3. An Indigenous Knowledge Keeper’s Reading of Books through an Indigenous Knowledges Lens
Using inductive methods, we found that the 10 books could be grouped into three categories; two categories are based on the themes within the stories and one is the story type. The themes within the books in the latter category, autobiography and biography, contain the themes of the other two categories. We use it as a separate category to highlight how some of the Indigenous picture books are based on stories of the lived experiences of individuals and others are based on authors’ creation of characters whose experiences are a composite of many people who authors have met or are part of their families. We report Red Bear’s interpretation of the books, using an Indigenous Knowledges approach, in terms of these categories:
Non-Autobiographical/Biographical Narrative: Theme of intergenerational impact of residential schools
Non-Autobiographical/Biographical Narrative: Theme of using spiritual lessons from nature
Autobiography and biography: Themes of intergenerational impact of residential schools and spiritual lessons from nature
A common thread across our categories, as shown in the following discussion of our findings, is relationship. Heath Justice [29
] explains that relationships are the central theme of Indigenous literature: relationships to the land, to self, and to others (e.g., ancestors, descendants, local and broader communities, and to the spiritual world), as well as to histories and futures.
Please note that in the following reporting of Red Bear’s interpretations, we attempted to identify the affiliation of authors and illustrators of all of the books because it is important to acknowledge where knowledge embedded in the books comes from [40
]. In some cases, we were unable to find this information.
You will find bibliographic information about all books in Figure 1
3.1. Intergenerational Impact of Residential Schools
In Canada, the traumatic abuse experienced by Indigenous children and their families has had ongoing effects on the lives of Indigenous children today [2
]. The residential school policy was implemented by the Canadian government with, in the words of the first Indian agent, Duncan Campbell Scott, the goal of “killing the Indian in the child” [41
]. Although the stories of individual survivors are very traumatic, Red Bear explains that they need to be shared through intergenerational storytelling and picture books created by Indigenous authors who have firsthand experience or pass down stories from their parents and grandparents. This sharing can lead to better understanding, on the part of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, of the intergenerational impact of these horrific assimilative practices. Among the 10 picture books in our selection, Indigenous authors, and in some cases Indigenous illustrators and publishers, have created honest, sensitive, and powerful picture books whose contributions to reconciliation can be amplified when read through an Indigenous Knowledges lens.
An example of a book that tells the story of an individual survivor of residential schools is When We Were Alone. The author, David A. Robertson, is a member of Norway House Cree Nation and the illustrator, Julie Flett, is Cree-Métis. Both are from Manitoba. Connections to nature and the sense of being part of the natural world abound in the parts of the book where Kôkum is an adult talking with her granddaughter and in the remembrances of her time at a residential school when she and her sister were alone beyond the reach of the residential school educators and administrators. When Kôkum and her sister were alone, they could regain their oneness with nature by covering themselves with colored leaves of the fall and lengthening their hair with long blades of grass. Illustrations of Kôkum as an adult show her colorful flower-patterned dress blending in with the flowers growing in the bush. Her long hair imitates the vines. When the two sisters were alone, they used nature to retain their teachings and their Indigenous identity. The traditional jingle-dress dancer sounds and moves like the birds flying through the air, showing that Indigenous teachings and healing ceremonies imitate nature. Traditional beliefs in animals being able to speak Indigenous languages are reflected in the image of a bird flying amidst the writings of the Cree language. These ways in which Kôkum and her sister blend in with nature and show that they are not greater nor lesser than anything in nature contrast with the identities imposed upon them in the residential school.
The comparisons of the residential uniforms with storm clouds and juxtapositions of cuttings of the children’s hair with blades of dead grass show that the residential school practices went against Indigenous teachings and ways of living. Drab colors and rigid lines of illustrations portraying the children while in residential schools give a sense of conformity and rigidity. The Indigenous children were not allowed to have their own world views, language, and ways. The sweet singing of the single bird when the children were alone is replaced with the raucous cawing of crows when referring to the sounds of English speech that Indigenous children were forced to speak in the residential schools. Indigenous teachings portray crows as very clannish and garrulous, sometimes considered good qualities and other times as undesirable qualities. As children, Kôkum and her sister recognized the importance of continuing to speak their language to maintain their Indigenous identities. The two girls used every opportunity to come together to speak Cree. Because of the draconian punishments inflicted on Indigenous children who spoke their own languages, the girls had a sense that they had to whisper the words and be wary of being caught when they came together to hold hands and use their language. Their Cree voices and their family relationships had to be hidden, as children were punished when they were seen in the company of their siblings in the residential schools. The image of the girl alone in a room looking out the window at nature portrays that lonely existence.
