Seven Fallen Feathers, Tanya Talaga

North America Project 2022

Seven Fallen Feathers documents the deaths of seven Indigenous high school students living away – a long way in most cases – from home to attend Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC) in Thunder Bay, Ontario (Canada) in the years 2000-2011.

I listened to it a few weeks ago and then again for a few hours yesterday. I can’t pretend to have retained enough for a proper review, but this is a moving and important story and I will attempt to reconstruct it from the considerable resources of the internet.

Tanya Talaga is an experienced journalist and an Ojibwe woman “with roots in Fort William First Nation… Her great-grandmother, Liz Gauthier, was a residential school survivor. Her great-grandfather, Russell Bowen, was an Ojibwe trapper and labourer. Her grandmother is a member of Fort William First Nation, and her mother was raised in Raith and Graham, Ontario.” (About Tanya)

The book is divided into seven sections, one for each ‘fallen feather’ plus a couple of chapters to wind up. But throughout Talaga winds in background material. Northern Ontario sounds bleak, forests, snow and innumerable lakes, with small remote First Nations communities accessible only by seaplanes, or by long drives when the roads are open.

I gather most communities have schools up to Year 8, but beyond that it’s either correspondence or living away from home – boarding with families, not residential colleges – to attend DFC. Sadly, it is (or was) a condition of attending DFC that the kids come from a remote community. Hence if a parent set up home in Thunder Bay to support their child then they no longer met the condition for attending the school.

Indigenous education fell, and maybe still falls, under Federal Native Affairs (however it is now named) while the education of settler children was a function of Provincial governments. As is the way with Native Affairs bureaucracies everywhere, even if the spending per student was nominally the same, most of it went on (white) administration, and Indigenous schools were woefully underfunded compared with settler schools.

Talaga’s thesis is that the Canadian government engaged in the systematic elimination of First Nations culture – cultural genocide – and for all their good words/good intentions now, that is ongoing. Treaties, which First Nations leaders entered into under duress, were not honoured; the 1876 Indian Act restricted First Nations people to mostly remote reservations and enforced the attendance of of all children up to 16 years at one of 137 residential schools, run by churches, and now notorious for physical and sexual violence, inadequate food and clothing, and rampant disease, especially TB which might easily have been controlled; even with the closure of the residential schools, Indigenous education has been inadequately funded.

To date, according to conservative estimates from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, approximately 4,100 to 6,000 children died amid abuse and neglect while in the residential school system, which ran until 1996.

CTV News, 1 June 2021 (here)

DFC, with 150 students over Years 9-12, was opened by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council on the site of an old residential school in Thunder Bay in 2000. Within weeks of the opening the first of the seven, Jethro Anderson, was reported missing. His body was subsequently found in the Kam River, bruised and with what appeared to be cigarette burns to his face. In what became an unvarying trend, Thunder Bay police reported, prior to any possibility of investigation, that there was no suspicion of foul play.

The other six are –
Curran Strang, 2005, found in the McIntyre River
Paul Panacheese, 2006, collapsed and died at home
Robyn Harper, 2006, died of acute alcohol poisoning
Reggie Bushie, 2007, found in the McIntyre River. He had been drinking on the banks of the river with his brother Ricki, who came to, in the river, with no memory of how he got there
Kyle Morrisseau, 2009, found in the McIntyre River
Jordan Wabasse, 2011, found in the Kam River

Talaga writes sympathetic accounts of each of the seven and their families. She provides instances of Indigenous kids reporting being beaten up by white kids and of being tossed into waterways. She documents ongoing racist harassment; taunts and rubbish thrown from passing cars; one Indigenous woman dying of injuries from a lump of metal thrown at her stomach. Over and over we run into indifferent police and coroners inquiries with all white juries.

There is clearly a problem with children 14-18, too far from parental love and supervision, with too many opportunities for drinking and smoking. As in Australia, concerned elders patrol the streets at night and do what they can. As in Australia, Indigenous kids out after dark are treated by the police with suspicion rather than compassion or understanding.

Provincial police were brought in to redo the investigations. To no effect. An inquest into the seven deaths made open findings about the causes of the deaths and 145 recommendations. Children are now brought home for a week mid-term; and new, more local schools are opening. I was left unsure about whether there were local Provincial high schools that Indigenous kids might attend.

In 2017, two more dead teenagers—Tammy Keeash and Josiah Begg—were pulled from different parts of the McIntyre River within two weeks of each other.


Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers, House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 2017. Audible, 2018, Read by Michaela Washburn. 9 hours.

