I haven’t had much time to read for pleasure lately, but I was inspired by some friends and students to pick up Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse and Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers in the hopes that I would gain a greater understanding of the intergenerational trauma inflicted on indigenous people by Canada’s Residential School System.
I first heard about Indian Horse from a Superior-Greenstone DSB colleague, Laura Mason, who championed the novel. She used it in a senior English class and shared how the novel intertwined trauma with hockey while engaging readers. The book stayed on my back-burner until this year when one of my own grade 12 English students used it in her Independent Study Unit. She shared some very powerful excerpts that described – in horrifying terms – what happened in residential schools. We know much of these descriptions to be true as a result of the brave testimony of victims and survivors as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The story, as most likely know, has been reimagined as a film, (which was just recently released), though I have yet to see it.
The novel is beautifully-written despite the fact that the reader is almost always encountering loss. This includes the loss of parents to alcoholism, the loss of family members to death, the loss of trust in institutions, the loss of culture through residential schools and a racist society, and the loss of self as main character Saul Indian Horse battles so much trauma. However, the novel also provides hope.
The hope lies in the fact that this novel is also about hockey and the beauty of the game. Saul Indian Horse is a naturally-talented player and despite society’s best attempts to strip Saul of his gift, he is still able to play on. Saul is also able to find closure – or at least come to peace with – his past as he travels back to where his story began.
Wagamese’s descriptions, his passion for his characters, and the important historically-influenced story proved spell-binding for me. The novel is emotionally-charged and although I finished it a week ago, it is still sticking with me. I can’t recommend it enough. I wish Wagamese were still alive so I could personally write to him and share how much I felt connected to his novel’s main character.
After putting down Indian Horse, I immediately picked up Seven Fallen Feathers, which documents the tragic circumstances around the deaths of seven indigenous youth in Thunder Bay, Ontario. In each case, the deaths involved a student who was in Thunder Bay for high school, since the vast majority of northern reserves do not have physical high schools. Options for students include distance education, traveling to places like Thunder Bay or Sioux Lookout, or receiving no high school education at all. What struck me the most about this book was the amount of research author Tanya Talaga and her team conducted to ensure that the stories she shares are factual. These facts, (cited in several pages at the book’s end) make the circumstances that much more horrifying: Systemic racism, a lack of appropriate support for students, a serious gap in educational offerings, communication breakdowns, addiction, and the reality that the death of seven young lives is the focus of the story makes Seven Fallen Feathers emotionally-charged.
The story is not about assigning blame or making non-indigenous people feel guilty. It’s about outlining what went wrong in the hopes that additional deaths can be prevented. When Talaga outlines the government’s stalling of funding and action, the questionable response of the police, and the ongoing trauma within the families invovled it’s hard not to feel guilty, though.
Talaga goes into great depths to detail the lives of the youth, celebrating their lives and their accomplishments – and the events leading up to their deaths. She describes the frantic searches, the panic of parents, guardians, educators, and counselors, and the aftermath. Some of the statistics are particularly tough to read:
However, like Indian Horse, Seven Fallen Feathers provides some hope at the end. Governments and organizations are working hard – and working together – to make Thunder Bay safer. This includes, (after a lot of arguing, as outlined in the novel) a Coroner’s Inquest into the seven deaths, a review of the Thunder Bay Police, and new training for both educational institutions and those responsible for the health and welfare of students.
Both of these novels are important to me. The students and youth described in both are in many ways similar to the very students I teach. In the case of Seven Fallen Feathers, some share communities, last names and families. I want to have a better understanding of the effects of intergenerational trauma. I want to know where my students and their families come. I want to know the parts of Canada’s history that for far too long were kept in the dark.
I highly recommend both of these novels. I also highly recommend that anyone who has not familiarized themselves with the story of Chanie Wenjack, a Cree boy from Ogoki who died in 1966 trying to escape a residential school, learn his story. I remember learning so much about trauma, loss, and death in so many other countries in my own history classes without ever really knowing what happened in Canada.
Thanks for reading.