A second book that helps us to understand the intergenerational impact of residential schools, Stolen Words, is written by Cree-Métis author, Melanie Florence. She tells this story in honor of her grandfather, who attended residential schools in western Canada. This story of a seven-year-old girl’s grandfather, who is a survivor of a residential school, reflects what many Indigenous people are still going through today in Canada. Grandfather is living with the effects of having his language, culture, and self-respect stolen from him. He shares his feelings and experiences with his granddaughter.
The image of the blackbird/crow/raven (it is difficult to tell which black bird is represented), formed from the flow of children’s Indigenous words, pictured as a remembrance of the grandfather’s time in residential schools, gives a spiritual sense to the children’s Indigenous language. The cage was too small, yet the blackbird/crow/raven was forced to fly into it. Although the punishments and shaming in residential schools broke the spirit of children who grew up to be men like the girl’s grandfather (and many never regained their language and culture), the cage could not hold the blackbird/crow/raven forever. The new generation is picking up the language and helping residential school survivors regain their language, culture, and self-respect. Indigenous teachings tell us that everybody in creation (babies, children, adults, Elders) can teach us life lessons. To Grandfather, the words, which are released as blackbirds/crows/ravens flying from a cage on the page, feel like home and mother. The two are viewed as caregivers: home is the place and mother is the person who makes you safe and feel loved, and also helps you to live in a good way.
There is some evidence of misconceptions of Indigenous traditions in the illustrations by non-Indigenous illustrator, Gabrielle Grimard. For example, the illustration that includes a dreamcatcher, which is revered as a protector when we sleep, seems to be a prop or decoration. The dreamcatcher captures the bad spirits that would make us sick or harm us in some other way, entering through our dreams. However, the dreamcatcher in the girl’s hand seems to have been commercialized with plastic beads and strings. It is not made of willow and sinew, which come from a tree and an animal. All the teachings, including acknowledging that the tree and animal have given up something of themselves, are lost. In addition, the dreamcatcher has many feathers, which is unusual for a child’s dreamcatcher. The feathers of the dreamcatcher have to be earned, and the teachings of the feathers are given by an Elder or Knowledge Keeper to the child when she is making the dreamcatcher. Additionally, in some Indigenous communities, the blackbird, the crow, and the raven are tricksters who provide teachings by playing tricks on people to get them back on track when they are heading in a harmful direction. Red Bear does not see how this symbolic attribute of the blackbird/crow/raven fits with the theme of languages being stolen from children while in residential schools. What he sees as a result of the loss of Indigenous language and culture is the picking up of artifacts of traditional ways without learning the teachings that make them so important culturally. Given that the illustrator is not Indigenous, we are not certain that she was aware of this when creating the illustrations.
3.2. Stories Using Spiritual Teachings from Nature and Relationships
Red Bear explains that every element of the natural world has a teaching that can be woven into a story. Stories based on these teachings recognize the interconnections between the physical and spiritual, and show us how to live in a good way. In these stories, we come to recognize that “the land is a gift given to us by the Creator. By acknowledging the land in this way, we affirm our relationship with all of its beings” [32
] (p. 62). These stories also teach about the four stages of the circle of life: infant, youth, adult, and elder. Drawn from many different sources, particularly the Seven Grandfather Teachings: wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility, and truth [42
], the teachings explain roles and responsibilities at each part of the life circle. Many stories transmit the wisdom of the land, interpreted through many generations of storytelling, to new generations.
