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The following titles, accommodating a wide range of readers, shed light on the long-term consequences and the shameful legacy of Indian residential schools.
In May 2021, 215 unmarked children’s graves were discovered on the grounds of the Kamloops (BC) Indian Residential School. While a shock to many, the discovery came as no surprise to Indigenous communities whose family histories include many stories of children who disappeared while attending residential schools.Some background: Indian residential schools were established in the early nineteenth century in both the U.S. and Canada with the purpose of “civilizing” or assimilating Indigenous children into Euro-American culture. Most were run by various Christian churches; all focused on forced changes to their pupils, including haircuts, the use of English language only, name changes, and removal of cultural signifiers. The schools became codified by federal laws in the 1870s, and although attendance declined after the 1970s, in 2007 some 9,500 Native American youth still resided in U.S. boarding-school dorms.
In recent years, North American Indigenous creators have begun documenting their experiences in these schools as a way of healing the personal and intergenerational trauma that persists even today. The titles below, directed at a wide range of audiences, should help readers to empathize with these experiences and provide some understanding of their long-term consequences. One final note: while many of these titles document Canadian experiences, the same instructional philosophies (and no doubt abuses) existed in U.S. schools, as well.
Younger ReadersI Lost My Talk. By Rita Joe. Illus. by Pauline Young. 2020. 32p. Nimbus (9781771088107). K–Gr. 3.Mi’kmaw elder Joe reflects on her years at the Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia. Her stirring poem expresses frustration that her native language was taken from her and hope that she can find it again. Appended with a short history of residential schools. See also the companion volume, I’m Finding My Talk (2019), by Rebecca Thomas, which focuses on rediscovering culture, language, and community.
Stolen Words. By Melanie Florence. Illus. by Gabrielle Grimard. 2017. 24p. Second Story (9781772600377). K–Gr. 3.When a young girl asks her grandfather how to say “grandfather” in Cree, he sadly admits he doesn’t know; his Cree words were taken from him at residential school. Later, she brings him a Cree language book, and he begins relearning. Florence’s (Plains Cree/Scottish) simple text meshes beautifully with Grimard’s evocative illustrations, which highlight the story’s complex emotions.
The Train. By Jodie Callaghan. Illus. by Georgia Lesley. 2020. 32p. Second Story (9781772601299). K–Gr. 3.While walking home from school near some old railroad tracks, Ashley’s great-uncle remembers the trains that took him away from home and family to spend six years at a residential school. Even now, he hopes that everything he lost that day will somehow return. Callaghan’s (Mi’gmaq) heartfelt story is sensitively depicted in Lesley’s evocative paintings.
When We Were Alone. By David A. Robertson. Illus. by Julie Flett. 2017. 24p. HighWater (9781553796732). K–Gr. 3. A young girl gardening with her grandmother asks Nókum a series of questions; her answers reveal details of her early life spent in a residential school. Despite the injustices she suffered, Nókum chooses to focus on the positive aspects of her current life where she wears long hair, dresses in many colors, and speaks Cree freely with her brother. Robertson’s (Swampy Cree) succinct, lyrical language and Flett’s (Cree/Métis) beautiful mixed-media collage artwork tell an empowering story.
You Hold Me Up. By Monique Gray Smith. Illus. by Danielle Daniel. 2017. 28p. Orca (9781459814479). PreS–Gr. 2.Written in response to the abuse in residential schools and as an attempt at healing and reconciliation, Smith’s (Cree/Lakota/Scottish) simple text describes how people can respect and support each other. Daniel’s stylistic, mixed-media artwork conveys the joy that comes from shared esteem. See also the author’s My Heart Fills with Happiness (2015).
Fatty Legs: A True Story. By Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. Illus. by Liz Amini-Holmes. 2010. 112p. Annick (9781554512478). Gr. 4–8. 371.829.This moving account of Inuvialuit Olemaun Pokiak’s (renamed Margaret by the nuns) experiences at a residential school in Canada’s far north details her harsh treatment, the manual labor expected of students, and the clever ways that Margaret manages to stay strong—especially when a nun nicknamed “Raven” forces her to wear a pair of poorly fitting red stockings that give rise to the title. Followed by A Stranger at Home (2011). These titles have also been adapted for younger readers in When I Was Eight (2013) and Not My Girl (2014).
Goodbye Buffalo Bay. By Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden. 2012. 152p. Theytus (9781894778626). Gr. 4–8. 813.Loyie’s (Cree) memoir recounts his final year at the St. Bernard Residential School on Buffalo Bay in Alberta and his difficult re-entry into Indigenous life and the working world at the age of 14. This riveting story evokes laughter, tears, anger, and ultimately pride when he stands up for his beliefs. Loyie’s earlier years are chronicled in As Long as the Rivers Flow (2002).
