June is National Indigenous History Month! While neither Becca nor Abarna are Indigenous, themselves, they recognize the importance of learning the history of these lands and of the injustices that have occurred to Indigenous populations. It is important to educate ourselves, and do our part in anti-racism, as well as contributing to decolonization.
Unfortunately, in Canada, we as a culture have convinced ourselves that we are not a racist country; that we do not have systemic barriers that work against people of colour, and that we are better than other countries for this reason. This is, however, not the case. Canada was built on racist practices and institutions, and specifically Indigenous folks have dealt with, and continue to deal with, discrimination from the creation of Canada as we now know it. Residential schools, discriminatory practices by law enforcement, social misinformation and prejudices, generational trauma, cultural genocide, unequal access to resources, missing and murdered indigenous women, and so many more; we cannot, in good faith, act like these things did not happen, and that Canada is racism-free. The starting point for being anti-racist and contributing to decolonization is taking the time to learn.
In honour of Indigenous History Month, we wanted to share some of our recommendations for Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Young Adult reads written by Indigenous writers. While you can do more learning with Non-Fiction books, it’s important not to overlook the significance of fictional stories. The story itself may be made up, but oftentimes the way that the communities and characters are created within the books are informed by crucial cultural elements, which can be an integral way to learn about Indigenous history and life. That’s part of the importance of diversity in books!
Join us in celebrating the history, heritage, and diversity of Indigenous folks by picking up a book or two by some of these phenomenal authors. We’ve also included some links at the bottom of the post, which you can check out if you’d like to support the Indigenous community in Canada!
Full reviews will be a future project; for now, we’ve just included the summaries of each book, so that you can peruse and get a taste of what each book is about. Click on the book covers to be redirected to their respective Goodreads pages. We will also be linking to these author’s websites – feel free to check out their other works and show your support!
A Knock On The Door by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada; Foreward by Phil Fontaine; Afterward by Aimée Craft
“It can start with a knock on the door one morning. It is the local Indian agent, or the parish priest, or, perhaps, a Mounted Police officer.” So began the school experience of many Indigenous children in Canada for more than a hundred years, and so begins the history of residential schools prepared by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). Between 2008 and 2015, the TRC provided opportunities for individuals, families, and communities to share their experiences of residential schools and released several reports based on 7000 survivor statements and five million documents from government, churches, and schools, as well as a solid grounding in secondary sources.
A Knock on the Door, published in collaboration with the National Research Centre for Truth & Reconciliation, gathers material from the several reports the TRC has produced to present the essential history and legacy of residential schools in a concise and accessible package that includes new materials to help inform and contextualize the journey to reconciliation that Canadians are now embarked upon.
Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga
In 1966, twelve-year-old Chanie Wenjack froze to death on the railway tracks after running away from residential school. An inquest was called and four recommendations were made to prevent another tragedy. None of those recommendations were applied.
More than a quarter of a century later, from 2000 to 2011, seven Indigenous high school students died in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The seven were hundreds of miles away from their families, forced to leave home and live in a foreign and unwelcoming city. Five were found dead in the rivers surrounding Lake Superior, below a sacred Indigenous site.
Using a sweeping narrative focusing on the lives of the students, award-winning investigative journalist Tanya Talaga delves into the history of this small northern city that has come to manifest Canada’s long struggle with human rights violations against Indigenous communities.
A Two-Spirit Journey by Ma-Nee Chacaby
A Two-Spirit Journey is Ma-Nee Chacaby’s extraordinary account of her life as an Ojibwa-Cree lesbian. From her early, often harrowing memories of life and abuse in a remote Ojibwa community riven by poverty and alcoholism, Chacaby’s story is one of enduring and ultimately overcoming the social, economic, and health legacies of colonialism.
Ma-Nee Chacaby has emerged from hardship grounded in faith, compassion, humor, and resilience. Her memoir provides unprecedented insights into the challenges still faced by many Indigenous people.
