Thursday, June 16, 2016
I AM NOT A NUMBER, by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
Dupuis is a member of the Nipissing First Nation.
In 1928, Dupuis's grandmother, Irene Couchie Dupuis, was taken to a residential school in Canada. "Residential" is the term used in Canada for the schools created by the Canadian government. They are similar to the government boarding schools in the U.S. These were schools designed to "christianize" and "civilize" Native children. Some of them were mission schools where efforts were made to convert the children to whatever denomination ran the school.
I Am Not A Number opens with a frightening moment. An Indian agent is at their door, to take Irene and her brothers to residential school. When Irene's mother tries to keep Irene, the agent says "Give me all three or you'll be fined or sent to jail." Irene's parents, like many Native parents, were coerced into giving up their children.
When Irene arrives at the school and tells the nun (it is a mission school run by the Catholic Church) her name, she's told "We don't use names here. All students are known by numbers. You are 759." Irene thinks to herself that she is not a number, hence, the title for the book.
Her hair, as the cover shows, was cut. That happened to children when they arrived at the schools. It was one in a long string of traumatic moments that Native children experienced at residential or boarding schools.
Another was being punished for using their own language. At one point, Irene gives another girl a piece of bread. The girls speak briefly to each other in their language, Ojibwe. One of the nuns hits Irene with a wooden spoon, telling her "That's the devil's language." The nun drags Irene away for "a lesson." The lesson? Using a bedpan filled with hot coals to burn Irene's hands and arms. It was one kind of abuse that children received, routinely.
Irene's story ends on a different note than many of the residential and boarding school stories. She and her brothers go home for the summer. What she tells her parents about her time at the school moves them to make plans so that Irene and her brothers don't go back. When the agent shows up in the fall, the children hide in their dad's workshop. The agent looks for them, but Irene's dad challenges the agent, saying "Call the police. Have me arrested." In a low, even voice, he tells the agent that he (the agent) will never take his children away again. In the Afterword, Dupuis writes that her grandmother was only at the school for that one year. Her father's resistance worked. She was able to stay home, with her family.
Residential and boarding school stories are hard to read, but they're vitally important. In the back matter, Dupuis and Kacer provide historical information about the residential school system. They reference the report the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (the TRC) released in 2015, too. The work of the TRC is being shared in Canada, and books like I Am Not A Number should be taught in schools in Canada, and the U.S., too. In my experience, schools don't hesitate to share stories of "savage Indians" who "massacre" those "innocent settlers." In fact, the Native peoples who fought those settlers were fighting to protect their own families and homelands. Depicting them as aggressors is a misrepresentation of history. The history of the US and Canada is far more complex than is taught. It is way past time that we did a better job of teaching children the facts.
I'll end with this: I'm thrilled whenever I see books in which the author/publisher have opted not to use italics for the words that aren't English ones. There's no italics when we read miigwetch (thank you) and other Ojibwe words in I Am Not A Number. Kudos to Second Story Press for not using italics.