Tag Archives: First Nations

Tales From Big Spirit (Series) by David Alexander Robertson


I have been a fan of David Alexander Robertson since I read his 7 Generations graphic novel series a few years ago. Recently I stumbled upon his graphic novel series for a younger audience called “Tales from Big Spirit”. Each book is about a prominent First Nations person from history and teaches the reader about their contributions using beautifully drawn graphics (there are a few different illustrators for the series). Although intended for children, I as an adult really enjoyed reading the books and learned a few new things.

The first title I read was “The Peacemaker- Thanadelathur” (illustrated by Wai Tien). This book teaches the reader about Thanadelathur, a remarkable Dene woman who helped make peace between the Cree and Dene peoples in the 1700s. She was originally captured by some Cree people, and managed to escape after the winter had passed. Nearly starving in the process, she was discovered by some geese hunters from the Hudson’s Bay Company and she agreed to become an interpreter for the Hudson’s Bay Company to establish trade agreements. After some difficulty, she proved the be successful, and Thanadelathur is still remembered today through oral tradition and the Hudson Bay Company’s records (quite a rarity for a First Nations woman at that time!)

Second was “The Poet-Pauline Johnson” (illustrated by Scott B. Henderson). This book introduces Pauline Johnson, a Mohawk poet who was quite famous for her poetry reciting, especially “A Cry from an Indian Wife” which told of the Battle of Cut Knife during the Riel Rebellion. Being half European and half Mohawk, she worked towards reconciliation towards those groups of people, and her works have been honored by different groups yesterday and today.

Third was “The Ballad of Nancy April- Shawnadithit” (illustrated by Scott B. Henderson) which tells about the extinction of the Beothuk people in Newfoundland in the 19th century. They became instinct due to various reasons, including loss of food sources due to competition with other groups in the area, death due to European diseases (especially tuberculosis), and violent encounters from other groups. Shawnadithit was the last known full-blooded Beothuk person until her death in 1829, and because of her, some history of the Beothuk people survive today.

Last was “The Scout-Tommy Prince” (illustrated by Scott B. Henderson). This installment teaches about Sgt. Tommy Prince, the most decorated First Nations Soldier in Canada, who served in both World War II and the Korean War. As a young man, he spent a lot of time outdoors hunting and doing other skills, and he joined the army cadets when he was a teenager. Despite facing discrimination, he applied for recruitment several times until he was accepted in 1940. He volunteered to the parachute unit, being one of few who passed training. Later on he did many dangerous tasks; including scoping out and reporting on German assembly points (he laid a 1,400 meter long telephone wire and attached it to a phone in an abandoned farmhouse to do so!). After the wars, he became known once again for saving a man from drowning in Winnipeg. Since his passing, many schools and awards have been named after Prince to honor him.

In total, this has been a wonderful group of graphic novels that taught me a bit of Canadian History. Pauline Johnson’s writings are officially on my to-read list, and I have done further readings on the other individuals.  I truly recommend this collection for those young and old. These titles are available by Interlibrary Loan.



Medicine River by Thomas King ” A Snapshot in Time”



The set up for Thomas King’s “Medicine River” is deceptively simple: our protagonist, Will, initially returns home to the small Albertan reserve, Medicine River, to attend his mother’s funeral. At Will’s surprise, an old acquaintance from his past persuades him to permanently stay in Medicine River. What follows is Will’s return to his hometown, and his establishment within the small community. Does Will accept or regret his decision in coming back? The plotting of such a story may sound familiar. However, King’s writing and pacing suggests a much more ambitious scope.

The old acquaintance is Harlen Bigbear, Medicine River’s champion, and man about town, who is in on all the comings and goings that occur within. Harlen becomes a big part of Will’s new life that he is trying to create for himself. This includes Harlen helping Will set up his own photo shop in and encouraging him to pursue Louise, a potential love interest. King alternates between present and past day, drawing on Will’s history to create a more meaningful narrative. While doing so, Will’s character becomes more authentic; we learn about his thoughts and feelings about being a First Nations man on a small reserve in contemporary Canada, his insecurities about his life and the passions that drive him.

King uses Will’s occupation as a photographer as an effective device to the storytelling; the narrative structure, detailed accounts of events, and the creation of vivid, three dimensional characters feels like King is sharing his most treasured and personal photos with us. We come to see who the important people in Will’s life are and how they change over time. Written in an unassuming prose, “Medicine River” takes on a human approach to characterization that draws in and makes us care deeply about Will and the people of Medicine River.

Helpless: Caledonia’s Nightmare of Fear and Anarchy, and How the Law Failed All of Us by Christie Blatchford


If you have never ventured into the quagmire of First Nations and Canadian issues, laws, acts and history, then this book is NOT for you; it is not a good place to start.

In 2006, Native people from Six Nations blockaded a land development operation because they assert that that land rightfully belongs to the Six Nations. The trouble began way back in the 1840s, although, unfortunately,  Blatchford glosses over this history.

Back in the 1840’s there was a land sale which was to become the disputed land. The Six Nations say they had intended at that time to lease the land, not sell it.

While there is a paper trail that shows the Six Nations chiefs in the 1840s sold the land, there definitely is precedence for acknowledging that Canada has a prior history of swindling Native people’s land. The Bear Island case is one example, Ipperwash is another. Even here in Thunder Bay, the recent land settlement shows just how long these things take to work out…sometimes hundreds of years! To say, without a doubt, that the land in Caledonia under dispute is not Six Nations territory is folly.

In Blatchford’s eyes, the law  failed to protect the innocent Caledonians. But for a century and a half, the law may have already been failing the Six Nations (as it had failed other nations). It all depends on that “sale” back in the 1840s, something Blatchford readily dismisses as unimportant to the blockades.