21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Joseph
The essential guide to understanding the legal document and its repercussion on generations of Indigenous Peoples, written by a leading cultural sensitivity trainer.
Since its creation in 1876, the Indian Act has shaped, controlled, and constrained the lives and opportunities of Indigenous Peoples, and is at the root of many enduring stereotypes. Bob Joseph’s book comes at a key time in the reconciliation process, when awareness from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities is at a crescendo. Joseph explains how Indigenous Peoples can step out from under the Indian Act and return to self-government, self-determination, and self-reliance—and why doing so would result in a better country for every Canadian. He dissects the complex issues around truth and reconciliation, and clearly demonstrates why learning about the Indian Act’s cruel, enduring legacy is essential for the country to move toward true reconciliation.
A Mind Spread Out On The Ground by Alicia Elliott
In an urgent and visceral work that asks essential questions about the treatment of Native people in North America while drawing on intimate details of her own life and experience with intergenerational trauma, Alicia Elliott offers indispensable insight into the ongoing legacy of colonialism. She engages with such wide-ranging topics as race, parenthood, love, mental illness, poverty, sexual assault, gentrifcation, writing and representation, and in the process makes connections both large and small between the past and present, the personal and political–from overcoming a years-long battle with head lice to the way Native writers are treated within the Canadian literary industry; her unplanned teenage pregnancy to the history of dark matter and how it relates to racism in the court system; her childhood diet of Kraft Dinner to how systemic oppression is directly linked to health problems in Native communities.
With deep consideration and searing prose, Elliott provides a candid look at our past, an illuminating portrait of our present and a powerful tool for a better future.
From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle
Abandoned by his parents as a toddler, Jesse Thistle briefly found himself in the foster-care system with his two brothers, cut off from all they had known. Eventually the children landed in the home of their paternal grandparents, but their tough-love attitudes meant conflicts became commonplace. And the ghost of Jesse’s drug-addicted father haunted the halls of the house and the memories of every family member. Struggling, Jesse succumbed to a self-destructive cycle of drug and alcohol addiction and petty crime, spending more than a decade on and off the streets, often homeless. One day, he finally realized he would die unless he turned his life around.
In this heartwarming and heartbreaking memoir, Jesse Thistle writes honestly and fearlessly about his painful experiences with abuse, uncovering the truth about his parents, and how he found his way back into the circle of his Indigenous culture and family through education. An eloquent exploration of what it means to live in a world surrounded by prejudice and racism and to be cast adrift, From the Ashes is, in the end, about how love and support can help one find happiness despite the odds.
The Break by Katherena Vermette
When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break — a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house — she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.
In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim — police, family, and friends — tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend. Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain. Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner. Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre. Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.
Starlight by Richard Wagamese
Frank Starlight has long settled into a quiet life working his remote farm, but his contemplative existence comes to an abrupt end with the arrival of Emmy, who has committed a desperate act so she and her child can escape a harrowing life of violence. Starlight takes in Emmy and her daughter to help them get back on their feet, and this accidental family eventually grows into a real one. But Emmy’s abusive ex isn’t content to just let her go. He wants revenge and is determined to hunt her down.
Starlight was unfinished at the time of Richard Wagamese’s death, yet every page radiates with his masterful storytelling, intense humanism, and insights that are as hard-earned as they are beautiful. With astonishing scenes set in the rugged backcountry of the B.C. Interior, and characters whose scars cut deep even as their journey toward healing and forgiveness lifts us, Starlight is a last gift to readers from a writer who believed in the power of stories to save us.
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgesheig Rice
With winter looming, a small northern Anishinaabe community goes dark. Cut off, people become passive and confused. Panic builds as the food supply dwindles. While the band council and a pocket of community members struggle to maintain order, an unexpected visitor arrives, escaping the crumbling society to the south. Soon after, others follow.
