CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 11. . . .November 13, 2015
Three Feathers. (The Debwe Series).
Richard Van Camp. Illustrated by K. Mateus.
Winnipeg, MB: High Water Press/Portage & Main Press, 2015.
48 pp, trade pbk., $16.95.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
The opening page of Three Feathers presents three young men in a canoe: “Rupert, Bryce, and Flinch return from nine months on the land” (p. 1). Nine months previously, they had staged a break-and-enter at the home of an elderly man in their home community of Fort Smith, NWT. They robbed and assaulted Gabe, injuring him so grievously that he sustained both a heart attack and a stroke that will confine him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. It’s not the first time that the trio had committed criminal acts, either. At their sentencing hearing, a young woman cries out, “You three are the reason we lock our doors now. This town was never as brutal as it is now, and all because of you” (p. 7). As punishment, a community sentencing circle sends the three out to live on the land for nine months. The time period is obviously symbolic: at the end, they will be re-born. When they arrive by canoe at their remote destination, an elderly couple meets them and provides them with some of the things they will need in order to learn how to survive. The elders are there to mentor them, not only in survival skills, but also in the cultural traditions of their people: “All people must live in a respectful relationship with the land. The land provides for all and is our best teacher. Our relationship with the land helps define our character and values – respect, humility, caring and sharing. We will teach you as much as we can, and as much as you are willing to learn” (p. 14).
The three do learn, survive, and return home. At the public gathering where they must once again face everyone in their community, people whom they wronged in so many ways, elders speak of the lessons these three young men have learned: not only the basic, practical knowledge needed to survive on the land, but also the knowledge of their traditions, and of the responsibility that human beings owe each other, if they are to live peacefully Bryce speaks to the assembly and, in particular, to Gabe: “Gabe, we wanted to publicly apologize to you and to everyone we hurt through our crimes. We promise to make amends to everyone we robbed.” Flinch then asks that the three be accepted by Irene and Gabe as sons: “We never really had dads. We are hoping you will adopt us as your own sons, so we can help you now. We want to be in your family” (p. 36). While in exile from their community, each of the three had spiritual experiences, and Bryce’s was a dream of three feathers, “uniting [their] little town" (p. 32). Thus, the story ends as the community, restored and united in a spirit of reconciliation, celebrates with a feast.
Three Feathers is a graphic novel illustrated by stark, black and white images. Many of the frames have no captioning, inviting the reader to intuit the narrative. K. Mateus, the illustrator, makes imaginative use of Aboriginal symbols and motifs in this 48 page book; when Gabe is attacked, demonic figures shadow the background, and when Bryce rails at the members of the community sentencing circle, the image of an angry wildcat snarls behind him. A member of the Tlicho (Dogrib) Nation from Fort Smith, NWT, Richard Van Camp knows well the challenges faced by communities in which youth frequently resort to violence, substance abuse is commonplace, families are fractured, even as elders hope for the opportunity to teach their traditions and values. Even though these issues have been featured in the media, this story is so thoroughly situated within this sociological context that I think that non-Aboriginal readers might have difficulty connecting with the story. When the elders speak to the young men of their traditional beliefs, their language seems unusually formal, perhaps because they are conveying spiritual beliefs and the importance of cultural inheritance. And, while everyone likes a happy and hopeful ending, given the complexity of the problems faced by the young men and their community, perhaps it seems too good to be true. Then again, my life experience has been drastically different. I am a white, non-Aboriginal woman, living in a comfortable middle-class urban community, and am keenly aware that the lives and experiences of these young men are also very distant from those of the high school students that I taught prior to my retirement.
Three Feathers is also available in selected Indigenous languages, and I think that students from Aboriginal communities would find the story more accessible than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. It is also possible that the book might have a place in Aboriginal Studies classes as a way of exploring the social issues faced by remote northern Aboriginal communities. Although the publicity release gave no indication of the age of the book’s audience, high school students – older adolescents who are the same age as Rupert, Bryce, and Flinch - are likely to be the intended readers of this graphic novel. Three Feathers is the third title in the Debwe series of Aboriginal writings. “Debwe” means “to speak the truth,” and this book presents some of the harsh realities faced by Canada’s Aboriginal communities. Despite its merits in exploring these issues through the medium of the graphic novel, I think that the audience for the book is a limited one.
Recommended with Reservations.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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