An example of an intergenerational story is Keeshig and the Ojibwe Pterodactyls. Seven-year-old Keeshig tells of the spirit, Nanaboozhoo, within a mountain, also known as the Sleeping Giant, on the shores of Lake Superior, and his relationship with the Thunder Birds (also known by Keeshig as Ojibwe pterodactyls). Red Bear knows of many sacred ceremonies that are held at Mt. McKay, which is part of the Sleeping Giant. Keeshig’s mother is the co-author, who engages in Indigenous teaching practices by asking questions to deepen his understanding and encourage Keeshig’s imagination.
The conversation takes place after the family has been dancing traditional dances at a pow wow, which is a social gathering with traditional drums and dancing, in which many nations come together to celebrate a wide range of seasonal changes. Keeshig’s mother is wearing a jingle dress, which is significant during the healing dance ceremony. The dress usually has 365 cones; one for each day of the year. She would have attached one cone each day of the previous year to make the dress. These cones jingle when she dances in time with the drum, which represents the heartbeat of the earth. The brilliant colors reflect the vibrant colors of Mother Earth. Keeshig integrates the teachings of his family and community (e.g., the Thunder Birds are the spirits of the eagles after leaving this world and entering the spirit world) with his own story about Ojibwe pterodactyls. They eat what the eagles would have eaten while on earth. The illustrations are adult-created up to the point where Keeshig says that the Ojibwe pterodactyls’ wing beatings are Nanaboozhoo’s heartbeats. The drawing for this part of the story is a child’s drawing of a child-imagined teaching. Keeshig’s mother acknowledges her son’s teaching by calling the children her heartbeat. Like all things that are good, her son’s love is good medicine.
Red Bear contextualizes young Keeshig’s story by drawing on his decades of experience in this northern region of Canada. The story, itself, however, is unusual, in terms of the intergenerational storytelling coming from the imagination of a young boy, who shares his insights and observations with adult family members, rather than the other way around.
Just as author Roy Goose passes on the teachings he learned from his great-grandmother, Naimee Mammayuk, to his grandchildren, the creation story in Sukaq and the Raven is told by a grandmother to her grandson. The story is from Inuvialuit oral culture in Nunavut. It has much in common with the teachings communicated through stories, within Red Bear’s Anishnaabe experience.
Red Bear explains that Indigenous creation stories tend to have an animal trickster, who must create the earth out of necessity. In this Inuvialuit story, the raven, a trickster, needed a place to land. The creation story reflects the geography of Nunavut: snow gathered on the biggest-ever raven’s wings, forming a snowball that becomes so large, the raven could land on it. Pecking in the snow with its beak, the raven brought plants to earth, which had lights that became the sun and moon when he needed light. Plants also had the form of a woman in them, when he needed companionship. He breathed life into her. As in many Indigenous creator stories, living things came from the earth. Like tricksters that Red Bear is familiar with in other Indigenous cultures, the raven is able to take the form of a man. Animals are created after man is created. Indigenous stories of the creation of animals usually start with animals that are important within the local environment (e.g., in Red Bear’s Ontario location, the story of the creation of the bear comes first, followed by the crane, the loon, birds, fish, deer, and the marten).
In Indigenous culture, the dream world has many dimensions, including the conscious/awake state, the almost-asleep state, and the dream world. Red Bear notes that the illustrations are consistent with these cultural understandings of dreams. They show Sukaq rising out of his bed through these states of consciousness as his anaana (mother) tells the story.
Katherena Vermette, a Métis writer from Treaty One territory in Manitoba, wrote The Girl and the Wolf. Julie Flett, illustrator of When We Were Alone, illustrated this book, as well. Although the author explains that this is a totally made-up story, Red Bear feels that there are plenty of elements that she must have experienced or heard from family and community members, as Indigenous teachings are evident throughout the story. The story starts with an experience that is common to many Indigenous families: camping out in the bush to pick berries together. The little girl ventures away from her family, getting lost. A wolf (Red Bear expects that the wolf is most likely the young girl’s clan or dodem) appears from between some trees. The animal of one’s clan is a spiritual helper and teacher who teaches the attributes of the clan. The wolf is very family-oriented. Wolves mate for life and both males and females look after their young, teaching them how to survive.
