Yes, I missed October’s blog. It might have been because I had the flu, or maybe because October is my favorite month and it was hard letting go. We’ll never know! But to make it up to my readers–all three of you–I am including a bonus review for November! And all 4 of them are by Native American/First Nations authors in honor of Native American Heritage Month.
I spent my childhood fascinated by Native American history and culture. I still have many of the books that I read and reread about the indigenous people of this continent before and after contact with Europeans. As I got older, I began to realize that many of these accounts romanticized Indians, and none of them were actually written by Native Americans. Some of them were plain wrong and based on outdated stereotypes. An individual would not be faulted for thinking that the Native people in these books were only something of the past and no longer existed, since many of them did not discuss anything past the 1970s–if that. But there are millions of Native people alive today! There are 574 federally recognized Indian Nations (variously called tribes, nations, bands, pueblos, communities, and native villages) in the United States. There are more than 630 First Nation communities in Canada, which represent more than 50 Nations and 50 Indigenous languages. And that doesn’t include the many, many Indigenous people living in South America today.
That is why it is so important that we read books by Indigenous authors! The books I review below take place in the present or the recent past (the early 2000s), and feature Native characters who will seem familiar to teen readers today. They have cell phones, play video games, and do many of the same things that teenagers of other ethnic and racial groups do. But they also have their own rich cultures, worldviews, and struggles that can only be understood by those who live them. That doesn’t mean they can’t share their stories with the world. In fact, I think we would all be better people if we listened to each others’ stories and learned to respect them. The Indians of this continent have endured. I hope that you will read these books. And if you would like more recommendations, please leave a comment below!
Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley (Ojibwe)
Daunis Fontaine is an 18-year-old biracial (1/2 white & 1/2 Ojibwe) unenrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe. Her birth was quite the scandal, and she’s always felt like an outsider, both in town and on the reservation. She is dealing with a lot of family tragedy at the beginning of the book, but feels some hope when she meets her brother’s new hockey teammate, Jamie. However, she witnesses an awful murder which leads her to find out about an undercover federal investigation of the drug smuggling happening in the area. Daunis gets roped into going undercover and becoming a confidential informant, using her knowledge of traditional medicine, chemistry, and tribal culture to figure out who is behind it all. More deaths and more danger await as she digs deeper and deeper into the past and present.
Firekeeper’s Daughter is SO GOOD. It has been the recipient of much praise, and is currently nominated for two Goodreads choice awards. I think it deserves it. I am not sure how she managed it, but Angeline Boulley managed to make a 400+ page book feel like 200 pages, because you just can’t put it down. I found myself having to go back once and awhile to reread certain passages because I was speed-reading too fast! She also crafted a novel that is a crime thriller, a romance, a coming-of-age story, and a work of sharp social commentary all at the same time. I can’t even begin to list everything I learned about the culture of the U.P. (upper peninsula of Michigan), hockey, and the Ojibwe culture. The story does take place in 2004, so will seem a tad “historical” to teens, but it brought back many memories of my own high school days–by which I mean, the period detail was accurate. I was surprised by the ending (which doesn’t happen often), and felt like I had made an important journey with Daunis by the end. I definitely recommend this to all older teens and adults. I recommend it for older teens because there are some content warnings I will list here: drug addiction, suicide, murder, and sexual assault. But if the teen is mature enough and has adult support, I think they can also benefit from reading this novel. An interesting side note: I read this book at the same time I was listening to Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask: Young Reader’s Edition, and since Dr. Treuer is also Ojibwe, there were times when he was discussing his culture and it helped me understand something in Firekeeper’s Daughter. I highly suggest you do the same.
I read the physical copy that can be checked out from the Teen Room, but you can also listen to the audiobook or read the digital version on Overdrive through the Libby app.
Healer of the Water Monster by Brian Young (Navajo)
Nathan is an eleven-year-old Navajo boy from Phoenix on the cusp of puberty, who decides he wants to spend the summer with his Nali, his paternal grandmother, at her mobile home on the reservation in New Mexico. He is still reeling from his parents’ divorce, and does not want to spend time with his dad’s new girlfriend in Las Vegas. He loves science, and tells his parents that he needs to spend the summer there so that he can do his next experiment on traditional versus modern corn-growing. The mobile home has no running water or electricity, but he figures toughing it out for a couple of months is better than sharing his dad with someone who is not his mother. Plus, he loves his Nali, and is excited to spend time with his troubled Uncle Jet when he arrives unexpectedly. One night, Nathan gets lost in the desert and comes across a Holy Being from the Navajo Creation Story–a Water Monster–who is very ill and needs his help. He agrees, and with the other Holy Beings he must face down his fears, and travel to places he never thought he could, to try and save his new friend.
