Sunday, April 11, 2010
Written by Nicola I. Campbell
Illustrated by Kim Lafave
Groundwood, 2008, ISBN: 9-780-88899-857-6
Inside the jacket flap: "The system of Indian residential schools was one of the great injustices perpetrated against the First Nations in Canada and the United States."
Part of the author's note: "When the Europeans came to the Americas they believed Native people were uncivilized. They pushed them off their traditional lands and onto reserves, or reservations. In the late 1800s governments decided to colonize Native people, forcing them to adapt to the European way of life. In both Canada and the US (as well as in Australia and New Zealand), laws were passed forcing Native children to be educated in church-run boarding schools. The purpose of these schools was to sever all ties the children had to their families, cultures and traditional territories."
Shin-chi’s Canoe is a finalist for the Governor General's Literacy Award from the Canadian Council for the Arts and the sequel to Nicola I. Campbell's award-winning book, Shi-shi-etko.
Although this book is fiction, Campbell interviewed her family members and elders who are survivors of residential schools. Kim Lafave used archival photos for the illustrations. The book shows the devastating experience for children and their families in the government-sponsored, church-run schools.
Shin-chi’s Canoe is the story of six-year-old, Shin-chi who is accompanying his big sister, Shi-shi-etko, to residential school for the first time.
This lovely, but heart wrenching tale shows the children sitting together with their family on the porch waiting for the cattle truck to pick them up. Shi-shi-etko tells her little brother things he must remember. He must only use their English names, and that they are not allowed to speak to one another. Then she gives him a gift from their father of a tiny canoe that represents everything Shin-chi must keep hidden. Shin-chi knows he won’t see his family again until the salmon return in the summer.
Upon their arrival, Shin-chi keeps his canoe hidden as the priests and sisters separate boys and girls. The school teaches the children how to pray as the Europeans do. The girls learn to cook, clean etc. while the boys learned to farm, do carpentry and blacksmithing.
Especially disturbing is that the children are given only burnt toast and porridge for breakfast while the teachers feast on steaming plates of bacon, eggs and potatoes from the farm. Thin soup is served to the children for lunch. For dinner it’s hard buns with stew. However, the teachers dine on meat, vegetables and corn for lunch and dinner. The children were never given enough food. The illustrations show the plump teachers through French doors feasting in hues of color while the children in the chow hall are in black and white.
The canoe keeps Shin-chi hopeful throughout the book until he and his sister are eventually reunited with their family in the summer.
This beautiful book teaches children about the resilience of Native children in an ugly era of social injustice. It reminded me of my own family’s extraordinary strength as some of my own ancestors are survivors of residential schools here in Oklahoma.