Michelle Latimer’s urgent documentary Inconvenient Indian dives deep into the brilliant mind of Thomas King, Indigenous intellectual, master storyteller, and author of the bestselling book The Inconvenient Indian, to shatter the misconception that history is anything more than stories we tell about the past. With winks to his cab driver Coyote along the way, King takes us on a critical journey through the colonial narratives of North America. He eloquently exposes the falsehoods of white supremacy and deftly punctures myths of Indigenous erasure to lay bare what has been extracted from the land, culture, and peoples of Turtle Island. In this time of momentous change and essential re-examination, Latimer’s Inconvenient Indian is a powerful visual poem anchored in the land and amplified by the voices of those who continue the tradition of Indigenous resistance. Artist activists, land protectors, hunters, and those leading cultural revitalization powerfully subvert the “inconvenience” of their existence, creating an essential new narrative and a possible path forward for us all.
In Michelle Latimer’s urgent documentary, Thomas King dismantles North America’s colonial narrative to reveal the falsehoods and fictions known as “history.”
In this time of radical change and essential re-examination, Michelle Latimer’s urgent documentary Inconvenient Indian brings to life Thomas King’s brilliant dismantling of North America’s colonial narrative, reframing this history with the powerful voices of those continuing the tradition of Indigenous resistance.
Métis/Algonquin filmmaker Michelle Latimer’s urgent documentary Inconvenient Indian dives deep into the brilliant mind of Thomas King, Indigenous intellectual, master storyteller, and author of the bestselling book The Inconvenient Indian, to shatter the misconception that history is anything more than stories we tell about the past.
Latimer unpacks hundreds of years of history from a distinctly Indigenous point of view, creatively framing Thomas King’s critical journey back through the colonial narratives of North America with Coyote as our cabdriver. “Stories are all we are,” King tells us as he eloquently exposes the falsehoods of white supremacy and deftly punctures myths of Indigenous erasure to lay bare what has been extracted from the land, culture and peoples of Turtle Island.
In this time of momentous change and essential re-examination, Latimer’s Inconvenient Indian is a powerful visual poem anchored in the land and amplified by the voices of those who continue the tradition of Indigenous resistance, such as Christi Belcourt, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Nyla Innuksuk, A Tribe Called Red, Skawennati, Jason Edward Lewis, Carman Tozer, Steven Lonsdale and Kent Monkman. Their words and actions subvert the “inconvenience” of their existence, creating an essential new narrative and a possible path forward for us all.
Inconvenient Indian is a crucial part of the conversation between Indigenous peoples and those who have settled, uninvited, on these lands.
1. With Inconvenient Indian, you’ve taken one of the most important books written about Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships—Thomas King’s densely layered examination of North American history, The Inconvenient Indian—and transformed it into a powerful cinematic reclamation of the narrative. Can you talk a bit about what resonated the most for you?
One of the most profound lines in the film for me is when Thomas says you have to be careful with the stories you tell and the stories that are told, because once a story is told, it cannot be called back. I think that idea—that stories can connect us, they can be celebrated, they can be magical, they can be testaments to our history, our lineage, our legacy, but they can also be dangerous—is very important. By perpetuating violent stereotypes that misrepresent people, they can cause real harm. We have seen how that plays out.
Thomas breaks up his book into three categories: the Dead Indian, the Live Indian, and the Legal Indian. The Dead Indian is a safe abstraction that exists in the past; this is generally the representation of an Indigenous person that mainstream culture embraces because it is abstract and romanticized. It’s safe because it doesn’t threaten mainstream society or the dominant culture. The Live Indian is basically an invisible Indian because most people don’t know how to see that person; they’re so attached to the Dead Indian image. The Legal Indian is the Indian that threatens these established power structures, because that one is the Indian who has rights, who has a voice and perhaps an education. This Indian knows how to use those tools to stand up for the land and their legal rights.
I included a trickster story Thomas tells about coyote and the ducks; in it, we are cautioned against greed, consumption, excess vanity, and all those things that are basically aspects of a colonial mindset that we’re dealing with right now. For me this became a great example of what happened to, not just our lands, but also our peoples as a result of settler colonialism.
