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)
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.