Christian Morrisseau, an Ojibwa ‘woodland’ artist, painted Seven Fallen Feathers in about 2016, after the inquest into the deaths of his son Kyle and six other First Nations students in Thunder Bay in the years 2000-2011 (Tanya Talaga, Ojibwa artist paints Seven Fallen Feathers to ease pain, remember seven young lives, Toronto Star)

see also:
Marcie/Buried in Print’s review (here)
Lisa/ANZLL’s Indigenous Lit page/Canada and the Americas (here)

I don’t get the impression anyone is attempting to read along with my North America Project. Just as well! Next month (June) my review will be of James Baldwin’s Just Above my Head (1979) which I happened on in the library and have already listened to (yes Emma, it was excellent). July WILL be Their Eyes were watching God (1937), Zora Neale Hurston. I already have Life Among the Qallunaat, Mini Aodla Freeman, so that leaves me four more to find (I also have Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany, but I think that’s a project for another day).

Also in June, for Naomi’s Literary Wives Club, I have The Sentence (2021) by Louise Erdrich to read – I know! What a waste to read a book for only one challenge when it might easily cover two or three.

18 thoughts on “Seven Fallen Feathers, Tanya Talaga

  1. Absolutely re your last point and challenges.

    I heard a discussion on the radio the other day about Native American children (in the Midwest I think) being taken to school for it to be essentially a domestic service training institution. They weren’t allowed to speak their language, etc etc. Everywhere! The story just repeats wherever colonisers come on.


    • We Brits must accept that we too engaged in Genocide everywhere that we separated children from their mothers and forbade them to learn Language, as we do even to today by refusing to educate in any language other than English.
      Talaga makes the point that S Africa’s Apartheid was derived from Canada’s Indian Act, but fails to note the similar Aborigines Acts adopted by Australian states.


      • I think there are just too many Indigenous nations closer to home that are priorities from her perspective, to trouble with other colonial nation-states and their histories. Maybe, too, she finds that she’s causing a lot of controversy by exposing injustices committed by the nation that is most directly threatening (abolishing) her own nation’s sovereignty (i.e. Canada) to challenge other nation states like Australia! :wry laugh:


      • I was concerned to read Talaga from an Australian point of view – to continue my education in Indigenous issues – but I didn’t mean to imply that she should have been thinking about us.
        Apartheid (and Genocide) have particular meanings from which Talaga correctly draws parallels. But it is clear that those parallels exist in many colonial situations, in Canada, in Palestine, in Australia, just to name three to which I am paying/learning to pay attention.


  2. The story is such an old one in so many countries. I am so saddened by it all. A book you might consider for your North American challenge is Native Son by Richard Wright. A real African American classic that I think is quite overlooked.


    • I have you down on my Project post as advocating Native Son. Before I select my last four books, I have to check for US/Canada and Indigenous/African American balance, and I guess for old/new as well (as well as for availability, mostly on Audible). But I will keep him in mind!

      The saddest part is how difficult it is for us as settlers to accept that the harm we are doing to Indigenous communities is ongoing and should be stopped, rectified, reparations made.


      • Not so much for you, Bill, but for any fans of Native Son–I recently watched the 2019 film directed by Rashid Johnson and it was quite remarkable. Can’t really say much more than that, without risking spoilers, but I would recommend it for anyone who values the book.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I also listened to this on audio – you’ve done well to remember what you have – the book is jam-packed with information! It’s an eye-opener, isn’t it? What really made me sad while listening to this is how current it all is – progression on this is so painstakingly slow.
    I love the art work.


    • It is an eye-opener, though after Royal Commissions, Truth & Reconciliation processes, innumerable inquiries in Canada, Australia and South Africa, it shouldn’t be. I hope there is some progression, but the figures in Australia anyway suggest otherwise.

      I love the artwork too. Contemporary painting had reached a dead end IMO, but Indigenous painting gives us a new way of looking at Country.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I hadn’t heard of this book Bill. It saddens, but doesn’t surprise, me. There was a report recently on the ABC (either Four Corners or Australian Story I think) of the desperate need for Aboriginal housing to have more rooms and a verandah (and air conditioning) as overcrowding is a problem – and the Aboriginal people are requesting they have a say in the design of their homes. It’s pathetic to think they are still having to request they actually have some input in the design of their housing. I sometimes despair.


    • Seven Fallen Feathers did well in Canada, in prizes and in sales, I gather. I know Indigenous peoples around the world have drawn on each other’s experience for some time now; but it is still terrible how we the British diaspora behaved wherever we chose to land (pretty well everywhere).

      It might take another half a century, but I hope the world eventually looks on the British (ie. us) in the same way as we look on Germans; and I hope we have the grace to do something about our faults, about our actions past and present, as the Germans seem to have.


  5. Hey Bill, it may be because I’ve been struggling/distracted lately, but I don’t remember seeing a list of which North American books you’re reading. I’d be happy to read along with some of them. Hurston I’ve read, of course, and am happy to gab in your comments section.

