Books About Native Boarding Schools by Native Authors

Books About Native Residential Schools

Recent years have seen increased awareness of the ongoing trauma created by historical residential schools for Native children in North America, which were operated by government bodies and churches beginning in approximately the mid-1800s, and lasting until the 1960s in the United States and the 1990s in Canada. Hundreds of thousands of children were forcibly removed from their families and taken to these institutions, where they were subject to mistreatment and abuse, including being stripped of their cultural practices and languages. In 2021, the buried bodies of 215 children were found at Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, prompting new mainstream consciousness of the scope and severity of this historical phenomenon, as well as an investigation by the United States Department of the Interior into the US's own role in maintaining hundreds of schools that "deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies to attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children."

These practices amounting to cultural genocide may just be coming to light for many, but Native communities have been aware of them for generations, and this is reflected in literature ranging from more than a hundred years ago to contemporary times. Mona Susan Power's A Council of Dolls depicts the reality of residential schools and their lasting effects through three generations of Dakota women and their childhood dolls. Below are some additional books that feature Native people's experiences, direct and indirect, with residential schools, as well as links to lists of further recommended reading on the subject.

Margaret Verble's Stealing follows Kit Crockett, a Cherokee child taken from her father's care after her mother's death and sent to a boarding school in the 1950s American South. Probably Ruby by Lisa Bird-Wilson, which focuses on the varied experiences of a Métis woman raised in the Canadian foster system and a non-Native adoptive family, includes a brief glimpse of historical residential school abuses but also subtly links these abuses to modern-day foster care, which Swampy Cree author David A. Robertson calls "a colonial system that's grossly overrepresented by Indigenous children" in his review of the novel for the Toronto Star.

Robertson, whose grandmother attended Norway House Indian Residential School in the 1920s and '30s, put together a list of 48 books by Indigenous authors for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to increase understanding of residential schools. His list includes the novels Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, about an Ojibway boy forced to attend a residential school who discovers an escape from the traumas of his life in hockey, and In Search of April Raintree by Beatrice Mosionier, about two sisters who have differing relationships with their Métis identity after their boarding school experience. It also features a wide variety of children's books, and a collection of poetry by Lisa Bird-Wilson, The Red Files, which draws from her family history and historical records.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a nonprofit membership organization committed to "lead[ing] in the pursuit of understanding and addressing the ongoing trauma created by the U.S. Indian Boarding School policy," offers a downloadable list of recommended books about American boarding school history on their website, including general history and personal accounts, such as The Middle Five: Indian Schoolboys of the Omaha Tribe by Francis LaFlesche, an autobiographical telling of the author's experience in a Presbyterian boarding school in Nebraska that was first published in 1900.

Robertson explains what role he thinks stories can play in addressing the history of residential schools. "Stories have been, and always will be, the best way to educate ourselves about the truth," he writes. "You have to recognize that you have the power to be the authors of reconciliation if you read as much as you can, listen as much as you can, learn as much as you can, and then take meaningful, informed action."

More Beyond the Book Articles

This piece by Elisabeth Cook was first published as a "beyond the book" article for Mona Susan Power's A Council of Dolls. Every time BookBrowse reviews a book, we accompany it with a "beyond the book" article. You can read thousands more in our Beyond the Book section.

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