The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 11, No 2 (2007)

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Kathryn Shoemaker, editor

Opening the Cache of Canadian Secrets: The Residential School Experience in Books for Children

Brianne Grant


Brianne Grant is in the Master of Arts in Children's Literature program at the University of British Columbia. She is an active volunteer for Big Sisters, IBBY Canada, and is involved with several international social justice organizations.

'Post-colonialism' packs up history in a battered shoebox and stores it next to the hockey cards and dolls of our childhood. The term assumes that we have finished with colonialism, and tends to place it in the distant past along with the conflicted British and French settlers from centuries ago. In fact, colonialism maintains a robust and healthy life in the minds and culture of Canada. The residential school system remained in place until the 1980's, and its icy grip continues to choke at the hearts of many aboriginal communities. This part of our history is largely ignored in education programs and books for children. Our interpretations of history continue to shape our existence and our future; therefore, it is essential that we humbly accept and explore the brutalities of Canadian history, humanity, and the repercussions they have today. Children's literature, particularly, has a responsibility to present historically accurate, culturally authentic and socially just works. Children inherit this country and the world; therefore, they must know the ideologies and actions of the past that guide them into the future.

Children's literature is not free from colonial attitudes, and is at times a driving force of them. A content analysis study, by Melissa Thompson, shows "constant inclusion of barbaric, drunken, childish, self-denigrating" (371) aboriginals, even in contemporary children's literature. This exemplifies a more adept version of colonialism that entraps the native experience in texts that perpetuate biases, whether the author recognizes that he / she is doing it or not. Beverley Slapin et al finds the same disturbing occurrence in, " My Heart Is on the Ground and the Indian Residential School Experience," which is a methodical exposé of colonial perspectives as perpetuated in, My Heart Is on the Ground, by Ann Rinaldi. The authors found that this 1999 book contains: cultural appropriation, historical inaccuracy, a lack of cultural authenticity, and blatant stereotyping through language, nobility, and treatment of females (Slapin et al 61-68). This mainstream book from the highly regarded Dear America series "casts the Carlisle Industrial School in a positive light... Rinaldi even says... 'it was their only chance for a future'" (Slapin et al 70). It seems the native experience in North America may forever be marred by colonial perspectives that manifest in the publishing industry and popular culture.

Antiquated texts that thrive on perceptions of the 'wild Indian' or 'noble savage' also continue to hold a place in the contemporary mindset of what is literary excellence. Blatantly stereotypical and colonialist books such as, The Matchlock Gun by Walter Edmonds, continue to hit recommendation lists. This book even made the "We the People Bookshelf on Courage" on the 2003 / 2004 American Library Association and National Endowment for the Humanities reading list (ALA). Doris Seale finds that the inclusion of this book on the "recommended list says something about American culture that some might not care to look at more closely" (Oyate), particularly as this book was chosen above more accurate, respectful and culturally meaningful children's books. The colonial attitude that brought The Matchlock Gun to life in 1941, also places it on recommendation lists for children today. However, using outdated materials, such as The Matchlock Gun or I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven, can present a unique classroom learning tool to give meaning to racism and misinterpretation of aboriginal culture and experiences. Using these examples compared to more cultural authentic and historically accurate texts could enhance a discussion that illustrates colonial practice on many levels. However, there is a large difference between recommending a book, and using it to illustrate stereotypes and cultural discrimination.

There are an increasing number of authentic aboriginal texts being published now that are historically accurate and culturally respectful, which provide a much needed contrast to the long-lasting outdated materials. Groundwood Books and Annick Press have both published picture books that explore residential schools in plain yet comprehensible terms for the targeted age group. The Groundwood website indicates that "by reflecting intensely individual experiences, our books are of universal interest", which is indeed true of Shi-shi-etko by Nicola Campbell and As the River Flows by Larry Loyie. Both of these books reach back to the time prior to the protagonist being taken to residential school, and explore familial relations, cultural identity, and the reaction to being taken from home. The images and stories serve to dispel contemporary mythologies of the 'noble savage' or 'wild Indian'. Instead, they focus on the child's place in the world around them, the family, and the transfer of knowledge from one generation to another. Young Shi-shi-etko is striving to remember everything before she must leave for school, whereas Lawrence, in Loyie's book, is struggling to learn the responsibilities of his culture and lifestyle without knowing he will be leaving.

