Monday, December 14, 2015


I find Danielle Daniel's Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox unsettling.

In a 2013 article in The Sudbury Star, I read that she is Métis, but that she wasn't raised knowing anything about her Métis heritage. She didn't want her son to grow up without knowing something about that heritage, so she wrote and illustrated Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox as a self-published book that is out this year in hardcover from Groundwood Books (House of Anansi Press). Here's an excerpt from the article (from October 28):
For first-time author and local artist Danielle Daniel, her new children's book Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox was a way to help her 10-year-old son connect to his Metis roots. Daniel, who stopped working as a teacher full-time last year so she could pursue her art, said she was not encouraged to learn about her Metis heritage when she was growing up. "I didn't want that to be the same for my son," she said. "I wanted him to feel proud about it and to celebrate it. "She dedicated the book - which explores 12 different totem animals -to her son and all the Metis and Aboriginal children who never had a chance to know the totem animals because of the residential schools.
The article suggests that residential schools are the reason she didn't know her culture and that this book can help her son and others, but I'm not sure it can. Daniel says she started dreaming about bears and so feels that a bear is her totem animal. That lines up with what I see in new age writings, and not with what I understand about the ways that Anishinaabe people view any of this. 

In the Author's Note, Daniel writes:
The word totem, or doodem in Anishinaabe, means clan. 
From my reading of key writings, and conversations with Ojibwe friends, I know that clans hold tremendous significance. 

That significance is lost in Daniel's treatment of them in the book. The words on each page start with "Sometimes I feel like..." There are 12 different pages for 12 different "totem animals." On each page, is an illustration of a child whose head/face are modified to look like the animal. This is done with a paper mask tied onto the child's head, or a headpiece that fits entirely over the child's head, or with some aspect of the animal being shown as though the child were part it and part human (the page about a beaver has a child with beaver ears, nose, and teeth). 

That treatment of the clans trivializes the importance of the clan system. Someone who lives with that system doesn't shift from one to another in the way Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox suggests. Daniel's book feels more like playing at being Indian than something that her son or any child can actually learn from. 

That's one part of why I'm unsettled but the other is because I have so much empathy for Native people who lost culture because of the boarding schools in the US (and the residential schools in Canada). Those "educational" systems were--and are--devastating to Native people and our cultures and respective nations. I support efforts to learn, but it must come by way of being with the people one identifies with. Artistic efforts to reconnect will fail without the teachings that come from being with the people you're trying to connect with. 

Not recommended.  



Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

I likewise have mixed feelings, not so much about the book but the author.

I encourage Danielle to keep working on her writing -- perhaps focusing on non-related topics for now--and, with her son, to connect with their Metis/Ojibwe cousins, taking time and space to the gain grounded knowledge.

Wordcraft Circle is an organization for Native writers, including children's writers. Furthermore, AICL recommends many titles that may serve as model books.

More globally, Native/First Nations writers--citizens and immediate descendants--are welcome to touch base with me as an industry resource and sounding board.

Heather said...

I am curious about the clans. is it something you are born into, or is your clan revealed to you in a vision quest when you are older? If it is the later, would children wonder about which clan they might belong to in the future.

Lyz Jaakola said...

From what I have been taught, as an Ojibwe-Anishinaabe, clan "membership" is determined before birth. A clan is something a person is "born into".