CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 6. . . .October 9, 2015
Wisdom From Our First Nations. (First Nations Series for Young Readers).
Kim Sigafus & Lyle Ernst.
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2015.
101 pp., trade pbk. & epub, $10.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-927583-55-5 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-927583-56-2 (epub).
Older Indians-North America-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Older Indians-North America-Attitudes-Juvenile literature.
Indian philosophy-North America-Juvenile literature.
Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.
Review by Huai-Yang Lim.
There is no such thing as the perfect family, says Jacqueline. Everyone has problems of one kind or another, and Jacqueline’s family was no exception.
“We cannot change the past, but we can shape the future into whatever we choose,” she says. “I choose a bright future filled with love, laughter, and hope. I think my family will agree, if we all keep working at it, things will turn out just fine.”
While she was growing up, Jacqueline didn’t have a lot of friends. “I would rather spend my time reading than playing outside with worms and bugs,” she says. By reading, she discovered what she says was a little secret: you can discover entirely new worlds through books.
Even though Jacqueline preferred reading books to spending time with kids her age, there was one person who was very special to her. Judy Poole lived not far from Jacqueline in Turner Valley. They went to high school together. She was a great friend and ally. Judy and Jacqueline did all kinds of things together and got into some trouble as well.
Historically, positive and realistic representations of First Nations communities have been lacking in Canadian literature and mainstream popular culture. Instead, they have tended to perpetuate stereotypical and negative representations that exclude the perspectives of First Nations communities. As a result, First Nations’ experiences and culture have been obscured and are not well understood by the Canadian public. In recent years, several books published for young readers in Canada have focussed on First Nations histories, experiences, and viewpoints. These have included both nonfiction and fiction works for different age groups—such as Tara Lee Morin’s portrayal of a young girl in As I Remember It—and books for younger readers such as Nicola Campbell’s Shin-chi’s Canoe and Shi-Shi-etko, both of which deal with residential school experiences from children’s perspectives.
Part of the “First Nations Book for Young Readers” series, Kim Sigafus and Lyle Ernst’s Wisdom from our First Nations is a nonfiction work that profiles 12 elders from different aboriginal backgrounds. Although each elder may have coped with various struggles during their lives, each of them has demonstrated remarkable resilience and has successfully overcome their challenging circumstances, thriving as active proponents and contributors to their respective communities. This book bears a similarity to Deborah Ellis’s Looks Like Daylight: Voices of Indigenous Kids, which includes biographical pieces derived from interviews with First Nations youth. Like Ellis, Sigafus and Ernst profile First Nations people, except that they focus on elders instead. Their book shows the worth of what elders can impart to the younger generation about values, way of life, and lessons for the future.
At the same time, Wisdom from our First Nations highlights how these elders have not only retained their heritage successfully, but they have also gained the skills, knowledge, and experience needed to thrive in contemporary Canadian society. These elders exemplify how it is possible for traditional knowledge and contemporary education to coexist. In doing so, their stories highlight the vibrancy and significance of their lives, both on a personal and communal level. They give voice to First Nations’ experiences and affirm the strength and survival of their cultural traditions, despite the obstacles that they face.
This book addresses the question of what it means to be an elder. As seen in these elders’ profiles, to be an elder means that one has a responsibility to support, mentor, and impart their knowledge to future generations. In other words, it means that one inherits and transmits cultural knowledge passed through the generations, shows leadership in their respective communities, and functions as a role model for others to emulate. Indeed, the book’s preface opens by asking readers to consider what they think of when they hear the word “elder,” after which the text proceeds to debunk readers’ potential misconceptions by acknowledging the elders interviewed for this book. As they affirm, “Young or old, everyone has a purpose and story to tell and deserves to be heard.” By setting this tone, Sigafus and Ernst validate these elders’ voices and their contributions for everyone, not just for First Nations communities. Their stories point to the urgency of ensuring that their culture, experiences, and wisdom are not lost and highlight that everyone has a collective responsibility to work for the betterment of future generations.