Shi-shi-etko is a young native girl who will soon be taken away to a residential school, and her only solace is in the memories she can store for herself. The lyrical free verse is accompanied with vivid digital illustrations, by Kim LaFave. The pictures are cast in an orangey- red hue, which is contrasted sharply by two vibrant blue spreads that express her troubled contemplation at going to school "in the late-night silence" (Campbell n.p.). Shi-shi-etko "memorized each shiny rock" (Campbell n.p.), and strives to fixate her world in her mind, so that she will not forget once she is at school. The main narrative of her struggle to remember home is coupled by the rich development of her family life and cultural identity. She spends time with her mother, father, her cousins, aunts, uncles, and at last with her Yayah, or grandmother, who gives her a memory bag. The inclusion of the family powerfully illustrates the communal strength that connects Shi-shi-etko to her heritage, culture and sense of self. The fiery red illustrations in the last two spreads, with the distant image of the truck drivers standing impatiently, illustrate the traumatizing effect of the schools and ultimately the cultural genocide they caused.

Loyie structures As the Rivers Flow with the same familial and cultural emphasis. The watercolour illustrations, by Heather Holmlund, often include playful and comforting depictions of the family in the background. Her illustrations also exemplify a culturally authentic lifestyle through images of fishing, packing up camp (migration), and gathering berries. Loyie's text is meant for a slightly older readership, thus there is more explanation and story development. However, the ideas included reflect Campbell's structure: heritage, cultural identity, family life, and the forcible change of this. Lawrence revels in "learning to hunt and fish" (Loyie n.p.) and loves the lifestyle he is being taught by his Uncle Louis, parents and Grandma. The tragedy of the residential school system is expressed through the final images of his suffering mother who expresses "all the children have to go to their school or the parents will be put in prison", and of the crying children huddled together in the truck where all they "could see was the sky" (Loyie n.p.). Through these images Holmlund demonstrates the trauma caused by the residential school system, which blocked children from knowing their families and cultural identity.

Both stories depict the children in westernized clothing, which demystifies conventional conceptions of aboriginal appearance. By representing more contemporary images of the characters and focusing on daily life, the stories crumble the notion of the 'noble savage' or 'wild Indian'. Furthermore, they clearly express that colonialism is not an aberration in time, but that it is part of a distant history and also remains inherent in contemporary times. These representations also accentuate cultural identity and lifestyle in a modern sense, whereby cultural authenticity is still portrayed without relying on images that are comfortably and commonly used to indicate nativeness. In this way, the story is comprehensible to young readers while giving a sense of the tragedy in Canada's recent history. The second image of Shi-shi-etko sleeping strikingly mirrors the fear and anxiety that Lawrence's face holds in his sleeping image. Both children recognize the grave cultural implications that are about to arise for them, even if they are not fully aware of what is to happen. They are both receptive to their heritage, and strive to 'remember' everything for they are aware that the "future is in [their] hands" (Loyie n.p.).

Arctic Stories by Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak and illustrated by Vladyana Krykorka, not only depicts a child's life before residential school, but also describes what this schooling was like. Annick Press published this book, which includes three stories about the young protagonist, Agatha. Of the three stories contained within Arctic Stories "Agatha goes to School" is the last of the series; therefore, the book does preface the school experience with aboriginal community identification as do the Campbell and Loyie texts. The story is based at a school in the Chesterfield Inlet, and from here Kusugak develops the issues inherent to the residential experience, such as abuse and neglect. Kusugak mentions that "the nuns did not make very good mothers" and that "Agatha cried herself to sleep" at night (30). He does not shy from explicitly saying that the nuns sounded like angels "but they were not angels" (Kusugak 32). These simple statements reflect on the loss of parents and family, the trauma of the experience and the political folly of the schools run by people who could supposedly do nothing morally, ethically or spiritually wrong.

