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A Review of Shi-shi-etko by Nicola I. Campbell, As Long as the Rivers Flow by Larry Loyie, and Arctic Stories by Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak

Children’s books about Indian residential schools have been published in North America for several years, and there is now a relatively large body of work in this area. In Canada, a growing number of children’s books on this subject are being published, and these books have been garnering more attention recently as public knowledge of the history and legacy of residential schools is (hopefully) increasing and as parents, teachers and librarians look for resources with which to teach children about this subject.

As Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin have demonstrated in their critical reviews, books for children about residential schools vary in quality, legitimacy and accuracy (Seale and Slapin 56-83) . The notion of accuracy is a difficult one with regard to the history of residential schools – while common features existed among all schools and, on a certain level, a common experience was shared by all the children who attended them, individual experiences were personal and impressionistic, and each child’s suffering was unique. Seale and Slapin repeatedly point out that attempts to paint an accurate, objective picture of the residential school experience in books for children often fall short (Seale and Slapin 56-83) .   Moreover, non-fiction about this subject is perhaps inappropriate for very young readers, because to explain residential schools to children in a straightforward, expository manner would result in necessary over-simplification of events, their causes and consequences – something that Seale and Slapin find especially offensive.  If not made carefully, efforts to present this history in conventional history textbooks or even in semi-fictional accounts can not only seem sterile, but can do a great disservice and even disrespect to the complexity and variety of emotion, memory and feeling that are central to this experience.

By contrast, fiction is a uniquely powerful medium in which to write about the residential schools, and can be used more fruitfully to examine this subject and to teach children about it. Both fictional and semi-fictional stories allow for a richer exploration of experiences, impressions and emotions, and compel readers to consider the greater importance of this subject beyond the simple “facts” of history. The narrative format, therefore, is a particularly effective means of introducing young children to this subject.

Several books have been written for older elementary and secondary school readers about residential schools in Canada, notably My Name is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling and No Time to Say Goodbye by Sylvia Olsen. Like most books on this subject, these two stories focus on life inside the schools and present the harsh and sometimes graphic details of the residential school experience.

While the history of residential schools is also a suitable subject for younger children, it must be presented in a different way and to be introduced more subtly and gently than in books for older children and young adults. A handful of books have been published that do a wonderful job of presenting this history to younger readers, three of which will be explored here: Shi-shi-etko by Nicola I. Campbell, As Long as the Rivers Flow by Larry Loyie, and Arctic Stories by Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak.

Shi-shi-etko and As Long as the Rivers Flow both delicately introduce the topic of residential schools to children by presenting it as the backdrop to personal stories instead of as the main setting. The authors focus on ideas and emotions evoked by the thought of residential school, rather than describing the details of school life. Both stories are set in the summer before the main character leaves for school for the first time, and the specter of residential school is used to create the context for stories in which the authors’ main purpose is to portray the importance of family, home, memories, and traditions. The residential school system had many consequences for aboriginal children and their families, but these two authors make this complex story simple and compelling by focusing exclusively on the theme of loss. The power of these stories comes from illustrating (both with words and with beautiful pictures) what will be lost to the children: their homes, families, customs, lifestyle, and the opportunity to learn from their elders.

As Long as the Rivers Flow is a picture book for upper elementary school readers that tells a fictionalized story of real people and events. Loyie does an especially good job of showing the significance of traditional knowledge that is passed down from elders to children. In sharp contrast to the type of education provided by the schools, Loyie shows that children’s education within aboriginal families was much more holistic and comprehensive, and children learned constantly by watching their older relatives. Though not mentioned explicitly, the dichotomy between these two ways of learning is a strong current that underlies this story and asks the reader to contemplate just what these children were supposed to learn at school and what knowledge they would lose by being taken from their families.

In Shi-shi-etko, her book for younger readers, Campbell also effectively shows the importance of traditional knowledge and the significance of passing that knowledge from generation to generation. Her storytelling uses fewer words than Loyie’s, and the impact of her story comes from repetition and the patterns she makes with those words. Even more so than in Loyie’s book, the richly coloured, impressionistic illustrations contribute a great deal to the story’s lasting impression.

Both stories present the importance of memory as a main theme, as the characters make conscious efforts to take in and absorb as much as possible before leaving home — going to favourite places, listening to favourite stories, spending time with favourite relatives — so that they will have memories to cling to while they are away at school. This theme conveys the message that most children did not want to go to residential school and that going was a great hardship on them and their families. Both of these stories are deeply moving, and they effectively convey the sadness and loss of the residential school experience without getting into subject matter that is perhaps too mature for younger readers.

Residential school also serves as the background to “Agatha Goes to School,” a tale in Michael Kusigak’s Arctic Stories.  Like the other two stories discussed above, residential school is presented as a backdrop that sets the scene for the events taking place, rather than being the focal point of the story.  However, this story is very different from the other two — it is much more cheerful than the other stories, and the author avoids dwelling on the negative aspects of residential school. The main character in the story decides “not to think bad thoughts… besides, there were some good things that happened in this awful place.” Kusugak briefly touches on the fear and sadness that come with leaving home and being in a strange place without family, but this is not what his tale is about.

Although the story is set at a mission in the Northwest Territories where the main character goes to school, the reader does not learn much at all about school life. The action takes place outdoors on the lake near the school where the children ski and skate, and the plot is centered on the events of a single afternoon. What is most striking about this story is that, in contrast to many other stories about residential school, the author was able to find some humour in the situation and to show children being themselves and having fun. In his short afterword, Kusugak mentions very briefly that abuses took place at the schools and that some of the priests and nuns mistreated the children. “But,” he writes, “there were some good things that happened; we got a good education. And then there were the skis, the skates…” This story suggests to readers that children attending residential school were sometimes able to find some enjoyment and have some positive experiences, even in the midst of a terrible situation.

Fiction provides a valuable medium for telling stories that are perhaps too difficult or complicated to tell in conventional non-fiction books for children.  These three books represent the great potential of this genre to introduce young children to the subject of residential schools, and to lay a foundation for further reading about this subject as older children and young adults. We can hope that these books will serve to promote more discussion of this subject in homes, schools and libraries, and provide a catalyst for more books like these to be published in the near future.

Works Cited:

Campbell, Nicola I. Shi-shi-etko. Illustrated by Kim LaFave. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2005.

Kusugak, Michael Arvaarluk. Arctic Stories. Illustrated by Vladyana Langer Krykorka. Toronto: Annick Press Ltd., 1998.

Loyie, Larry and Constance Brissenden. As Long As the Rivers Flow. Illustrated by Heather D. Holmlund. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2002.

Olsen, Sylvia. No Time to Say Goodbye: Children’s Stories of Kuper Island Residential School. Victoria, BC: Sono Nis Press, 2001.

Seale, Doris and Beverly Slapin, eds. A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2005.

Sterling, Shirley. My Name is Seepeetza. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 1992.