Blatchford ignores all of this context and instead focuses on what natives did to the innocent Caledonians and how the OPP did nothing to stop “the natives.” The big argument being the “two-tiered” justice that many felt was in place.

According to Blatchford, the media, the police, the government and sympathetic non-native Canadians have all been bamboozled by political correctness. Her book attempts to prove this point, but it fails.  She has no interviews with Native people, she ignores context, and there are misconceptions about the application of Canadian law onto Native lands that the people she’s chosen to tell this story obviously have. One misconception is that the police (or army) is supposed to carry out the will of the people to rid the streets of “lawless” natives, rather than keep two mobs (native and non-native) separated. The other was this was just a case of “Indians going crazy” rather than (what started as) a legitimate land dispute.

Knowing that this began as a land claim dispute that exploded (due to reciprocal backlash) allows a person to actually understand what appeared to be senseless “two-tiered” justice.


The Indian Commissioners: Agents of the State and Indian Policy in Canada’s Prairie West, 1873-1932 by Brian Titley (University of Alberta Press, 2009)


The myth of the indolent Injun is not new; in fact, that idea goes back to circa 1800.  In the 1700’s, when slavery was still legal, the new world was still new and Indian Residential Schools weren’t yet even an experiment.  At that time, Native people often adopted, traded with and fought alongside (and therefore against) Europeans.

Europe had a rigid class system that settlers, militia and imperial representatives brought with them across the ocean.  This meant, in their opinion, that Natives were generally of lower class.  At the same time, however, European leader-representatives would engage in ceremonies and rituals with Native leaders that were meant to promote peace and brotherhood between the two peoples.  The participation was just a facade, unfortunately.

In the next century, the 1800’s, this facade took on an administrative mask via the Indian Department.  Joseph-Alfred-Norbert Provencher was commissaire des Sauvages in Manitoba between 1873 and 1878.  Titley writes, “The Indian Department under Provencher was unimpressive in its operations and achievements…it was in no hurry to fulfill its treaty obligations.  Surveys of reserves dragged on for years allowing squatters to occupy lands claimed by Natives…The wherewithal to engage in agriculture was provided but slowly, and rarely with sufficient quality or quantity to be of much use.  Scrawny oxen and inferior ploughs were no match for the unbroken prairie sod…” (p.35).

Other commissioners weren’t much better.  Edgar Dewdney took the reins from Provencher in 1879 until 1888.  Dewdney’s legacy “was an administration that subjected Indians to strict surveillance and coercive tutalage.” (p.90).  He chose to have Natives enrolled in industrial schools.  These early schools for Native people on the Prairies, unlike anything encountered by them before, were “modeled closely on similar institutions designed for the reform of delinquent and neglected children in mainstream society.” (p.74).  Talk about being low man on the totem pole!

Hayter Reed took over from 1888 until 1893.  Just when some Native people were starting to do well with agriculture (despite bad weather, soil, tools and animals), Reed decided to “remove Native agriculture from the emergent competitive marketplace of large-scale mechanized operations.” (p.103).  Reed figured that the Natives would do too well with “modern” equipment and so, through his agents, “…Indians were expected to make, as much as possible, their own tools and equipment using wooden dowels and animal sinew rather than metal screws and hinges.  It was back to the Middle Ages.” (p.103).

Remember, these Native people lived for thousands of years by hunting buffalo, which had recently disappeared from the land.  So, the Native people had to make the transition, but, obviously, Reed (and the other commissioners) were making it as difficult as possible – despite Treaty promises meant to protect against just this kind of hardship.  (I believe it was all a ploy so that the settlers would prosper beyond the level of the “lowly” Injuns.)

The book looks at a couple of other commissioners, but the story is similar.  Each man typically took a hard line approach to dealing with Native people, and basically at every opportunity attempted to undermine any effort by Natives to maintain links to their past while experimenting with the new ways of the white man, which oftentimes was successful. But Canada didn’t want none of that.

Unfortunately, over a century later, the only thing that seems to have changed is the popularity of mutton chops.

For Joshua, an Ojibway Father Teaches His Son by Richard Wagamese


for joshuaWagamese is a gifted writer and writing has been his way of surving being down and out and his way to the upper echelon of Canadian literature.  In For Joshua, Wagamese writes a poignant story to his (estranged) son, not asking for forgiveness, but for an attempt at understanding and an attempt at teaching.

Wagamese and many First Nations people like him, grew up disconnected from the land, from indigenous culture, from mainstream/non-native culture and ultimately from an essential ‘self’.  For some, like Wagamese, this lead to delinquency and booze.

There are stages that Wagamese has recognized.  First is the Indian-amongst-Canadians: the kid who tries so hard to be an Indian that he’s willing to fabricate a history and mythology just to fit in.  Second is the rebel/outcast who doesn’t fit in anywhere, who turns to superficial relationships and substance abuse for a feeling of belonging.  Third is the pseudo-warrior: the guy who wants to fight the system with the little bit of traditional knowledge he has learned, he belongs, but to the margins of an angry subculture that uses “Indian-ness” as a rallying point.  Fourth is the spiritual participant, the person who powwows, sweat lodges, vision quests, smudges, can relate legends and has (sometimes) a better than beginner’s knowledge of Ojibway cosmology.  Fifth is kind of unstated.  It’s a realm of interbeing that transcends ethnicity or race.

Wagamese takes the reader through these levels as he narrates his own personal history.  He offers the journey to his son (and us) as a chance to learn from someone who, really, has been quite far down that dark road.