"Agatha goes to School" also differs from the Groundwood books as it depicts positive moments experienced at the school. There is the 'plump priest', Father Fafard, a fun, silly man who entertains the students ice skating, and, of course, Agatha's love for skiing which also allows her to heroically save the Father. The story ends with a plane arriving, presumably to take the children back home. In this way, the story provides the hope that Agatha can return to her community, and possibly regain the life that was stolen when the plane initially arrived. This is countered, however, by the dark and stormy illustration in which the children are not smiling, thus indicative of the problems that arise from estranging children from family, language and culture. This story, like the others, reaffirms cultural identity by remembering the time before residential schools, and demonstrates the devastation caused by them through the children's tears and desire to remember or to know their cultural heritage and place of origin.

The three picture books all contain either a prologue or an epilogue discussing the effects of residential schools that remain inherent in today's native communities. Campbell passionately asks, "Can you imagine a community without children? Can you imagine children without parents?" and indeed all of their stories show the importance of children and adults in the communities. Loyie's epilogue reflects on his own experiences in the sense that "things were never the same" and that "many people still suffer from the bad memories of those unhappy times". He includes photographs from his life, and by so intimately personalizing his story, Loyie himself becomes like the elders of his book retelling the stories of the past. He situates himself as an elder speaking the past that is often forgotten in Canadian education, but never in our cultural identity. Kusugak also includes his personal connection to the story by explaining "an airplane came and took [him] away to school... it was not a happy time... [he] cried the whole year" (40). He further mentions the political charges against the government for the residential schools, and is openly critical of many of the priests who "will not go to heaven" (40). As with his story, however, Kusugak ends on the positive note of Father Fafard who he is sure "has gone to heaven" (40). The additions of the nonfiction text not only create a stronger educative value of the book, but also give the stories a heightened aesthetic quality.

The nonfiction textual additions act as a reminder that the stories from the past still have a strong relevance in the present, and must be heard to create a sense of identity for the future. Kate Turner and Bill Freedman assert that aboriginal literature returns to ancestral roots and the spirituality of the natural world to explore the bipolar tensions of the traditional and modern worlds (186). Through the stories discussed in this paper, it seems that the focus is not so much on ancient and modern polarizations of identity. Instead, these stories express that it is a strong sense of identity, of community, and of loss that must be understood in order to build a foundation for the future. Shi-shi-etko places her bag of memories by the "great big fir tree" to "keep [her] memories and [her] family safe / [she] will be home in the spring" (Campbell n.p.), and in doing so she preserves her knowledge of family, community, and place for the future. She keeps a sprig of fir "close to her heart" (Campbell n.p.) showing that her life and identity is held by her resolve and the strength of her heart, despite the imposed struggles that she faces. The authors and illustrators show that the disastrous effects of residential schools cannot be resolved. Shi-shi-etko will have her bag of memories after school is finished, but cannot regain a childhood with a family or community, just as Lawrence and Agatha cannot. Acknowledging and exposing this history serves to form an understanding of community and the trauma incurred, and conversely how they function together in contemporary culture.

On the Living Traditions Writers Group website, the importance of a unified understanding of the past culture and trauma is best expressed in the poem, "The Gathering Tree" by Larry Loyie. He writes:

Remember your parents
Your grandparents
All of your ancestors...
You are part
Of thousands of years
Of First Nations history...
To preserve our past
Is to save our future...
To honour yourself
Is to honour your ancestors.

He poignantly clarifies that knowing and honouring history is the only way to know and exist in the future. Loyie takes care to emphasize the roots of identity through a connection to both a living history and a history that is longer than colonization; furthermore, he does not just advocate 'preserving' the past to make a cultural grounding for the present. Loyie also seeks to encourage a sense of honour through "words... actions... rejection of drugs, alcohol and abuse" (Living) within the poem. This solidifies the notion that a sense of history and ancestry will always remain a part of identity whether or not this is honoured or accepted. The cultural and social foundations of aboriginal identity will not exist in the future unless identification of culture and community is found along with understanding the traumatization from colonial practice. This practice has stripped aboriginals in Canada, and many other countries around the world, of the power created by cultural and historical identity. Campbell, Loyie, and Kusugak all provide a means for the historical truth coupled with strong cultural identification to resurface in meaningful ways in the present.

