Published on June 16, 2014 by Amy
Thomas King, CM (born 24 April 1943) is a noted American-Canadian novelist and broadcaster who most often writes about North America’s First Nations. He is an advocate for First Nations causes. He is of Cherokee and Greek/German-American descent. In 2003, King was invited to give the Massey Lecture in Canada, the first person of aboriginal descent to be chosen. He has dual United States-Canadian citizenship.
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Thomas King was born in Sacramento, California in 1943, to a father who was Cherokee and a mother who was of Greek and Swiss German descent. He had a brother. King says his father left the family when the boys were very young and that they were raised almost entirely by their mother. In his series of Massey Lectures, eventually published as a book The Truth About Stories (2003), King tells that after their father’s death, he and his brother learned that their father had had two other families, neither of whom knew about the others.
As a child, King attended grammar school in Roseville, California, and both private Catholic and public high schools. After flunking out of Sacramento State University, he joined the Navy for a brief period of time before receiving a medical discharge for a knee injury. Following this King worked several jobs, including as an ambulance driver, bank teller, and photojournalist in New Zealand for three years.
King eventually completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Chico State University in California. He moved to Utah, where he worked as a counselor for aboriginal students before completing a Ph.D. program in English at the University of Utah. His 1971 PhD dissertation was on Native Studies, one of the earliest of works to explore the oral storytelling tradition as literature. Around this time, King became interested in aboriginal oral traditions and storytelling.
After moving to Canada in 1980, King taught Native Studies at the University of Lethbridge in the early 1980s. King also served as a faculty member of the University of Minnesota’s American Indian Studies Department. King is currently an English professor at the University of Guelph and lives in Guelph, Ontario.
King was chosen to deliver the 2003 Massey Lectures, entitled The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. King was the first Massey lecturer of Aboriginal descent. King explored the Native experience in oral stories, literature, history, religion and politics, popular culture and social protest in order to make sense of North America’s relationship with its Aboriginal peoples.
King has criticized policies and programs of both the United States and Canadian governments in many interviews and books. He is worried about aboriginal prospects and rights in North America. He says that he fears that aboriginal culture, and specifically aboriginal land, will continue to be taken away from aboriginal peoples until there is nothing left to them at all. In his 2013 book The Inconvenient Indian, King says, “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.”.
King also discusses policies regarding aboriginal status. He noted that legislatures in the 1800s withdrew aboriginal status from persons who graduated from university or joined the army. King has also worked to identify North American laws that make it complicated to claim status in the first place, for example the American Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 or Canada’s 1985 Bill C-31. Bill C-31 was amended to allow aboriginal women and their children to reclaim status, which the bill had previously withdrawn if the woman married a non-status man. King explains that the amended bill, though progressive for women who had lost their status, threatens the status of future generations because of its limitations.
King has been writing novels, children’s books, and collections of stories since the 1980s. His notable works include A Coyote Columbus Story (1992) and Green Grass, Running Water (1993), both of which were nominated for a Governor General’s Award; and The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (2012), which won the 2014 RBC Taylor Prize.
King’s writing style incorporates oral storytelling structures with traditional Western narrative. He writes in a conversational tone; for example, in Green Grass, Running Water, the narrator argues with some of the characters. In The Truth About Stories (2003), King addresses the reader as if in a conversation with responses. King uses a variety of anecdotes and humorous narratives while maintaining a serious message in a way that has been compared to the style of trickster legends in Native American culture.
In April 2007 King announced that he would be seeking the New Democratic Party (NDP) nomination for Guelph. On March 30, 2007 King was acclaimed as the NDP candidate for Guelph. Present at the nomination meeting was NDP leader Jack Layton. A by-election was called in the riding due to the resignation of incumbent Liberal Member of Parliament Brenda Chamberlain effective April 7, 2008. Scheduled for September 8, 2008, the by-election was cancelled with the calling of the October 14, 2008 federal general election. King finished fourth behind Liberal candidate Frank Valeriote, Conservative candidate Gloria Kovach and Green candidate Mike Nagy.
From 1997 to 2000, King wrote and acted in a CBC radio show, The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour, which featured a fictitious town and a fictitious radio program hosted by three Native American characters. Elements were adapted from his novel, Green Grass, Running Water. The broadcast was a political and social satire with dark humour and mocking stereotypes.
In July 2007, King made his directorial debut with I’m Not The Indian You Had In Mind, a short film which he wrote.
His partner is Helen Hoy, a professor and co-ordinator of Women’s Studies at the University of Guelph. She has written a study, How Should I Read These? Native Women Writers in Canada (2001), available at Googlebooks. They have children, including son Benjamin. He is beginning to play with his father in the Guelph Native Men’s Circle of drummers, who have played together for years.