2. We are in this time of radical change right now in which our power structures and accepted histories of white supremacy are being challenged on many fronts. As an Algonquin and Métis filmmaker, you’re talking about Indigenous history and Indigenous resistance in the past, present and future using a distinctly Indigenous perspective and voice. How important is that for you?
The lens is really important. This film was all about subverting the gaze. Early in the film, we see Thomas King watching a Hollywood montage of some of the earliest images ever captured on celluloid of Indigenous people performing. These were filmed at a time when our spiritual practices, such as our Ghost Dances and our Sun Dances, were outlawed. The only time our people were allowed to perform was when they were performing for a camera being operated by a non-Indigenous person, otherwise, they could be thrown in jail. And then you have Robert Flaherty, who directed the first feature-length documentary, Nanook of the North, that happened to be about Indigenous people, and how problematic that was, for the reasons I believe I’ve outlined in the film.
What was so interesting about that particular scene was that after we viewed the Flaherty collection for our research at the museum, the curator brought us into the back room. He pulled out a drawer and there was an Inuit drawing. He said, “Look at this, the Inuit were documenting Flaherty documenting them.” And he showed me this incredible pencil drawing of a sled-dog team being filmed by Flaherty. That Inuit drawing, observing Flaherty filming them, should be what we’re looking at next to the Flaherty collection. People don’t hear the other side of the narrative, but we see you seeing us. When I was looking for archival footage for the residential school section, I really tried to find moments where the children look down the barrel of a camera—that was inspired by my earlier short film Nimmikaage, which was a commission by the NFB done entirely from archival footage. I scoured hundreds of hours of footage trying to find images of women looking down the barrel of the camera to reverse the gaze, only to find how little of it existed. It was mostly observational ethnographic documentary. And so when I put together the residential school section, I was really thinking about that. It’s all about, “I see you seeing me.” Do not erase me.
3. Your interview subjects are such incredible people from across a broad range of society. Can you talk about what it was that made you connect to them and choose them as representatives of Indigenous resistance?
ML: Thomas’s ideas are the string that threads the larger narrative together, which is the narrative of a collective history. We have Inuit, Cree, Anishinaabe, and Métis filmmakers, artists, knowledge keepers, language teachers and hunters in the film. As individuals, each is doing hugely important work, but I was thinking of them together as a collective voice. In colonial documentary filmmaking, we privilege the “expert,” or the person who is the all-knowing voice for that subject matter. For me it was really important to show how collectively, people will come together to tell the same story, or their story as a community.
I included people of different generations to show how the evolution of the work we do in our lifetime shapes the next generation. I wanted to show how over generations, we can process the trauma our families endured for hundreds of years, and the cumulative, powerful effects that has on how we pass down our intergenerational knowledge.
I wanted to have a hunter represented in the film, because in some ways he, like all hunters, is the most Inconvenient Indian. Living on the land with his traditions, he doesn’t need mainstream society to be able to exist and survive. He can provide for his community, his family, and himself. That’s sovereignty at a very basic and essential level. That can be threatening to a culture that has demanded and sought our dependence on them in order to tame us, to control us, to exterminate us.
The section with the hunt is juxtaposed against the protest footage and the distribution of meat to the community at the end of the film, to ask: What is the violence in society that we find acceptable or palatable? What have we normalized? My question to anyone who is upset by the seal hunt is: Are you as upset when you watch Native people being tear-gassed and rubber bulleted? We need to re-evaluate what our values are as a society.
4. If there is one thing you would like to leave the audience with, what would it be?
ML: Thomas says, “You can’t feign ignorance.” You can do what you want with the story, but you can’t say you never heard it. And so it rests with all of us when we have the knowledge. When you see Thomas watching himself on screen in the film, it could on first reading seem passive, but it’s not passive, because he’s watching us watching him. That’s probably one of the most important aspects of the film, recognizing that mutual recognition. It’s also a call to action. At the end of the film, I want people to say, “Oh my God, how am I part of this? And what can I personally do to shift and change as we move into the future?”
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Inspired by the book by: Thomas King
A 90th Parallel Productions and National Film Board of Canada Co-Production
Produced in association with CRAVE (a division of Bell Media) and APTN.
Produced with the participation of the Canada Media Fund, Telefilm Canada,
the Rogers Documentary Fund,
the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit Program, and Ontario Creates,
with the assistance of the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Fund.