This is technically a middle-grade novel (so written with 8-12 year old’s in mind) but I really enjoyed it and I’m an adult (at least that’s what they tell me). I think that this book is perfect for younger teens, and even older teens can appreciate the worldbuilding, adventure, and themes of this book. It deals with some heavy things, like veteran Uncle Jet’s PTSD, alcoholism, and the generational wounds that can be passed down from generation to generation–especially for Native Americans who have endured more trauma than most. But it is also full of joy and love for family and friends, as well as a certain character who I found hilarious (hint: he’s a Holy amphibian). The story is told from Nathan’s POV, and his voice was real and believable for an 11 year-old boy caught between two worlds–whether that be the white world and the Navajo one, or between childhood and adulthood, between his parents, etc. Brian Young also uses his native tongue throughout the novel, and provides a helpful glossary in the back for translation. I love when authors use their native languages in their books, even if they don’t provide translation, because it enhances the authenticity of the narrative. And if I really want to know more about what it says, I can always look it up! Indigenous languages are endangered, anyway, so I will always support Native authors using them in their work. One last thing: Young’s descriptions of the desert were so beautiful, and made me a bit homesick. The desert is a wondrous place!
I read our physical copy that you can check out from the Children’s Room, but Healer of the Water Monster is also available on Overdrive through the Libby app in audiobook format.
Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But were Afraid to Ask: Young Readers Edition by Dr. Anton Treuer (Ojibwe)
This non-fiction title is an updated and revamped version for younger readers of Dr. Treuer’s 2012 book of the same name. Dr. Anton Treuer is Executive Director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University, and Editor of the Oshkaabewis (pronounced o-shkaah-bay-wis) Native Journal, the only academic journal of the Ojibwe language. He is the author of 9 books, and has received so many honors and grants that I am not going to list them here. He is a passionate advocate for Native language revitalization, and tours the country giving lectures on Indian culture and answering the kinds of questions that are in this book. He answers questions ranging from “What is a powwow?” to “Why is [blank] offensive to Native Americans?” to “Why are Indians so often imagined rather than understood?”
I know the title of this book says “Young Readers Edition,” but honestly, this book is for anyone who can read. I learned so much and found so many of the sections helpful (see my note in the review of Firekeeper’s Daughter for one example). I chose to listen to the audiobook version, which Dr. Treuer narrates himself. He has a wonderful speaking voice, and it felt like he was right there answering my questions and sharing stories with me. I admire his dedication to encouraging compassionate understanding and cooperation, rather than continued separation. You might have noticed that I have been using the terms “Indian,” “Native American,” and “Indigenous,” interchangeably in this blog, and that is based on one of the answers in this book. As I cannot ask the individual which they prefer (since I have no idea who is actually going to read this), I am using all of them. Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask is the kind of helpful handbook that you can study over and over again, in order to better understand the original people of this continent. We need to acknowledge and try our best to right all the wrong done to Native peoples, and find a way forward together. This book will help.
Surviving the City, Vol. 1 & 2 by Tasha Spillett (Nehiyaw/Trinidadian) & Natasha Donovan (Métis)
Note: I have only included the cover image of the first volume in this graphic novel series, but I am reviewing both Volumes 1 & 2.
For my bonus review this month, I wanted to feature a graphic novel series by Indigenous creators. Surviving the City is my choice. Written and illustrated by two First Nations women, these novels follow best friends Dez (Inninew) and Miikwan (Anishinaabe) as they grapple with living life as an Indigenous female in the urban landscape of Winnipeg. The first volume highlights the problem of the huge number of Indigenous girls and women going missing or being murdered in Canada today. Dez lives with her grandmother, but when she falls ill, Dez is told she must live in a group home, so she considers running away. Miikwan is still dealing with the grief over her missing mother. The second volume seems to take place after some time has passed. Dez’s grandmother has passed away, so Dez now stays at a group home that she dislikes. She is also coming to terms with her identity as a Two-Spirit person, and trying to get support from those around her. Miikwan is crushing on the new boy at school who has views that make her question things she has always taken for granted. This volume focuses more on the old prejudices (many which came from the colonizers) that have a detrimental effect on First Nations youth.
I loved the art in both of these novels. It really complimented the words that were on the page, and so much was actually conveyed through the art. I especially liked that it seemed each of the girls were accompanied by ghostly ancestors, there to give them strength and protect them. The creepy…things that followed around some of the white people, and seemed to be encouraging them to do evil deeds, enhanced the feeling of dread and increased the anxiety I felt for Dez while she was out on the streets alone. I appreciate these graphic novels because they take some big societal problems plaguing First Nations people and put individual human faces to them. Sometimes we can grow indifferent when we hear about these things, but it’s harder to ignore when you have a face and name to attach to it. I think if you are interested in learning about these topics, you should definitely read these graphic novels. I really hope that Spillett and Donovan continue to tell Dez and Miikwan’s stories in future installments!
I read the physical copies of both volumes that we have here in the Teen Room, but Surviving the City, Volume 1 is available on both Hoopla and Overdrive in digital format, while the 2nd volume is also available on Overdrive with the Libby app.