    As for Seven Fall Feathers, the part that pisses me off to no end about the treatment of native/indigenous children is that they are taken from their homes, either by force or coercion, because the church thinks they will be civilized. And then they’re dead or abused. All the church had to do was leave the children alone. Just leave them alone. For shits sake, just leave them alone.


    • I’ve been slack about setting up a month by month reading list for the whole year, but I’ll stick to the ones I’ve listed at the end of this post and I’ll write to you soon and we might work out one or two others which will fit in with us both.

      After the calamity of the church run residential schools, I think education for remote First Nations kids was a mess. A mess that had to be tackled by First Nations bodies inadequately funded by the federal government. DFC was an attempt to provide a decent high school education to kids from hundreds of kilometres around, but the difficulties of living away from parental support; the temptations of being out late; and the racism of the white community, especially the police, proved deadly.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You’ve found a lot of parallels between what you’ve already read about Indigenous justice issues in (the country currently called) Australia and (the country currently called) Canada, which have clearly made this a remarkably rewarding read for you, despite the fact that there are a lot of specifics (geographical, historical, political) that would have been difficult to ascertain.

    I hope others will be inspired to read it too because I think she handles it all so skillfully, twining the personal and individual stories of these seven youths with broader cultural and political issues. I think one could simply choose to read just for the seven stories and temporarily set aside the broader trends to feel those accounts more keenly. (But I believe the richer experience is to be had by doing what you’ve done.)

    There are definitely bureaucratic complications about where children and youth can attend schools in Ontario. Generally speaking, you must have an address in the school’s official district in order to be permitted to attend. So, for those living on reservation land, I don’t expect they would be welcomed in a federally funded secondary school, not socially anyway, even if technically there is a way to register (and I doubt there is). It has to do, in theory, with how taxes are collected and dispersed, but in reality it also serves to protect longstanding economic dis/advantages in communities.

    I have put in an ILL for Baldwin but I don’t think it will arrive very quickly. But I do have a copy of the new Hurston (new, for publication) collection. However, you know what I’m most concerned about reading these days…so I’m not sure how these plans will play out!


    • I am loving the books I am reading in this ‘Project’. I might have to do a 13th report and write an overview. Yes, it provides me with new points of comparison with Australia (it might be a while before we call it anything else! Though the new, Labor government has appointed a Minister for the Republic, And a Minister for a Treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. So change is afoot in those directions. Slowly.) But there is also the fun of coming across new/new-to-me writing.

      Before I write to Melanie I will have to make up a table to see where I am up to balancing US/Canada, male/female, new/old and Indigenous/African-American. Though I seem to be doing ok so far just winging it.

      I agree that Talaga did a great job blending personal and general accounts, including how she herself fitted into the narrative. And the warmth of her accounts of meeting families and elders worked really well. It’s no wonder the book did so well in prizes – and in schools, the internet is full of cheat notes on it (some of which – don’t tell Naomi – I took advantage of).

      “There are definitely bureaucratic complications about where children and youth can attend schools in Ontario” sounds a lot like ongoing racial separation, at least for kids from remote communities. Not that there seems to be any better solution in Aust. except that if the parents are willing to move into town, the kids get to go to the local high school. There is one school in Perth, Clontarf, I’m not sure who runs it (Catholics), which provides a mix of education and football for Indigenous BOYS (I’m obviously not up to date, but the Clontarf Foundation apparently now runs programmes throughout WA).

      Don’t let me add any more to the reading pressures under which you are currently groaning!
      I’ll work out what the last four books are to be and put up a list ‘soon’.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s true, although I have a couple of friends whose children attend schools that have been renamed (previously named for politicians that supported the Residential School System). I suppose that phrase is as much to serve as a reminder that these nations’ names were not always thus, as much as to wonder what they might be called next. A process, I suppose.

        Ohhh, yes, don’t let Naomi find out you’ve been cheating. I definitely am not going to text her about it right now. Of course not. ow

        Even though I know that I learned a lot from Tanya Talaga, it’s actually the scenes of her talking with the family and how she describes those relationships (and how they spoke about their losses, articulated them, didn’t) that have remained with me strongly!

        It does sound like that, doesn’t it. Unfortunately. I recently finished a very interesting memoir by Eli Baxter called Aki-wayn-zih, who teaches at an Ojibwe school a couple of hours from Toronto (near where I grew up) and I wonder how long it will take for that to become an option for the majority of Indigenous kids. (The book recently won a national prize here, but comes from two university presses here, so I expect it’d be hard to find outside these borders. He writes about carrying on the story, which only takes him through childhood, so maybe he will gain an audience thanks to that prize.)


      • I see Eli Baxter, Aki-wayn-zih is in one of your posts I’m yet to read. I’ll do so shortly. It’s not available on Audible. Toni Morrison will be my 11th read. I’d like a recent Canadian First Nations/Indigenous to be my 12th (in January or even Feb.)

        You’ve contributed a lot to the discussion here. Thank you


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