My teaching goal this year has been to include more FNMI (First Nations, Metis, Inuit) literature into my classroom. This has been a fun and exciting adventure because I have been reading a lot of new literature!
In high school and university I don’t think I ever read any works or saw any films created by Canadian Indigenous authors. I even took a Canadian Literature course and a Post-Colonial Literature course. As I have been exploring different texts and speaking with other teachers, we have realized that there is a whole body of work out there that we have inadvertently or purposefully ignored!
So now I am part of a group of teachers brought together to discuss how to get more teachers using FNMI texts in their classes, specifically at the high school level. The conversations we have had and the resources we have shared has helped me a lot. Yet the best part about being a part of this group of teachers is talking about the discourse behind teaching FNMI literature. As teachers we admitted that there were barriers to us teaching FNMI literature: we haven’t read or studied the literature before, we are unsure about the context and the history, and we are worried about how to honour and respect the text and the author. In his book Magic Weapons, Sam McKegney writes from a non-Native perspective on the effects of residential schools in the narratives of three different writers. In his second chapter, “Reading Residential School: Native Literary Theory and the Survival Narrative,” he addresses those exact same hesitations we had as teachers. In the closing lines of his chapter he quotes Daniel Heath Justice–a Cherokee author, activist, and academic–who writes that “thoughtful participation in the decolonization of Indigenous peoples is the necessarily enter into an ethical relationship that requires respect, attentiveness, intellectual rigor, and no small amount of moral courage.” For the teachers in this group, this is exactly how we want to approach teaching FNMI texts in our classrooms!
In my quest to learn more about FNMI literature, I have stumbled across some great authors! Richard Wagamese (the novel Indian Horse), Leonard Sumner (the song “They Say” from Rez Poetry), Louise Bernice Halfe/ Sky Dancer (the poetry book Crooked Good), Thomas King (short stories from One Good Story, That One), Lee Maracle (poetry from Bent Box), and Jeannette Armstrong (short stories). The more I read, the more I want to know! One books leads to another book and now I have a list of books waiting to read!
But I am also trying to find films as well. I have had Smoke Signals recommended to me, so that is on the list. The film that I did watch this week was Rhymes for Young Ghouls. What a powerful film! Resiliency, community, adaptation, survival, and hope are some of the positive themes that emerge from this dark film. The film follows the life of Aila, a teenage girl who lives on a Mi’g Maq reservation in 1976 and the story of how the residential school in their area has forever changed the life of everyone who lives in her community. The description of the film says, “Her only options are to run or fight . . . and Mi’g Maq don’t run.”
This film is written, directed, and acted by First Nations people. It is not a retelling of a Native story by Hollywood. In a blog about the film by Chelsea Vowel, she states that this film “utterly rips apart the notion that by beginning to gather an account of the Residential School system we are in any way done the last bit of truth telling we need to undergo in this country.” This film, for me, was eye opening. To see the experiences of life from the perspective of a teenage girl who is struggling to find herself and to help those around her within the complexities that exist in just one reservation in the 1970s was heartbreaking. It was also powerful and transformational. Watching this film was hard and it was painful and it was harsh. The conditions, the trials, the racism, the pain, the suffering, the disconnection was painful to witness, yet I am grateful that movies like this exist. It is important for Canadians to be aware of our past and present and to understand what our fellow Canadians are experiencing.
The dark humour of this film allowed me to look at this time in Canada’s recent past and the experiences of so many people and see the strength in their story telling. There are beautiful moments in the film where family, art, connections to elders, sacrifice, and resilience shine through and give hope to the audience. In his book Magic Weapons, McKegney says that reading Indigenous Literature should bring about more than just understanding and healing; he says that Indigenous Literature needs to bring about activism within community. As a non-Native watching this film, I realize the importance of teaching FNMI texts and of bringing the voices of so many talented writers into my classroom so that the teenagers I teach can become part of a societal, and hopefully national, shift in thinking, leading to activism on behalf of and with our Indigenous brothers and sisters.
The film is “taking control of our own voice . . starting to help heal the past trauma that Indigenous people have gone through within North America” (Kawennahere Devery Jacob, CBC Interview).
“Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another” (John 13:34).