was there. The Cherokee didn’t want to move from Georgia to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), but Whites wanted the land. The Cree of Quebec weren’t at all keen on vacating their homes to make way for the Great Whale project, but there’s excellent money in hydroelectric power. The California Indians did not ask to be enslaved by the Franciscans and forced to build that order’s missions.

What do Whites want? The answer is quite simple, and it’s been in plain sight all along.

Land.

Whites want land.

Sure, Whites want Indians to disappear, and they want Indians to assimilate, and they want Indians to understand that everything that Whites have done was for their own good because Native people, left to their own devices, couldn’t make good decisions for themselves.

All that’s true, from a White point of view, at least. But it’s a lower order of true. It’s a spur-of-the-moment true, and these ideas have changed over time. Assimilation was good in the 1950s, but bad in the 1970s. Residential schools were the answer to Indian education in the 1920s, but by the 21st century, governments were apologizing for the abuse that Native children had suffered at the hands of Christian doctrinaires, pedophiles and sadists. In the 1880s, the prevailing wisdom was to destroy Native cultures and languages so that Indians could find civilization. Today, the non-Native lament is that Aboriginal cultures and languages may well be on the verge of extinction. These are all important matters, but if you pay more attention to them than they deserve, you will miss the larger issue.

The issue that came ashore with the French and the English and the Spanish, the issue that was the raison d’être for each of the colonies, the issue that has made its way from coast to coast to coast and is with us today, the issue that has never changed, never varied, never faltered in its resolve, is the issue of land. The issue 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.

Land. If you understand nothing else about the history of Indians in North America, you need to understand that the ques­tion that really matters is the question of land. Land contains the languages, the stories and the histories of a people. It provides water, air, shelter and food. And land is home.

Excerpted from The Inconvenient Indian . Copyright © 2013 Thomas King. Published by Doubleday Canada. All rights reserved.

Macleans February 24, 2014