Book Reviews

by book club member Rosemary Brown (originally published in the Brentwood Cares newsletter). The dates refer to when we read the book. Thank you, Rosemary, for allowing me to show your reviews!

 December 2021: It was hard to put down, Tilly and the Crazy Eights, which was December’s read for the Settlers’ Book club. The author, Monique Gray  Smith,  of Cree, Lakota and Scots ancestry, takes us on a road trip with eight  Indigenous Elders from Kamloops, and Tilly, their younger driver.

They travel by van to Albuquerque, New Mexican in order to fulfill the bucket list wish   of Sarah, who has always dreamed of dancing at the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow. Travelling with Sarah are her sister Anne from Toronto,  four  other members of her sewing or “stitch and bitch” circle : Rose, Bea, Lucy, Mable as well  two men, Rose’s husband Poncho and Bea’s ex-husband  Chuck. All have their own bucket wishes which the trip incorporates,  whether  it’s a stop in Las Vegas, a visit to the red rocks of Sedona to spread a sister’s ashes, seeing the Grand Canyon, or  hugging a tree in the Redwood Forest .

At first the group does not believe that they will be able to take the trip but after months of   hard work raising the necessary funds,  arranging for travel documents and permission to use one of the Band Council’s large vans, they are finally ready to go.

What follows is not only a recounting of their trip but an exploration into their diverse personalities: from irrepressible Lucy to curmudgeonly Rose, as well as the stories of what has made these elders who they are. These stories are often poignant and many  deal with healing  from residential school experiences to losing a daughter on the Highway of Tears, marital discord and break ups, loss of culture and struggling with alcohol addiction. The interplay among the elders is often humorous and sometimes very sweet as relationships heal and strengthen and journeys of self discovery are made. All in all this was a very enjoyable, heartwarming and worthwhile read.

July – October 2021: Blackfoot Ways of Knowing: The Worldview of the Siksikaitsitapi is a must read for those of us who want to develop a better relationship  with and understanding  of the people on whose land we now live, work and play.

The author, Dr. Betty Bastien, is Blackfoot (a member of the Piikani Nation),  a University of Calgary Social  Work Professor Emeritus and currently the Director of the Indigenous  Bachelor of Social Work degree programme at Red Crow Community college in Lethbridge.

Bastien has written this book for other Blackfoot . At the same time the book offers insights into a worldview that contains lessons for all of us  in regards to how we conduct our own lives and how we interact with the natural world around us.

The book is a challenging and enlightening one. It is with humility that I write this review, recognizing that as a settler, I most likely  do not totally grasp the scope of the ideas that Bastien presents and discusses.

Bastien begins with a presentation of key concepts and a brief historical overview of pre and post contact Blackfoot society and the consequences of colonization.

In the two middle sections of the book, Bastien paints a multilayered portrait of what it meant and means to be Blackfoot and how this meaning is taught and learned. According to Bastien the worldview of the Blackfoot encompasses  a cosmos of spiritual energies where  everything in the natural world  including humans, is infused with spirit and everything exists in relationship with each other. The Blackfoot recognized the natural world as a generous one which provided many gifts. Therefore, respect and gratitude were the basis upon which the  Blackfoot  developed and  maintained  reciprocal alliances with these different relations. This  was essential to creating balance, the key to harmony and survival.

This understanding of the universe was based on thousands of years of observation and this understanding has been transmitted from generation to generation through ceremonies with their associated medicine pipes and bundles, prayers, stories and songs. In the process Blackfoot individuals learn what their roles and responsibilities are in building and maintaining alliances. This learning is an experiential and evolving process led by “grandparents” and ceremonialists. The stories were not prescriptive but were offered for individuals to reflect upon and apply to their own lives and situations. Bastien shares several of these stories, as well as statements by grandparents” throughout her discussion.

Bastien comments that it is difficult to use the English language to adequately explain these concepts. This is due to the fact that the Blackfoot language embodies these sacred and spiritual understandings of the natural world, while English is a language of a culture that became increasingly disassociated from nature over the centuries.

Bastien’s  discussion of the Blackfoot language and how integral it is to the transfer of Blackfoot ways of knowing makes abundantly clear to the reader how devastating the stripping of language from Indigenous children in residential schools was. Residential schools were but one aspect of   colonization which Bastien  defines as a system of policies and practices which have resulted in cultural genocide-a  concerted disruption of what it meant to be Blackfoot. She also argues that cultural genocide is genocide, and after reading this book I agree.

Bastien also makes the point that not all knowledge was lost as there were  Indigenous peoples who resisted the impact of colonization by continuing to live by and engage in ceremonial practice.

Bastien believes strongly that the capacity to resist the genocidal consequences of colonization is to be found in reclaiming. Blackfoot ways of knowing and relating to the world around us.She refers to these ways of knowing as sacred science and compares and contrasts it to western science, while at the same time pointing out that many aspects of this sacred science resonate with many understandings  and discoveries of modern physicists.

