I’ve really enjoyed reading this collection of stories from indigenous children across North America. Starting with the Foreward by Loriene Roy*, to the final of 45 biographies — that of Wassekom (aged 17) who tries to live by the Seven Sacred Teachings: Wisdom, Love, Truth, Courage, Honesty, Humility, and Respect, it has been an eye-opener to a form of racism perpetrated not only in the past, but in the present, not only by individuals, but by the government and industry, not only in the US, but in Canada where we often sit back smugly and say, “not us”. I’ve been reading chapters between other books for some time mostly because, as with most non-fiction books, I require time to absorb everything the authors are telling me; there’s just so much to take in, assimilate, and relate.
As is true in many cultures, there are those who have, and those who have not, those who are able to self-advocate, and those who are not, those who have found their own voice, and those who have not. I think one of my favourite stories was told by Mari (age 14). Clearly, Mari is one who has found her voice. She is a responsible teenager receiving a classical education in the true sense of the word. She not only studies and practices the Ojibwe traditions, but in her classes, ‘learns from the Bible, theology, and classics like The Odyssey and The Confessions of St. Augustine‘. Living in Minneapolis, where her mother works with the Division of Indian Work helping aboriginals with health and social issues, Mari has been following in her mother’s footsteps with her own anti-smoking project called Mashkiki Ogichidaag (Medicine Warriors) with some other Native kids. Mari explains the native use of tobacco in ceremonies and traditions, pure tobacco, and contrasts it with the use of tobacco in the white culture where it is full of dangerous chemicals and poisons, and how it endangers animals and children in society when smokers leave their butts all over the ground. Mari’s group has been successful in influencing the Minneapolis council to pass a new policy forbidding people from smoking in public parks, and she personally has done many presentations to civic groups. She is proof that kids can make a difference. Her group has produced several anti-smoking videos. Her outlook? “The more I do, the more I want to do.”
I am impressed with Jason, 15, who has found a niche for himself in a high school on the Nipissing Reserve (on the north shore of Lake Nipissing, in Ontario) where he is taught both academic studies and traditions and ceremonies of the Anishinabek Nation. When Jason was younger, he encountered a lot of racism, especially from adults and teachers (who should have known better). Despite having what teachers believe are some learning disabilities, Jason is doing well, partly because of the small student-teacher ratio in the reserve school and the feeling the students have that they are respected. Despite early disrespect and the fact that both his parents abandoned him, he is being raised by extended family and feels he has a good life. His outlook? “People contribute themselves to me, so I try to pass that along and contribute to others. In North Bay I’m involved with Special Olympics, helping out with lots of activities. When I volunteer, people treat me with respect.” He knows he has “the self-discipline to get me where I want to be.”
Not all the stories are success stories. Destiny (age 15) is a citizen of the Oglala Band of Lakota Sioux living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, just over the hill from Wounded Knee Creek. “It is . . . one of the most poverty-stricken places in the United States. Despite the effort many in the band are making to improve the standard of living, and make life more stable, many kids feel they have no-one to talk to, that they’re fighting a losing battle. With high rates of diabetes, tuberculosis, alcoholism and suicide, [Pine Ridge] has one of the lowest life-expectancy rates in the Western Hemisphere.” For kids like Destiny, it’s a day to day struggle against depression. Her older brothers and sisters abuse alcohol, and she has friends who have committed suicide. She, herself, has tried to kill herself many times. The fact that she has been unsuccessful makes her feel like she has been given second chances, that there’s something she’s supposed to accomplish with her life. Her outlook? “I would not go so far as to say I’m optimistic about the future, but I won’t let that get in the way of me being happy.” Destiny took part in a film called Reservation Realities. It is a poignant movie, searching for answers that will make their people strong.
The saddest stories are the ones where teens have been taken from their families numerous times for their safety. Taken from housing that is unfit, instead of the housing being improved. There is a reservation near Sarnia, Ontario, right across a wire fence from Chemical Valley where the water in streams is polluted and the alert sirens almost never work. It has the “worst air quality in all of Canada.” Jeremy (part of the Pictou Landing First Nation, Nova Scotia) was born hydrocephalic, and has also been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and autism. His mother lived at the Sarnia reserve for 5 years before giving birth and believes exposure to the pollution there affected Jeremy. Now Jeremy is 16, his mother has had a stroke, and funding for help is running out. If she will agree to put Jeremy in an institution off the reserve, the federal government will cover his expenses. This is not an unusual situation but is an unconscionable one.
Each story in this book is preceded by a bit of history about the reserve in the story, some of which I was unaware of, and all of which was clearly laid out to educate. Some of the stories are incredibly moving, while some of them are amazingly inspirational. There is a wonderful cross-section represented here, and an overwhelming feeling that as a continent, as a nation, as human beings, we in North America have a long way to go. Yes, we can find stories like these in every culture, but the percentage of indigenous people with problems of unemployment, children in care, poverty, infant mortality, is way out of proportion to the percentage in other North American cultures. (See Macleans article Canada’s racism problem.) This book can be a great tool for educating us all, but especially for our youth. Our society is made up of many cultures, and respect needs to lie at the basis for all our social interactions. If you are a parent, please read these stories and share them with your teenagers. If you teach, work them into your curriculum. These are voices that must be heard. Thank you Deborah Ellis for all your work to travel, interview, and present these stories so we all can see the sliver of daylight! * * * * *
Purchase this book at Amazon or other fine book stores.
* Loriene Roy is a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, in the School of Information and the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, and is a past president of the American Library Association.