The experiences of Shi-shi-etko, Lawrence and Agatha are essential not only to aboriginal identity, but also to Canadian identity. As the "Looking Forward, Looking Back" chapter from the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples explains:

Studying the past tells us who we are and where we came from. It often reveals a cache of secrets that some people are striving to keep hidden and others are striving to tell. In this case, it helps explain how the tensions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people came to be, and why they are so hard to resolve.

The report further mentions that "Canadians know little" about the initial relationship between the settlers to the First Peoples, and more disturbingly know "even less about how it changed... into something less honourable" (Canada). The systematic attempt to assimilate aboriginals through the residential school system did not end in the 1980's with the closure of the last school. It continues through the publishing industry, the school system, and the collective cultural resistance to hear the haunting voices of the past. It may be a shameful history, but the story of residential schools is one that must be acknowledged.

The picture books about residential schools provide an aesthetic means for young children to understand this experience, to explore actual cultural realities, and to learn historical facts such as: "all the children have to go to [residential] school or the parents will be put in jail" (Loyie n.p.). All of these stories are written by authors of First Nations decent, which makes their stories even more important. As Slapin et al notes, many non-Native writers may not even realize they are imbibing stereotypical colonial attitudes in their work, because they "may be so embedded in the American psyche that we often miss it at its most blatant" (69). This reflects "what can go wrong" (Slapin et al 69), as in the case of My Heart Is in the Ground, but it does not mean that non-Natives cannot write quality Native stories. It does mean that Campbell, Loyie and Kusugak's stories are important, because "the voice of an insider still offers a unique perspective that is in many ways a rare gift to a young reader" (Slapin et al 69).

In writing the story of the residential school system, Campbell, Loyie and Kusugak present a potential to finally change colonial attitudes, and to change contemporary treatment of First Nations in Canada. The picture book format allows for accessible aesthetic and efferent responses to reach younger audiences, so that an empathetic understanding of aboriginal history can be made in conjunction with an accurate understanding of Canadian history. In being written by First Nations authors they provide an authentic perspective that makes the information and stories more powerful. These stories open the 'cache of secrets' that reside in Canadian history, and allows all children to interpret and understand them. The past lurks in our understanding of identity; it skulks behind the words we use to communicate; it prowls behind the doors of our very conceptualization of the world. Although we may avoid it or try to hide from it, the past will always find a way to whisper the truth to our children. Either we are open about colonialism, residential schools, racism and the shameful moments of our history, or we perpetuate those moments as part of our cultural identity.

 

Works Cited

American Library Association (ALA). We the People: Past Bookshelves.
<http://www.ala.org/ala/ppo/currentprograms/wethepeople/pastbookshelves.htm>

Campbell, N. She-shi-etko. Illus. Kim LaFave. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2005.

Canada. "Looking Forward, Looking Back." Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. 2004. <http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/ch/rcap/rpt/index_e.html>

Edmonds, W. The Matchlock Gun. Illus. Paul Lantz. New York: Dodd, 1941.

Groundwood Books. "About Us". <http://www.groundwoodbooks.com/gw_about.cfm>

Kusugak, M. Arctic Stories. Illus. Vladyana Krykorka. Toronto: Annick Press, 1998.

Living Traditions Writing Group. "My Writing." <http://www.firstnationswriter.com/poetry.htm>

Loyie, L. with C. Brissenden. As Long as the River Flows. Illus. Heather Holmlund. Vancouver: Groundwood Books, 2002.

Oyate. "Books to Avoid." <http://www.oyate.org/books-to-avoid/matchlockgun.html>

Rinaldi, A. My Heart Is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, A Sioux Girl. New York, Scholastic, 1999.

Slapin, et al. " My Heart Is on the Ground and the Indian Residential School Experience." Broken Flute. Ed. Doris Seal and Beverley Slapin. Berkeley: AltaMira Press, 2005.

Thompson, M. "A Sea of Good Intentions: Native Americans in Books for Children." The Lion and the Unicorn. (2001): 25.3, 333-374.

Turner, K. and B. Freedman. "Nature as a theme in Canadian literature." Env.Rev. (2005): 13.4, 169-197.

 

Brianne Grant


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"Opening the cache of Canadian secrets "
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680