Therefore, If we as non-Indigenous peoples can begin to see the world in holistic rather than binary terms; if we can grasp how we are part of a web of continually interactive relationships that require  reciprocity to remain in  balance,  and if we accept our roles and responsibilities in maintaining this balance, we might see our way forward to addressing the severe imbalances we are experiencing in the natural world today.

To sum up I will conclude with  the response made by Indigenous author Lee Miracle in an Orange Shirt Day webinar.  She was asked about whether or not it was appropriate for non-Indigenous people to embrace the spiritual  practices of Indigenous peoples to support  themselves  on their spiritual journey. Lee replied, “Don’t be a pretend Indian. Fall in love with the land and the land will teach you.

February 2021: To honor Black History Month, the Settler’s Book Club read Cheryl Foggo’s Pourin’ Down Rain: A Black Woman Claims Her Place in the Canadian West. Foggo is a Calgary-based award-winning author, playwright and filmmaker. Written thirty years ago and recently republished, Pourin’ Down Rain combines personal memoir and family history, all contextualized within the larger story of the migration of Black settlers into Canada around 1910.

Foggo was born in Calgary in 1956, and she describes what it was like to grow up in Bowness as part of the small close-knit community of Black families who also lived in her neighbourhood. She also recounts the long but much anticipated road trips to visit grandparents and other relatives in Winnipeg. The close bonds between Cheryl and her cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents gave her a sense of identity and pride which helped her deal with the racism she encountered growing up.

She explains that she grew up into a consciousness of racism based on the experiences around her and the stories she heard from friends and family, especially when it came to finding work in Canada. There were the comments of classmates and the sudden shunning by a white boyfriend in high school. She describes the first anti-racism march she participated in and the continued evolution of her thinking when it came to racism.

Then there were the family stories told by her aunts and great aunts that related the conditions that led to the migration of hundreds of Black settlers from the U.S. into Canada. These included Foggo’s great-grandfather, who left Oklahoma for Saskatchewan in 1910.

Interspersed with the stories and vignettes of family life are numerous and wonderful photos of family, friends, and neighbours. These all contribute to a powerful depiction of what it was like to grow up Black in Calgary and in Canada in the 60’s and 70’s.

March 2021: The Right to be Cold by Sheila (pronounced Seela) Watt-Cloutier, was the March selection for the Settlers’ Book Club. This inspiring book is both a personal memoir beginning with her childhood in Inuvik in northern Quebec, and an impassioned accounting of the negative impact of the outside world on Inuit communities in the  Canadian north, and on their traditional hunting culture. The hunting way of life was the foundation of the culture and the training ground in the skills and mental attributes needed to survive on the land.

These outside influences included  the introduction of the trapping economy by the Hudson Bay Company, the collapse of the market for fox furs in the 40s, the 60s anti-sealing campaign, increasing dependence on government assistance and the associated pressure to move into permanent communities, the introduction of a non traditional education system  the forced relocation of some Inuit communities to the far North, and the 1960s slaughter of the Inuit dog sled teams by the RCMP.

Over time these have led to social dislocation and  an increase in many social problem such as poverty, alcoholism,  crime, and violence. Watt-Cloutier believes that the way forward for Inuit communities in the North and a key means of breaking dependency lies in building and integrating those aspects, including spirituality, of what still remains of the hunting culture into new ways of doing things.

The capacity to do this, however, is diminishing as rapidly as the ice and the permafrost in the north due to global warming . As a result  Watt-cloudier has spent much of her adult life addressing environmental issues through her role as Canadian President and then as the International Chair of the ICC or Inuit Circumpolar Conference. On the one hand she  details the complex and interconnected ways in which global warming  impacts the ice and permafrost and Inuit communities.

On the other she recounts the intense international campaigns and the ins and outs of negotiating with all stakeholders such as Inuit  and  environmental organizations,  various industries  and governments  to create international agreements to protect the  environment and the communities impacted by harmful environmental practices.

Watt-Cloutier was instrumental in bringing the world and the UN Human Rights Council to an understanding that environmental rights are also human rights. And as Watt-cloudier s eloquently demonstrates,  one of these human rights is “the right to be cold”.

April 2021: The Settlers’ Book Club  continued it’s examination of racism with How To Be An Anti-Racist by Black university professor Ibram X. Kendi.

While the title might lead one to believe this was a prescriptive manual, the book is in fact an interesting weave of personal experiences and patterns of thinking with broader analyses of a range of concepts relevant to antiracist struggle. It’s an account of how Kendi’s thinking  evolved over time, from his childhood and youth to today. He considers internalized racist attitudes and ideas, and the intersecting issues of class, gender, sexuality. He also discusses  power, colour, the environment and the source of racism in society.

