Three Books I Read for National Indigenous History Month 2022

The Eagle represents First Nations, the
Narwhal the Inuit and the Violin the Metis.
I'm trying to read diversely all year, and mostly succeeding, but I still do appreciate the nudges. June is Canada's National Indigenous Heritage Month, and June 21 was National Indigenous Peoples Day. From this page on the Government of Canada's website

National Aboriginal Day (now National Indigenous Peoples Day) was announced in 1996 by then Governor General of Canada, Roméo LeBlanc, through the Proclamation Declaring June 21 of Each Year as National Aboriginal Day. This was the result of consultations and statements of support for such a day made by various Indigenous groups in 1982, the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) called for the creation of National Aboriginal Solidarity Day in 1995, the Sacred Assembly, a national conference of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people chaired by Elijah Harper, called for a national holiday to celebrate the contributions of Indigenous Peoples
also in 1995, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended the designation of a National First Peoples Day. On June 21, 2017, the Prime Minister issued a statement announcing the intention to rename this day National Indigenous Peoples Day.

I love the way that I happened across each of the books that I read this June. I won a copy of First Nations 101 from Miss604. I found a copy of The Marrow Thieves from an East Van LFL that was donated by Diverse Books for Little Free Libraries EASTVAN. And thanks to the VPL's Terry Salman Branch display, I chose On/Me from their picks for this month.

First Nations 101 by Lynda Gray

Lynda Gray is from the Ts’msyen Nation from Lax Kw’alaams in BC, has lived mostly in Vancouver, and was the Executive Director of the Urban Native Youth Association. Some proceeds from the book go to the Ts’msyen Revolution Fund to support language, culture and revitalization in the territory, and her son designed the cover art. I am staggered by the amount of effort First Nations 101 must have taken to complete, and this is the recently released 2nd Edition.

I haven’t read this cover to cover but have read most of the first half; it's an ongoing read, and I'm noting some topics as areas to revisit later, and lingering on sections that pulled me in. I’m using it as a workbook, taking my pencil to it and underlining sections, tabbing some pages, and making notes in the margins along the way.

There are so many examples of important topics, so here are just a couple:
  • When reading about issues of Indigenous traditional governance in Canada, I have trouble understanding the overlapping issues. There is an excellent section on this, and it's actually not straightforward!
  • She includes a useful discussion of (mis)appropriation of Indigenous objects and culture, and answers questions like: when is it okay to wear or buy Indigenous symbols as a non-Indigenous person?
  • The section on allyship is one of the most useful pieces of writing I've seen yet.  There are so many concrete, actionable points to consider. 
Gray thoughtfully and compassionately summarizes difficult issues both past and current, reflecting on how this affects Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples today. This truly helps all of us cultivate empathy and understanding. I love the conversational tone. Her opinions certainly come through at times, which makes the book feel engaging, unlike a textbook. I feel in conversation with her. She’s able to capture complexities in an easy to understand way, and encourages you to look at an issue with a different perspective.

On/Me by Francine Cunningham

It always humbles me when I see how vulnerable a memoirist can be. Reading On/Me was an example of this. Francine Cunningham has written a poetry collection that strikes me as a memoir in verse, though a living one: she gives us stories of her past, brings us to her present, and points in the direction of her future, as yet unwritten. She is an Indigenous artist and writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and now lives a “literary artist travelling life,” visiting First Nations communities across Canada and teaching Indigenous youth.

From her website: “Francine Cunningham lives with constant reminders that she doesn’t fit the desired expectations of the world: she is a white-passing, city-raised Indigenous woman with mental illness who has lost her mother.” On/Me is her ode to the many parts of herself and her experience that reflects these truths, and she doesn’t shy away from hard them. There’s also some levity and a lot of warmth here, showing the utter humanness of her experience. Reading this is like walking beside her. The opening poems are a stark introduction to her identity, family and mental illness. One poem I appreciated so much as a metaphor for her own mental illness was On Mental Illness/Fault Lines:
“I’ve never known what my faults were
only that they existed
decided long before I was born.”
And later:
“Waiting for the earthquake
is sometimes worse than the
earthquake itself”...

…“Because what can I do?
you can’t patch the mantel
you can only prepare
for the rupture
for what happens after

learn to stand in doorways
to avoid falling wires.”
A doorway is a threshold, a liminal space. I found myself contemplating liminal spaces while reading. She is constantly between. 

With mental illness, it is a dialectic between mania and depression.

She is pulled between her White and Indigenous heritage. From On Identity/Maybe its More Than The Lights And Pixels:
“Watching the cowboys and Indians on TV I realized that i could play both roles
my left half would try to kill my right half
my right half would out-survive my left half
the two halves would ride around and around in circles
trying to catch each other.”
In exploring her mother’s death, she shows us how the grief over her mother’s death can be a liminal space, a sort of waiting and remembrance. 

She also contemplates her identity as a writer and the space between writing and not writing (“that hollow/that cavernous/space”).

Finally, I feel her fatigue in always dealing with the liminal:
“Knowing that I will forever live here
in this space
of in between”
(From On Identity/Silence)
Near the end, Cunningham is able to begin to see away out of this in-between-ness of things, but I got the sense that this is just the beginning. A work in progress rather than something finished. It struck me as a sort of acceptance of flux and uncertainty, and our necessity of living with the dialectics all of us face in different ways.

On Identity/Together:
"and maybe that’s the thing
everything that is me can’t be put into separate boxes
i can’t be spelled out in the blank space of a form
because I can’t separate the loneliness from the hereditary pain,
from the abuse, from the soul-leeching coldness of having no emotion,
to feeling like life is a dream

it’s all just me”

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
“Every year the world was making us more aware of change. After the cities crumbled off the coastlines, after the hurricanes and earthquakes made us fear for a solid ground to stand on, even now we were waiting for the planet to settle so we could figure out the ways in which we would be safe.”
For protagonist Frenchie and his companions, the quote is both literally and metaphorically true. After environmental degradation, a mysterious illness that steals dreams and drives people to violence has swept North America, and only those with Indigenous heritage are immune. They are the cure, so they are hunted and taken to “schools.” Residential schools as history are on the page here, and I’m sure Dimaline made no mistake in evoking the past in the novel.

This book took me to a perilous near-future where survival hangs by a thread, yet there was so much groundedness in nature and genuine human connection on the page that it was somehow comforting at the same time.

The beauty here is in the natural world, juxtaposed with ever-present violence. Dimaline drops us into the dystopian narrative without much explanation.There doesn’t have to be much world building because the forest is the world. I love that Frenchie and his found family hold tight to new-found old knowledge: hunting and foraging, creating a sense of home, and protecting each other. And language! It’s amazing how the young ones cling to each and every Indigenous word that their elders teach them. Amidst the horrible reality of violence and violation, Frenchie and his crew find new meaning in the oral tradition of storytelling as a connection to their past and each other. At its essence, this is a tale of strength and thriving in community, and reclamation of culture.

This is YA, so there is a coming-of-age narrative here which is well done, and (without spoilers!) there is a truly feel-good bit near the end that I didn’t see coming at all. I applaud a bit of crazy happiness in the midst of such dark subject matter, because, really, sometimes it's okay for unexpectedly good things to happen.


These books made my June so much better, and I'm glad they made their way into my reading life.