Divided into 12 chapters, the book covers five elders from Canada and seven from the United States, all of whom come from a wide range of backgrounds. For example, Jacqueline Guest is a Metis and an award-winning children’s author from Alberta. Christine Jack is a Xwisten First Nation elder who has worked to stop violence against women. Bert Crowfoot is from the Siksika Nation and is a leader in Aboriginal communications in North America, with ownership of five newspapers and a radio station. He believes in documenting First Nations’ experiences and serving as a role model for young people. Similarly, Nella Heredia is a Cahuilla elder who works with young people who live on or off reservations, besides which she has a successful catering business that she and her family run.
Readers will also become aware of how the Canadian law had required all native children to leave their communities and go to residential schools. However, their struggles have also helped to shape who they have become and prompted them to give back to their communities. In addition, these stories encourage readers to view them as people with interesting lives and aspirations, much like everyone else-- rather than as people defined solely by their struggles. Each biographical profile includes details about the person’s childhood life, personal and historical events that have shaped their lives and mindset, as well as their goals and accomplishments as adults.
These profiles mention interesting anecdotes from their childhood years, such as dogsledding, the experience of growing up in a one-room house, having fun at school, and living on a party boat. For example, Judy Gingell’s story reveals what it was like to grow up in the wilderness near Moose Lake where her family lived off the land. Similarly, the profile of LaDonna Harris includes interesting anecdotes about growing up on a farm. In contrast, Louva Dahozy’s story illustrates how she pursued education her whole life, despite her struggles at boarding school and when she worked for two white families. Relevant historical details, as well as captioned photos, also provide context for better appreciating their experiences.
As such, readers will understand these elders as people and not simply as “representatives” or spokespeople for native culture and history. Too often, whether inadvertently or not, native people may get cast into this type of role whereby they become representatives or spokespersons for their communities, when they are but one person who is expressing her/his views. These three-dimensional representations distinguish these elders as individuals with their own unique aspirations and personalities which, thereby, challenge stereotypical and reductive images of First Nations prevalent in the popular imagination, such as the one-dimensional image of the Indian with feathers and a tomahawk. Feathers and tomahawks are objects with cultural and historical significance, but these are only one aspect of their experiences.
Appropriate for children and youth between 10 and 14 years of age, Wisdom From our First Nations is easy to read and has a language level appropriate to that age group. The glossary of terms will assist with readers’ understanding. In the classroom, teachers can make this book more accessible by providing some context about aboriginal history in North America as well as by having students reflect on the experiences described and how these elders’ wisdom could apply to their own lives. Readers can also use the list of online resources at the back of the book to learn more about aboriginal history, communities, and other related topics.
Wisdom from our First Nations could also be considered in relation to the now significant body of literature and (auto)biographical narratives related to First Nations communities. As a testament to their elders, the book emphasizes the significance and heterogeneity of their experiences, thereby further illustrating how it is not just their physical appearance but also other aspects such as their gender and sexual orientation that underlie others’ discrimination against them. Given the book’s audience, it avoids addressing sensitive topics such as sexual abuse and rape directly, even though this has also been a tragic part of the residential school experiences and consequences for their communities. If this book were considered in a high school or university class, it would be beneficial to examine it alongside other works for a more mature audience such as Beatrice Culleton’s In Search of April Raintree and Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed—which address sensitive topics such as these more explicitly and may have less optimistic resolutions—if only to provide a greater sense of the diversity of First Nations experiences.
Overall, Wisdom From Our First Nations is a valuable contribution because it documents First Nations’ experiences with highly personal stories that all readers can appreciate. “The First Nations Book for Young Readers” series includes the books Great Athletes From Our First Nations, Great Women From Our First Nations, and Men of Courage From Our First Nations. This latest book makes First Nations elders’ lives accessible to young readers and, in doing so, articulates their experiences as valuable and important to convey.
Huai-Yang Lim has a degree in Library and Information Studies. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.
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