In the story, the wolf teaches the little girl that she could help herself if she calmed down, closing her eyes and looking inside herself. The wolf knows that she has the knowledge within her from the teachings of her family. Red Bear explains that from an Indigenous perspective, the knowledge is inside us if we seek it. For example, the girl knew that in order to satiate her hunger, she could eat the berries by the water, which are not poisonous, although those deeper in the bush might be. When the wolf guided her to look around, she noticed the skinny trees where her family camped, and was able to find her way back to them. The girl told her story to her family and that evening, tied tobacco in red cloth, and left it for the wolf to say thank you. She made a tobacco bundle, which Red Bear explains, is a traditional way to say thank you. Red Bear explains that this story, like many Indigenous teachings for children, involved troublesome happenings occurring when children do not listen to parents. However, it also shows that the animal representing our dodem is always there to guide us, even when we cannot see it.
The childhood of author Bernice Johnson-Laxdal, a Cree language and culture teacher from Ile-a-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan, involved traditional activities that are dependent on the seasons of the year. She shares these activities in When the Trees Crackle with Cold (A Cree Calendar). Reflecting traditional knowledge of the seasonal cycle, the Cree calendar consists of 12 moons within six seasons. Red Bear explains that the moons have different names, depending on where the Indigenous community is located in Canada, because the names reflect what is happening in nature in their particular locations during that cycle of the moon. There is a natural balance between nature and humans, with nature signaling the activities that people should be engaged in for survival. For example, when the young birds practice using their wings in the time of the Flying-Up Moon, people are picking blueberries in the old burn. Red Bear observes that the primacy of nature is reflected in the birds, animals, and plants being represented as far larger, in relation to people, than they would be in the natural world.
Nadia Sammurtok, an Inuit writer from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, writes about one of the Grandfather Teachings—Love, in the picture book, In my Anaanas’ Amautik. She compares a mother’s love for her infant to the love of Mother Earth for all living things. The infant is carried in the hood or amautik of the mother’s parka. This Inuvaluit story reminds Red Bear of stories he heard as a child about how babies feel in a tikinagan (“tik” means tree or wood and “nagaan” means vessel—it is a cradle board in which the baby is placed while wrapped in a moss bag to provide warmth, comfort and security). Relationships between mother and child are compared to relationships with the natural world. Mother Earth provides all that we need and is a beautiful environment for us to meet our needs. The baby compares the security feeling of the hood that is reminiscent of the iglu home, which protects the baby from the elements. Placing the baby in a safe place close to running water is a common practice to soothe the baby. Red Bear remembers hearing his grandmother saying that a mother’s kisses are like the wind caressing the baby’s face. The baby uses all senses to describe what it feels like in her mother’s amautik. Subtle colors and soft lines of the illustrations speak to the calmness of the baby’s relationship to their mother and to nature.
3.3. Autobiography and Biography
It is important for Indigenous children to see their own lives reflected in autobiographical stories of traditional family activities (Heath Justice) [29
]. Indigenous authors of the stories in the books in this category narrate events from their childhood that continue to influence their lives today. Many teachings are embedded within these family stories. They are a way of transmitting culture and skills to children.
Jennifer Leason, a Saulteaux-Métis Anishinaabek member of the Pine Creek Indian Band, is from Duck Bay, Manitoba, where the story Meennnunyakaa Blueberry Patch is set. She is the great-niece of Normand Chartrand, also a Saulteaux-Métis Anishinaabek member of the Pine Creek Indian Band, who translated this dual-language Cree/English book. Like the narrator—an Elder who tells of his family going blueberry picking when he was young—Red Bear has fond memories of setting up a camp with other families from his community to pick blueberries, and, in the case of Red Bear, apples. This was also the time to go hunting for crow eggs. Travel was by horse and wagon or on foot. Horses are not part of Indigenous teachings because they were introduced to this continent. There is great respect for what nature supplies in order for humans to survive and be comfortable over the winter. Everyone shares, as is expected in Indigenous culture, and the communities camp together, staying until the blueberries have all been picked. The Elder as a child already had much knowledge about wildlife and nature, and about the importance of nurturing body, mind, and spirit. His telling of the story reflects senses that are alive to what nature offers: the water, fragrance of cut grass, and the burning of sweetgrass to smudge/cleanse. The illustrations contribute to this sense, as they use vibrantly colored organic forms to represent the life in leaves, flowers, birds, and other living things.