The community leadership loses its grip on power as the visitors manipulate the tired and hungry to take control of the reserve. Tensions rise and, as the months pass, so does the death toll due to sickness and despair. Frustrated by the building chaos, a group of young friends and their families turn to the land and Anishinaabe tradition in hopes of helping their community thrive again. Guided through the chaos by an unlikely leader named Evan Whitesky, they endeavor to restore order while grappling with a grave decision.
Blending action and allegory, Moon of the Crusted Snow upends our expectations. Out of catastrophe comes resilience. And as one society collapses, another is reborn.
Birdie by Tracey Lindberg
A darkly comic and moving first novel about the universal experience of recovering from wounds of the past, informed by the lore and knowledge of Cree traditions.
Bernice Meetoos, a Cree woman, leaves her home in Northern Alberta following tragedy and travels to Gibsons, BC. She is on something of a vision quest, seeking to understand the messages from The Frugal Gourmet (one of the only television shows available on CBC North) that come to her in her dreams. She is also driven by the leftover teenaged desire to meet Pat Johns, who played Jesse on The Beachcombers, because he is, as she says, a working, healthy Indian man. Bernice heads for Molly’s Reach to find answers but they are not the ones she expected.With the arrival in Gibsons of her Auntie Val and her cousin Skinny Freda, Bernice finds the strength to face the past and draw the lessons from her dreams that she was never fully taught in life. Part road trip, dream quest and travelogue, the novel touches on the universality of women’s experience, regardless of culture or race.
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
In a futuristic world ravaged by global warming, people have lost the ability to dream, and the dreamlessness has led to widespread madness.
The only people still able to dream are North America’s Indigenous people, and it is their marrow that holds the cure for the rest of the world. But getting the marrow, and dreams, means death for the unwilling donors.
Driven to flight, a fifteen-year-old and his companions struggle for survival, attempt to reunite with loved ones and take refuge from the “recruiters” who seek them out to bring them to the marrow-stealing “factories.”
Pemmican Wars by Katherena Vermette; illustrated by Scott B. Henderson
Echo Desjardins, a 13-year-old Métis girl adjusting to a new home and school, is struggling with loneliness while separated from her mother. Then an ordinary day in Mr. Bee’s history class turns extraordinary, and Echo’s life will never be the same. During Mr. Bee’s lecture, Echo finds herself transported to another time and place—a bison hunt on the Saskatchewan prairie—and back again to the present. In the following weeks, Echo slips back and forth in time. She visits a Métis camp, travels the old fur-trade routes, and experiences the perilous and bygone era of the Pemmican Wars.
Pemmican Wars is the first graphic novel in a new series, A Girl Called Echo, by Governor General Award–winning writer, and author of Highwater Press’ The Seven Teaching Stories, Katherena Vermette.
#NotYourPrincess edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale
Whether looking back to a troubled past or welcoming a hopeful future, the powerful voices of Indigenous women across North America resound in this book. In the same style as the best-selling Dreaming in Indian, #NotYourPrincess presents an eclectic collection of poems, essays, interviews, and art that combine to express the experience of being a Native woman.
Stories of abuse, humiliation, and stereotyping are countered by the voices of passionate women making themselves heard and demanding change. Sometimes angry, often reflective, but always strong, the women in this book will give teen readers insight into the lives of women who, for so long, have been virtually invisible.
We hope you dedicate some time into learning about Indigenous History in honour of National Indigenous History Month, but more importantly, as a person living on colonized lands. Don’t forget to share diverse reads that you love! It is so important to expand our learning as individuals, and as a community, so that we can use our knowledge as a tool to promote anti-racism and decolonization.
For more information and resources, check out the National Indigenous History Month website.
Want to help support the community? Here are a few places to check out:
Indigenous Community Support Fund (in response to COVID-19)
Moose Hide Campaign
Legacy of Hope Foundation
Don’t forget to do your own education and research. This book list and short resource list is nowhere near extensive or more important than others. Until next time…