I Am Not a Number. By Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer. Illus. by Gillian Newland. 2016. 32p. Second Story (9781927583944). Gr. 2–5.Eight-year-old Irene is taken from home and sent to a northern Ontario residential school where she is stripped of her identity (she becomes number 759) and suffers countless indignities. Still, she takes her mother’s advice and never forgets who she is. Based on the reminiscences of Dupuis’ grandmother, Anishinaabe elder Irene Couchie Dupuis, Newland’s subdued illustrations convey the narrative’s somber atmosphere.
My Name Is Seepeetza. By Shirley Sterling. 1997. 128p. Groundwood (9780888991652). Gr. 5–8. 813.Sterling’s (Interior Salish) autobiographical novel written in diary format details the sixth-grade year of Seepeetza, called Martha at her British Columbia residential school. In addition to being abused by the staff, she is bullied by other students because her green eyes make her appear white. This honest look at 1950s residential-school life reveals details only an insider would know.
The Orange Shirt Story. By Phyllis Webstad. Illus. by Brock Nicol. 2018. 44p. Medicine Wheel Education (9780993869495). Gr. 2–5. Six-year-old Phyllis is at first excited to be joining the big kids at St. Joseph’s Mission Boarding School, but the reality of school is unexpected: she must give up her new orange shirt forever, has her hair cut, and misses Granny during the 300 sleeps until she can return home. Webstad’s (Secwépemc) true story is the impetus for Orange Shirt Day (September 30), which honors residential-school survivors and their families. Appended with further information, this book is also available for younger children as Phyllis’s Orange Shirt (2019).
Reflections from Them Days: A Residential School Memoir from Nunatsiavut. By Nellie Winters. 2020. 60p. Inhabit (9781774502075). Gr. 4–8.Inuit elder Nellie Winters recounts stories from her youth in Okak Bay, Labrador, and attending Nain Boarding School from 1949–51. Using colloquial language that reminds readers of the oral quality of this memoir, she details her own experiences, providing a stark contrast between recollections of home and school. Illustrated with Winters’ own black-and-white drawings.
Runs with Courage. By Joan M. Wolf. 2016. 216p. Sleeping Bear (9781585369843). Gr. 4–7.In 1880, 10-year-old Four Winds is taken from her family and sent to an Indian boarding school where her hair is cut, her clothing burned, and she is punished for speaking her native language. While she is subjected to cruel humiliations throughout her stay, eventually she finds a way to use her new skills to help her Lakota people and earns a new name, Runs with Courage.
Shin-chi’s Canoe. By Nicola I. Campbell. Illus. by Kim LaFave. 2008. 40p. Groundwood (9780888998576). Gr. 3–5.Six-year-old Shin-chi and his older sister Shi-shi-etko are hauled away in a cattle truck to attend a residential school. Not allowed to speak to each other, the siblings spend the year in loneliness, and Shin-chi awaits summer, when he is allowed to go home and release his canoe in the river. Campbell’s (Nłeʔkepmx/Syilx/Métis) elegant prose combines with LaFave’s bold illustrations in this engaging, important story. See also Shi-shi-etko (2005), a prequel to this title.
Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation. By Monique Gray Smith. 2017. 160p. Orca (9781459815834). Gr. 5–8. 971.004.Smith (Cree/Lakota/Scottish) explores contemporary Canadian–Indigenous relations, emphasizing the role residential schools have played in the lives of survivors and their families. She advocates reconciliation, citing specific steps that allies can take to aid in the healing process. Appended with generous back matter, including a full list of all Canadian Residential schools.
These Are My Words: The Residential School Diary of Violet Pesheens. By Ruby Slipperjack. 2016. 192p. Scholastic (9781443133180). Gr. 4–6.In 1966, 14-year-old Violet is sent to a residential school in northern Ontario, where all her possessions are confiscated. Using a school notebook that she keeps hidden, she secretly records her thoughts, fears, and impressions. This story is fiction, but author Slipperjack (Eabametoong) is a residential-school survivor. Appended with historical note and documentary photos.
Two Roads. By Joseph Bruchac. 2018. 336p. Dial (9780735228863). Gr. 5–8. In 1932, 12-year-old Cal, who has spent the past year riding the rails with Pop, learns that he is not white but Muskogee Creek and that he will be spending the next few months at Challagi, a boarding school for Native Americans once attended by his father. Although life at the school is harsh and overly militaristic, Cal also makes close friends and develops his own Native identity. Bruchac’s (Abenaki/English/Slovak) honest, first-person narrative is both well-paced and compelling.
Ends/Begins. By David A. Robertson. Illus. by Scott Henderson. 2010. 30p. HighWater (9781553792629). Gr. 10–12. 741.5.Book 3 of the graphic novel series 7 Generations introduces brothers James and Thomas, who are sent to a residential school in 1964. James is forced to work on the grounds of the school, while Thomas is sexually abused by a priest. Book 4, The Pact (2011), picks up in 2010 with James being unable to successfully parent his son Edwin, a result of the trauma he has suffered. Emotionally powerful with black-and-white illustrations that flesh out the narrative.