Biographies are also important for showing selfless and heroic acts of Indigenous individuals, like Josephine Mandamin, who have made a difference in the world in contemporary times. Author of The Water Walker, Joanne Robertson is a member of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation. She writes about an Ojibwe woman, Josephine Mandamin Mandamin (which means ”corn” in Anishnaabemowin), who walked around all the Great Lakes while in her 70s. A bawagaajgan, or place where the truth is always told, comes from the place of dreams between being awake and the spirit world. In this place, Josephine met an ogimaa, who pointed out that someday, all peoples must recognize the value of water. Illustrations show a number of ways in which people today disrespect and waste water, “making it unfit for life”.
Josephine is portrayed with her copper water pail (Red Bear explains that copper has been used by Indigenous peoples because of its healing properties). She was the Water Walker who loved water (nibi) and water loved her. Throughout the book, the reciprocal relationship between water and humans is highlighted (e.g., we need it to wash, to drink, for transportation, for fishing for food, for enjoying and relaxing, etc.). Water, as explained by Red Bear, is used in tea and other foods, which are considered medicines. The overall message is that it is important to respect water and all that it gives us.
For seven years, she carried the Migizi (eagle) staff to lead fellow water walkers around the Great Lakes. The Migizi staff is a very strong protector of all of nature that is carried to all traditional ceremonies of the Anishnaabeg. In this case, the Migizi is meant to protect water. Josephine and her fellow water walkers left semaa (tobacco), which Red Bear explains is one of four sacred medicines (cedar, sage, tobacco, and sweetgrass) in every body of water they encountered. The Anishnaabe names of the Great Lakes (gichigami) describe what the lakes do (e.g., Niiganani-gichigami, as Red Bear explains, is the lake that leads/is out in front as it empties into the St. Lawrence River). The salt water poured into the lake represents the tears that Mother Earth is shedding over the polluting of the lakes. Josephine never stopped trying to protect the water, getting others to join her from across Turtle Island (North America).
Like the fictional narratives in which residential school survivors tell stories of experiences in residential schools, biographies, such as I am Not a Number, are important to ensure that settler and Indigenous children do not forget how Canadian government policies for all Indigenous children at one point in the country’s history had an enormous and devastating impact on individual children. Anishnaabe author Jenny Kay Dupuis, from Nipissing First Nation in Ontario, collaborates with non-Indigenous author Kathy Kacer to tell the story of Jenny Kay’s grandmother and her family during the time of enforced attendance at residential schools. Irene Couchie’s father was the chief of their First Nation, yet he was not shown the respect that his stature should have been accorded when he confronted the Indian agent who took away his three children. The Indian agent, portrayed as a self-righteous and domineering giant figure representing the powerful Canadian government, blocked the doorway as Irene’s father protects his children and wife by standing in front of them. Like Irene, Red Bear felt a sense of resentment and bewilderment about how his parents could allow him to be abused in the schools.
Irene vowed never to forget who she was, despite being told by a nun that she was only to be known by her number and not by her name. Red Bear explains that unlike the ceremony of being given a name in Indigenous culture, this number was randomly assigned by a sneering nun. In Irene’s community, her parents would have given tobacco, a sacred medicine, to an Elder. The Elder would dream the child’s spirit name, and then give the name to the baby in a ceremony. Family and community members attending the ceremony would say the name to the baby in each of the four directions (east, south, west, north). The images of the child scrubbing all the brown off her skin, having her hair cut, and wearing, like all the other girls, drab gray clothing, illustrates the horrific residential school goal of assimilation. The children were punished just for being themselves—for speaking their language, which a nun demonized as “the devil’s language.” As Red Bear explains, the cruel lessons which took the forms of being forced to hold a bedwarmer taken from the coals of a stove and memorizing songs or mending clothes, are in stark contrast to the teachings that Irene would have learned through stories and experiences in nature at home with her family.