In the process Kendi challenges the idea of colour blindness and the belief that  one  can be a non-racist or not racist. He argues that one is either racist or anti-racist. His definition of anti-racist treats the term not as a noun but as a verb, entailing the necessity to actively counter racist ideas, policies and practices.

He locates the source of racism not in ignorance and hate but the policies and practices  that produce hate and ignorance. Further he argues that these policies and practices are not designed by those in power because they hold racist ideas, but that racist policies, practices and ideology are designed to benefit those in power – whether economically, politically or socially.

This then leads to an analysis of the viability of traditional anti-racist strategies which rely on education and moral persuasion. He argues that these have their place in the struggle, but if  they are not linked to the work of actively challenging racist policies and practices they will fail in effectively challenging racism. For Kendi the essence of being an anti-racist is to work towards the elimination of racist policies and practices head on, which means taking on power. As such Kendi’s book is a critical and thought provoking addition to the literature on anti-racism.  It is well worth reading.

May 2021: In  the Settlers’ Book Club we read A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. Alicia Elliott, the author, spent most of her childhood on the Six Nations reserve of Grand River in Ontario with her Tuscarora father and white mother and several siblings.

The title of her book is drawn from the Mohawk word for depression. It is an apt title as she creates a  moving portrayal of what it was like to grow up in an impoverished family with a mentally ill mother and a sometimes abusive loving father.

The book is a series of interrelated essays ranging from personal stories to reflections on the impact if colonization, the nature of racism, the agricultural industry, literature and writing and photography.

She covers a lot of ground. She critiques the social services who seemed more intent on pulling the family apart rather than providing the supports they needed. She describes how the children were coached not to say to much at school or in front of care workers so that they would not be taken away. She talks about what it was like to grow up with a mixed heritage and her journey to find herself and to become proud of her Indigenous roots. She discusses racism and compares it to our perceptions of dark matter – we can’t always see it but it is there.

She moves from a description of the lack of nutritious food available because of a limited income to an analysis of agricultural subsidies which stimulate the production of corn and soy beans which are key ingredients in the junk food that was eastern. She speaks poignantly  of her conflicted feelings towards a mother whose moods swing from loving, engaging and entertaining to sullen withdrawal and inactivity. They were also conflicted towards her father. He worked hard to support the family and was committed to keeping them together but he was emotionally abusive to his wife and there were instances of physical abuse towards his children. The theme that connects many of these essays is Elliott’s analysis of  the ongoing impact of colonization.

September 2020: Indigenous Writes by Chelsea Vowel and July 2020: White Fragility by Robin Diangelo

Vowel, a Métis lawyer based in Edmonton, makes it clear that she is not speaking for all Indigenous peoples. On the other hand the issues and analyses she presents echo those of many of the other books we have read. In this book Vowel uses humour and a well-documented research to explore a range of issues including but not limited to terminology, identity to residential schools and the 60’s Scoop, water, justice, the treaties, education. As such this is an excellent book to read alongside the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions 94 Calls to Action. Vowel also has an extensive section challenging prevalent myths around Indigenous peoples.

One of the themes running through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action is the need for anti-racism education among health care professionals, child care workers, educators, the police, members of the justice system, etc. So in the Settlers’ Book Club we have also been reading several books about racism. The first was White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. This was written by the white American author and anti-racism facilitator Robin Diangelo, White Fragility explores the myriad reactions that we as white people often experience when either discussing racism or being challenged for racist comments and behaviours. These include everything from anger, and denial, to withdrawal, tears and or silence.

While I had been aware of these typical reactions before I read the book, I appreciated how Diangelo locates them within the context of white supremacy and what she calls the “good/bad binary”. She unpacks what white supremacy is and how as white people we are socialized into racism. Because we often are unconscious of this process and because we have bought into the notion that good people cannot be racist – that the racists are only those radical white supremacists. She ends with a discussion of how we can build resiliency when talking about racism so that we do not fall into typical reactive behaviours. This book has given me and others a lot to think about, as well as a list of very useful resources for further learning.

August 2020: Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in gaining insights into the relationship between black communities and urban police forces. A black investigative journalist in Toronto, Cole recounts events from the year
of 2016 on a month to month basis. He describes in chilling detail incidents of police brutality as well as interactions with immigration and child welfare. Cole is also an activist who speaks up at hearings and other public events. He describes these as well as the community organizing efforts of everyday people. Cole weaves in stories from other provinces, including the visit he made to cities in Alberta to meet with communities concerned about the issues of carding and racial profiling by the police. This book was a timely read shortly after the Black Lives Matter protests held across the world and. It continues to be significant for understanding the experiences of Black people in this
country at the hands of the authorities, and the need for change. As Cole states “Some of us have decided that policing as it exists today will never contribute to our safety or freedom”.

For book reviews of books we have read in the Indigenous Book Discussion group, go to https://wtepyyc.wordpress.com/book-reviews/