Inconvenient Skin/nayêhtâwan wasakay. By Shane L. Koyczan. Illus. by Joseph Sánchez and others. 2019. 70p. Theytus (9781926886510). Gr. 10–12. 811.After the recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2008–2015) were largely postponed or ignored, spoken-word poet Koyczan was inspired to respond with this offering, presented in English and Cree. Contending, “To heal a wound you must first clean it . . . which is perhaps the most painful part,” Koyczan’s powerful words speak to his own learning about the missing chapters in his origins. Stunning full-color art by four iconic Indigenous creators perfectly complements this often-raw work.
Indian Horse. By Richard Wagamese. 2018. 232p. Milkweed (9781571311306). Gr. 10–12.After drinking causes Saul Indian Horse to hit rock bottom, he decides that recounting his story may help him leave his demons behind. He recalls the horrors of residential school, the joy he found in ice hockey, the racial slurs and attacks he endured while playing professionally, and the abuse that he had previously blocked from his memory. Ojibwa author Wagamese’s novel elegantly speaks to the lasting pain caused by residential schools.
Picking Up the Pieces: Residential School Memories and the Making of the Witness Blanket. By Carey Newman and Kirstie Hudson. 2019. 180p. Orca (9781459819955). Gr. 9–12. 371.829.Artist Newman (Kwakwaka’wakw/Coast Salish/English/Irish/Scottish) details the making of his Witness Blanket—a wood-framed screen containing belongings from each residential school in Canada and now housed at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Integrating items such as a child’s shoe and a plastic mush bowl, Newman explains his selection process and construction techniques and includes survivor stories connected to the objects. Illustrated with numerous crisp-edged photos and appended with generous back matter.
Residential Schools: The Devastating Impact on Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Findings and Calls for Action. By Melanie Florence. 2016. 128p. Lorimer (9781459408661). Gr. 9–12. 371.829. Florence (Plains Cree/Scottish) offers an overview of pre-contact Indigenous life, details the impact of colonialism on Native cultures and the rise of residential schools intended to “civilize” Indian children, and provides a brief summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Report and Calls to Action. Accompanied by numerous photos, survivor quotes, links to related videos, and generous back matter.
Residential Schools: With the Words and Images of Survivors. By Larry Loyie, Wayne K. Spear, and Constance Brissenden. 2014. 103p. Indigenous Education (9780993937101). Gr. 7–12. 371.829.Loyie (Cree) recounts the history of residential schools in Canada, employing clear, nonsensational prose, quotes from survivors, and crisp documentary photos and archival images. Among other topics, he discusses the work students performed at the schools, abuses, and current attempts to heal survivors and their families. Appended with maps, key dates, and references, this is important for both its breadth and detail.
Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City. By Tanya Talaga. 2017. 328p. Anansi (9781487002268). Gr. 10–12. 971.Talaga (Anishinaabe/Polish) recounts the stories of seven contemporary Indigenous teens from remote communities who died while attending high schools in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She argues that while residential schools are now closed, their replacement—having Indigenous teens attend high school in large urban centers, far from their home communities, where they must board in relatively unsupervised settings—is hardly an improvement.
Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story. By David A. Robertson. Illus. by Scott B. Henderson. 2021. 40p. Highwater (9781553799757). Gr. 9–12. 741.5.Daniel’s school assignment leads him to interview a residential-school survivor, Betty, who details the abuses she endured while attending a residential school. Robertson’s (Cree) fictionalized graphic novel is based on the true story of Cree elder Betty Ross and details how resilience and determination can help one to survive.
Sweetgreen Basket. By Marlene Carvell. 2005. 160p. Dutton (9780525475477). Gr. 10–12.Following the death of their mother at the turn of the twentieth century, Mohawk sisters Mattie and Sarah are sent to Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Boarding School. There they suffer abuse and long for family and home but still maintain a loving relationship with each other. Told in alternating free-verse narratives, this is based on the experiences of Carvell’s husband’s Mohawk family.
Free Digital Download
Spirit Bear: Fishing for Knowledge, Catching Dreams: A True Story. By Cindy Blackstock. Illus. by Amanda Strong. K–Gr. 3.Spirit Bear learns about traditional Indigenous education and residential schools from Uncle Huckleberry and Lak’insxw, then travels to Algonquin territory to learn about Shannen Koostachin’s dream of safe schools for all Indigenous students. Blackstock (Gitxsan) and Strong’s (Michif) story is gently presented, but the disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous schools are readily apparent.
This title is available as a free download at https://fncaringsociety.com/sites/default/files/spirit_bear_fishing_for_knowledge_catching_dreams_ebook.pdf
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in 2008 with the goal of promoting healing, educating, listening, and preparing recommendations for the Government of Canada regarding the residential-school system, experience, and legacy. Its final report, issued in 2015, details 94 calls to action, including the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. While the recommendations were generally well received, their implementation has been frustratingly slow. An electronic version of the commission’s full report can be found at publications.gc.ca/site/eng/9.807830/publication.html; the Calls to Action are available at trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf
Kay Weisman reviews for Booklist magazine and is the author of If You Want to Visit a Sea Garden (2020).
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