Teachers are always looking for books to pair with required units of study. Most students in the 3rd or 4th grade study the indigenous cultures of their region. Quality picture books by indigenous creators are few and far between so I was thrilled to find Peace Dancer and Orca Chief by Roy Henry Vickers and Robert Budd.
Both books are traditional stories from the village of Kitkatla in British Columbia. This is the home town of the authors. Roy Henry Vickers is an artist and writer and Robert Budd is a historian. Roy holds a leadership position within his tribe. They belong to the Gitxaala Nation which is part of the larger language group known as the Tsimshian. Kitkatla is on the coast of British Columbia just east of the Islands of Haida Gwaii.
Peace Dancer is a traditional tale about the fate that befalls the people when children fail to respect a crow. It’s a flood narrative, which is interesting because so many ancient cultures have some kind of flood story. It gives the explanation for why a peace dancer is so important in a potlatch ceremony. In the author note, Roy Henry Vickers explains that he is the peace dancer for his community.
Orca Chief is also a story about the importance of respect for the natural world. In this story a group of disrespectful fishermen are taken under the sea to visit the Chief of the Orcas. After the fishermen apologize the Orca Chief forgives them and shows them ways to find many good things to eat–herrings, oolichan, and crabs.
Both books have stunning illustrations, combining a mainstream modern painting style with traditional formline art to represent the fish, birds and animals. They are vividly colored and brilliantly produced on the highest quality paper. If Vickers and Budd were Americans and therefore eligible, they would be contenders for the Caldecott with each of these books.
This week is small press week and it’s worth noting that these books are published by Harbour Publishing, a small independent publisher in British Columbia. They have been publishing the work of Vickers and Budd for many years. The pair has a new board book out this year called Hello Humpback.
When you are looking for diverse titles–especially by indigenous writers and artists–don’t forget the small presses.
I will be moderating a panel on Multicultural Outreach. I will be joined by author Anne Broyles, bookseller Kim Hooyboer, and librarian Coi Vu. We will be talking about how to reach a diverse audience in your bookstore or library
Writing about the ravages of colonial control over First Nations in the United States and Canada is difficult enough when addressing adults. It’s even more challenging when presenting material to the youngest readers. How to convey the seriousness and depth of pain without crushing the spirit of the child reader–it’s a huge challenge, and I admire any author who even attempts to take it on. Few come out with such a successful result as author Melanie Florence in her picture book Stolen Words about her grandfather’s forced enrollment in boarding school and the loss of his mother tongue. Ms. Florence tells the story of a young girl who innocently asks her grandfather how to say grandpa in Cree. He tells her about being taken away from home and punished at the boarding school for speaking his Cree language. Illustrator Gabrielle Grimard captures this beautifully representing the Cree language as a blackbird captured in a cage and locked away. It’s an image that conveys the sadness and brutality of the Canadian boarding school without presenting images too heart-breaking for young readers. The girl finds a Cree dictionary in her own school and brings it to her grandfather and the words on the page, again symbolically, take the form of blackbirds and fly free. It’s a simple tale–too simple for older readers certainly who need much more substance and a less tidy resolution. But for the youngest readers this is an important story of native language denied and ultimately regained, and a book well worth celebrating.
Stolen Words is published by Second Story Press out of Toronto, Ontario. It will be available in September of 2017. I wrote this review from an Advanced Reader Copy which I obtained at the independent bookstore where I work. If you are looking for more context as an adult reader I highly recommend They Called Me Number One by Bev Sellars, and acclaimed author from British Columbia. She is a chief of the Xat’sull and her book is about her own experiences in boarding school. It’s not a read for the tenderhearted but it is very useful in understanding the depth of wrong that was done in Indian boarding schools across the Unites States and Canada.
A lot of the work of being an author is the dull and dry sitting at a desk (even when that desk is in a tree) and writing day after day. But every now and then an event comes along that you know you’ll remember forever. The American Indian Cultural Festival in The Dalles last week was just such a moment. It was a celebration of literature and poetry and music and dance. It involved a group of books that I admire and authors I feel honored to share the stage with: Elizabeth Woody, Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Craig Lesley, acclaimed author of contemporary western literature, and National Book Award winning writer Sherman Alexie.
I was lucky enough to spend time with an adult book club and share a poetry reading with some truly outstanding young poets. I got to hear the culture club from Lyle school in Washington give their very first performance in the Sahaptian language with traditional dancing. They were simply amazing. I’m so proud of all they’ve accomplished in a year. I meet with some avid writers in the North Oregon Juvenal Detention Facility, and best of all I got to dance with the Taholah drum group from the Quinault Reservation. My favorite part of the whole thing was the series of classrooms who came to hear me and the Taholah drum group speak. They had all kinds of great questions about the culture and art of the Quinault and Makah and the practice of tribal whaling. It was the sort of mind-opening conversation that cultural festivals are made for. I am very grateful to Julian Peterson and Marko Black and all the tribal dancers from Taholah who shared their songs and prayers and dances so generously, and who invited the students to dance and drum along so whole-heartedly. I know those are memories the students will always cherish.
Thank you to Jim Tindale the librarian at The Dalles School District who made this all happen in conjunction with the great booksellers at Oregon’s oldest bookstore Klindt’s who sold all the books and hosted many of the events. Tina Ontiveros is the manager at Klindt’s and Joaquin Perez is the owner. The fundraising for this event was truly a community affair with donations coming from area schools and libraries, educational foundations, local congregations, Oregon’s poet laureate program, the Wasco County Cultural Trust, the Ford Foundation, the Meyer Memorial Trust, and the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde. It’s inspiring to see so many community members come together in support of literacy and the cultural understanding of our local American Indian communities. Thank you!
I am beyond thrilled to be included in the American Indian Cultural Festival held this week in The Dalles. I will be appearing alongside Sherman Alexie, Elizabeth Woody, the poet laureate of Oregon, and adult writer, Craig Leslie. We will be doing a poetry reading which is free and open to the public on Thursday April 13th at 4:00 in The Dalles Middle School Commons. There will be live music and a drum and dance group from the Quinault Nation. Each of the authors will read a new poem. If you happen to be in the area, I’d love to see you there.
Klindt’s bookstore will host a book signing party at 7:00 that same evening. Klindt’s has the distinction of being the oldest bookstore in the state. I am particularly grateful to the owners of the bookstore who purchased hundreds of copies of my book, Written in Stone to give away to the students I will visit the day following these events. I am also very grateful to Jim Tindale, Librarian extraordinaire who did the lion’s share of the work in coordinating this festival which includes coordinating readings and author visits in 7 locations over the course of two days. He also spearheaded all the fundraising that made this celebration possible.
In addition to the poetry event I will be attending a talk by Sherman Alexie at The Dalles High School. Hundreds of children will come in on busses from all over the county to hear him read from Thunder Boy Jr. which was illustrated by the amazing Yuyi Morales. This event will include drummers and dancers from the Quinault nation.