Deborah Ellis has a doubly powerful schtick: first, her nonfiction titles give underrepresented children a highly visible podium for their very own words (Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak, Off to War: Voices of Soldiers’ Children, Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees, Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely through a Never-Ending War); then she ends up putting her royalties where her pen goes. Her latest gives center stage to young people throughout the North American continent who are Native Americans south of the border, and First Nations people to the north; her royalties benefit the First Nations Children & Family Caring Society of Canada. Her gifting has proven impressively prodigious: she’s parlayed her bestselling success to raise over a million dollars for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan and Street Kid International with the first three (of four) titles of her award-winning signature Breadwinner series alone.
Regardless of the different monikers – Iqaluit to Inuit, Nez Perce to Navajo, Pueblo to Seminole, and so many more – the 45 young people here share an indigenous heritage: they are the original Americans. “These are the stories of young people who have inherited the challenges of colonialism,” writes Dr. Loriene Roy in her “Foreword”; Roy is Anishinabe, former president of the American Library Association, and teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. “These challenges of family dissolution, family/intimate partner violence, diabetes, alcoholism/drug abuse, foster care, bullying, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), self-abuse and suicide are the outcomes of the efforts of majority cultures to abolish traditional lifeways …
“Yet they live and often, thrive,” Roy concludes.
Ellis spent two years crisscrossing the U.S. and Canada to speak to these surviving, thriving young people. In her “Introduction,” Ellis lays bare the horrific Native history through the last two centuries: from genocide to the creation of schools for survivors designed to “‘Kill the Indian in him and save the man,'” to the legalized abduction of children for indentured service or even slavery, to the attempts to abolish indigenous languages (of an estimated 300 original languages, half have disappeared; of the remaining 150, 130 are threatened with extinction as today’s children can only speak some 20 languages), to the replacement of the Native diet with handouts of canned and processed foods. “The children in this book have inherited this history. That they are here at all is a miracle.”
These resilient youth are definitely ‘here’ – each learning, adapting, sharing, thriving. Tingo, 14, is working to get over grief: “… grief over losing our land, our language, our customs, our ways. Grief often comes out as trouble.” Mari, 18, helped get smoking banned from public parks in Minneapolis. Myleka, 13, and her brother Tulane, 14, represent a new generation of proud artists. Cohen, 14, who belongs to the remote Haida Gwaii, helped battle the logging companies who arrived to cut down their trees.
But sometimes, illness and death are just too close to home. Miranda, 12, knows too many sick people damaged by the nearby petrochemical plants: “It’s almost a normal thing here to die of cancer, especially if you’re a woman.” Destiny, 15, has survived five suicide attempts: “I guess I was meant to live … I guess maybe the Creator is telling me … you’ve got something important to do before you die …”; she lives “just over the hill from where the Wounded Knee Massacre took place … For white kids it’s just something in a history book. For me, it’s my family. … They’re still killing us today, but now they do it with alcohol and drugs and bad food and suicide.”
Solace and strength comes in many forms, sometimes via surprising options. Isabella, 14, is an actress hoping to break Hollywood’s stereotypes. Danton, 14, performs extensively with his family group, the Métis Fiddler Quartet, including during the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Ta’Kaiya, 11, is already a staunch environmentalist with numerous international speaking engagements, a website, and has thus far been in four films. Cuay, 12, is a skateboarder: “Skateboarding is the fastest-growing sport on native American reservations.” Lane, 14, is a multi-generational lacrosse player; named by French priests in the 1600s, the sport is a Native creation: “Lacrosse has been played by my people since forever, since long before your people came here.”
And speaking of us non-Native people, Jeffrey, 18, gets the final word today of all days: “I come from the Watuppa Wampanoag Reservation of Martha’s Vineyard … It was my ancestors who greeted the Pilgrims when they landed on Plymouth Rock, and my ancestors who helped them survive through the first winter. When you think of Thanksgiving, think of us.” [For an unforgettable novelization of the life of the first Native American graduate of Harvard who was also Wampanoag, check out Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing.]
In spite of his history, Jeffrey “get[s] squashed for being Native” in high school. Growing up, he didn’t understand his heritage: “It felt like a disadvantage.” And then he got involved with the local youth council, eventually attending a UNITY conference which “transformed” him: He left behind feeling “empty, angry, and alone,” and found “connection … in the traditions of their own communities.” Unlike too many of his contemporaries who didn’t survive, Jeffrey, and many like him, do what they do “for the Native youth who will follow us, seven generations from now.” That’s reason for thanks-giving indeed.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult