June Reading Challenge: Read a biography or book of essays by an Indigenous author.
It is hard to believe that it is almost halfway through the challenge but as the year continues, so must our reading list! This month’s challenge is focused on biographies and essay collections written by Indigenous authors. June is National Indigenous History Month and during this month, we recognize the rich history, heritage, resilience and diversity of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples across Canada. As such, we also believe that reading about their experiences from a first hand perspective is paramount, which is why we are focusing on biographies and essays. For more resources, please check the bottom of this blog post.
As usual, all of the titles mentioned in this post are available at Vaughan Public Libraries where you can request these titles for yourself. If you would like some more recommendations, please check out this staff list of recommendations. If biographies are not your thing, we also recommend checking out this list of teen novels, graphic novels and non-fiction.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer: this collection of essays explores the natural world using scientific knowledge and Indigenous teachings, from the author’s point of view as a professor of environmental biology and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. This book is frequently seen on must-read lists and for good reason! Elizabeth Gilbert proclaims that the book takes readers on “a journey that is every bit as mythic as it is scientific, as sacred as it is historical, as clever as it is wise”.
Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine: If you are looking for something on the fiction side, this short story collection is perfect for you. This debut collection of short stories focuses on Indigenous Latina women set primarly in Denver, Colarado. It is character-driven and written in a unique way that is sure to appeal to anyone. The novel has been nominated for several awards, like the National Book Award and it has even won The American Book Award. For more information about the short story collection and about the author, I highly recommend this interview the author participated in with Longreads in which the author discusses her upbringing and her desire to show that Denver has a long and cultured history that is often dismissed.
Unreconciled by Jesse Wente: Jesse Wente, an Ojibwe member of Serpent River First Nation, is an extremely accomplished arts journalist. He was on CBC Radio One’s Metro Morning for 20 years and is also chairperson of the Canada Council for the Arts. Unreconciled is part manifesto, part memoir about how reconciliation is a flawed concept, Indigenous identity, and the importance of storytelling to Indigenous peoples. Wente expresses his feelings of exploring his Indigenous identity when he was younger – having grown up with certain privileges, he once felt that made him not Indigenous ‘enough’. He then skillfully links the concept of Indigenous identity with colonial practices and government policies like the Indian Act, and how the government sought to regulate identity. But if this description doesn’t do the book justice, maybe Thomas King‘s endorsement will – calling it simply “One hell of a good book.”
Nishga by Jordan Abel: Jordan Abel explores how intergenerational trauma from the aftermath of residential schools has affected his family and community. Furthermore, he writes about what identity means, and what it means to be Indigenous, when so many Indigenous people have different lived experiences. Having never known his grandparents, who were residential school survivors, Abel visited the site of the former residential school where his grandparents were taken, and sifted through available documents related to the school, seeking a connection to them. This is the second work on this list that makes use of archival documents – this project is autobiographical, but also draws on other documents such as interviews, photography, and artwork.
Carry by Toni Jensen: A collection of essays makes up Jensen’s memoir as she discusses what it means to be a Métis woman in America and weaves in stories of her encounters with guns. This is an interesting premise as the author uses an object, and one that is clearly quite dangerous, to discuss her life story and advocate for change. Furthermore, she connects the inherent violence in guns and shootings with racism and sexual assault – and specifically aspects of violence that she herself has experienced. If you are interested in memoirs that are not linear in their storytelling or essay collections by strong writers, there will be something for you to take away from this collection.
From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle: This is an award-winning acclaimed memoir and debut novel from Jesse Thistle, a Métis-Cree man, and how his journey to rock bottom led him to become an esteemed educator. This is a heartwrenching but ultimately inspiring memoir, and Thistle shows brutal vulnerability as he writes about his childhood growing up with neglect, and his struggles with substance abuse. The book was also one of the top-selling books in Canada in 2020 and was a finalist for Canada Reads, and has resonated with readers not only for its content but for its compelling writing. VPL Librarian Daniela describes the book succinctly in her review, “Thistle’s biography is an important lesson about hope, identity, family, love, and perseverance – one that is sure to make a memorable impact on its readers”
Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller: If you’re looking for something unique, I recommend Danielle Geller’s Dog Flowers. After her absent mother passes away from alcohol withdrawal, Geller uses her archivist training to examine her mother’s documents and make a single suitcase as she starts confronting her mother’s past. By exploring all of these documents – which are also reproduced in this memoir – Geller is able to reconcile the few memories she has of her absent mother, with the woman who she really was.
Resources for Indigenous History Month:
- The Ministry of Indigenous Affairs of Ontario has a detailed page with information on Treaties, how to teach them, and even more further reading.
- Here is another #IndigenousReads reading list separated by age of readers.
- Hope for Wellness is a 24/7 helpline free and accessible via call or online offering mental health counselling and crisis intervention for all Indigenous peoples across Canada.
- View this interactive map online that shows Indigenous culture and history along the TransCanada Trail.