Reading

“I’m Not the Indian You Had in Mind”

Thomas King's poem explores the difference between stereotypes of Indigenous Peoples and how these people live their lives in contemporary Canada.  
Last Updated:
This resource is intended for educators in Canada who are teaching in English.

At a Glance

Reading

Language

English — CA
Also available in:
French — CA

Subject

  • Social Studies
  • Culture & Identity
  • Human & Civil Rights

Images of indigenous people, often depicting them in negative stereotypes, have long circulated through various forms of mass media. Familiar images of drums, traditional dress, brave warriors, and half-naked, dancing people wearing feathers and buckskin reinforce the idea that indigenous people are radically different from mainstream society. Many Hollywood films, TV series, fashion shows, and advertisements perpetuate these stereotypes, even though they have very little to do with the ways contemporary (or even historical) indigenous people dress, work, think, and act. Neither do daily news items reflect a realistic picture. “Research shows,” says media scholar Duncan McCue, “that reports from Indigenous communities tend to follow extremely narrow guidelines based on pre-existing stereotypes of Indians .” 1

In the following poem, Thomas King explores the difference between images and stereotypes of indigenous people and how these people actually live their lives in contemporary Canada. King is a photographer, a two-time Governor General’s Literary Award nominee, a radio broadcaster, a poet, and a professor emeritus of English at the University of Guelph.

 

 

The portrayal of the fictional Native American character Tonto in the 1930s radio show and 1950s television adaption The Lone Ranger fulfilled many of the negative stereotypes in North American popular culture about Native American and Indigenous people.

I’m Not the Indian You Had in Mind 2

I’m not the Indian you had in mind

I’ve seen him

Oh, I’ve seen him ride,

          a rush of wind, a darkening tide

          with Wolf and Eagle by his side

          his buttocks firm and well defined

          my god, he looks good from behind

But I’m not the Indian you had in mind.

I’m not the Indian you had in mind

I’ve heard him

Oh, I’ve heard him roar,

          the warrior wild, the video store

          the movies that we all adore

          the clichés that we can’t rewind,

But I’m not the Indian you had in mind.

I’m not the Indian you had in mind

I’ve known him

Oh, I’ve known him well,

          the bear-greased hair, the pungent smell

          the piercing eye, the startling yell

        thank God that he’s the friendly kind,

But I’m not the Indian you had in mind.

I’m that other one.

The one who lives just down the street.

          the one you’re disinclined to meet

          the Oka guy, remember me?

          Ipperwash? Wounded Knee?

That other Indian.

          the one who runs the local bar

          the CEO, the movie star,

          the elder with her bingo tales

          the activist alone in jail

That other Indian.

          The doctor, the homeless bum

          the boys who sing around the drum

          the relative I cannot bear

          my father who was never there

          he must have hated me, I guess

          my best friend’s kid with FAS

          the single mum who drives the bus

          I’m all of these and they are us.

So damn you for the lies you’ve told

          and damn me for not being bold

          enough to stand my ground

          and say

          that what you’ve done is not our way

But, in the end the land won’t care

          which one was rabbit, which one was bear

          who did the deed and who did not

          who did the shooting, who got shot

          who told the truth, who told the lie

          who drained the lakes and rivers dry

          who made us laugh, who made us sad

          who made the world Monsanto mad

          whose appetites consumed the earth,

          it wasn’t me, for what it’s worth.

Or maybe it was.

But hey, let’s not get too distressed

          it’s not as bad as it might sound

          hell, we didn’t make this mess.

It was given us

          and when we’re gone

          as our parents did

          we’ll pass it on.

You see?

          I’ve learned your lessons well

          what to buy, what to sell

          what’s commodity, what’s trash

          what discount you can get for cash

And Indians, well, we’ll still be here

          the Real One and the rest of us

          we’ve got no other place to go

          don’t worry, we won’t make a fuss

Well, not much.

Though sometimes, sometimes late at night

          when all the world is warm and dead

          I wonder how things might have been

          had you followed, had we led.

So consider as you live your days

that we live ours under the gaze

          of generations watching us

          of generations still intact

          of generations still to be

          seven forward, seven back.

Yeah, it’s not easy.

Course you can always go ask that brave you like so much

          the Indian you idolize

          perhaps that’s wisdom on his face

          compassion sparkling in his eyes.

          He may well have a secret song

          a dance he’ll share, a long-lost chant

          ask him to help you save the world

          to save yourselves.

Don’t look at me.

I’m not the Indian you had in mind.

I can’t.

I can’t. 3

 

  • IndiansIndians: When the first European explorers landed in the Americas in 1492 with Christopher Columbus, they referred to the entire indigenous population on the continent as “Indians” because they believed that they had arrived in India. The term came into widespread use among the settlers, and it lumped together entire local populations, disregarding their extraordinary diversity. Ultimately, the name Indian served to differentiate between Indigenous Peoples and the settlers, who referred to themselves as Europeans, whites, and, finally, Canadians.
  • 1Duncan McCue, “News Stereotypes of Aboriginal Peoples,” Reporting in Indigenous Communities website.
  • 2This spoken-word piece is dedicated to Thomas King’s son Benjamin, who asked King to write a poem that rhymes before he dies.
  • 3Thomas King, “I’m Not the Indian You Had in Mind,” available as spoken-word piece from the National Screen Institute. Reproduced by permission of Ann Joe.

The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger

1950s film still from The Lone Ranger

 

Credit:
Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy

Connection Questions

  1. What does the title of the poem mean?
  2. Define the term stereotype. What stereotypes does King’s poem evoke?
  3. What is the impact of the repetition of the phrase “I’m not the Indian you had in mind”?
  4. Do you experience a gap between how you see yourself and how others see you? What is the danger of stereotypes? What are effective ways to respond when you or someone you know is the target of stereotyping?

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, "“I’m Not the Indian You Had in Mind”," last updated September 20, 2019.

You might also be interested in…

Most teachers are willing to tackle the difficult topics, but we need the tools.
— Gabriela Calderon-Espinal, Bay Shore, NY