Thursday, March 05, 2020


My Mighty Journey: A Waterfall's Story
Written by John Coy
Illustrated by Gaylord Schanilec
Published in 2019
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press
Reviewer: Jean Mendoza
Review Status: Highly Recommended

The approach to the topic here -- the "life" of a waterfall -- is unusual in a children's book. That is, author John Coy (White) makes this geological feature the narrator of its own 12,000-year-plus story.  The book's remarkable visual images and minimal words make that work pretty well.

The waterfall of the title was the only one occurring naturally on the upper Mississippi River. Its underlying rock formations were such that the falls actually "moved" upstream over thousands of years as the rock eroded -- that's the Mighty Journey. It's now more or less anchored in place, in Minneapolis, MN.

The author could have focused strictly on the written history of settler-colonizer interactions with the waterfall. But he acknowledges the area's Indigenous presence over millennia, into the present time, in several ways. Men kill a woolly mammoth near the falls (an event which would have happened more than 10,000 years ago). People tell stories around a winter fire. A boy and his grandfather fish near the falls. From the flow of the story, it's clear that these are not colonizers, but Indigenous people.

Coy first names a Native nation when he describes "a Dakota man who calls me OWAMNIYOMNI" making an offering on an island in the falls. The facing page tells of the priest who "claims he's discovered me/ and says my name is le Saut Saint Antoine de Padoue/ the FALLS OF SAINT ANTHONY OF PADUA." I like what Coy does there. He puts an Indigenous (Dakota) name for the falls first. His choice of the word "claims" makes clear that this priest has "discovered" nothing. Not only that, the priest's name for the falls is quite obviously irrelevant to its existence. This hints at the  relationship of settler-colonizers to the falls.

The next reference to Indigenous people is on a page about a mother and daughter picking chokecherries and tending a garden. In addition to leaves and flowers of garden plants, that illustration incorporates a 1766 print of the falls, which shows canoes on the river above it, and tipis on the far bank. (More about Schanilec's illustrations in a moment.) This use of an image made by settler-colonizers marks a turning point: white-owned businesses will take over, and nearly destroy, the waterfall.

Several pages are then devoted to those decades of exploitation, the disaster, and the engineering feats that now keep the falls in place. The next and final reference to Indigenous people comes at the end of the story, in contemporary times, when Dakota drummers/singers are among the people near the restored bridge over the falls. Just as the falls are still here, this implies, so are the first people to see it.

The Author and Illustrator Notes explain how Gaylord Schanilec (White) and several collaborators created the illustrations, which tend toward the abstract and complex. It was a relief to see that he doesn't use stereotypical imagery like feathers or beadwork on the pages with Indigenous content. Instead, images of two stone spear points (found in what is currently called Minnesota) signify the killing of a woolly mammoth near the falls thousands of years ago. A copper fish hook (over 2000 years old, according to the author note) is part of the illustration for text about a boy and his grandfather fishing. Leaves and flowers of bean, squash, and corn plants signify the garden tended by an Indigenous mother and daughter. Finally -- this took me a while to notice -- the arrangement of autumn leaves, grass blades, and words on the next-to-last pages of the story is evocative of a medicine wheel design. For me as a reader, this doesn't seem like stereotyping or appropriation. It's more of a visual allusion to something an observer might see on the Dakota drum the author describes on those pages, as well as a reference to the cycle of seasons. 

I hope someone will comment with a correction if I've missed problems with the Dakota content or any of the imagery.

I was glad to see that some of the royalties from sales of the book will benefit Dream of Wild Health, a Native-owned farm whose mission is to recover "knowledge of and access to healthy Indigenous foods, medicines and lifeways." People from the farm did some collaborating with the book creators, and plants grown at the farm were "the basis for the images of growth and cultivation in the book."

I do recommend My Mighty Journey. It's a unique book, and contains much to consider, both for children and for adults. Before sharing it with children, though, adults ought to read it cover to cover, with special attention to the "More About" section and the detailed author/illustrator notes. That way they will have the historical information behind the story and the illustrations. They should also spend some unhurried time with each 2-page spread, noting what they see, and be prepared to invite children to do the same.

[Edited 3/6/2020. To be consistent with other posts, changed "Euro-American, US" to "White."]

[Edited 4/11/2020. At 3 p.m. on Monday, April 13, 2020, Minnesota Historical Society Press will post a pre-recorded video of John Coy reading and sharing My Mighty Journey.]

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The medicine wheel image in the book was a gift from the late Ernie Whiteman, Arapaho elder and artist. When he gave me one of his sacred tobacco plants, I asked if it would be okay if I tried printing from it. Ernie said, "Yes. Come back and I will give you the other three sacred plants: sweet grass, sage, and cedar." Ernie talked about circular thinking, as opposed to linear thinking, and showed me the four directions, and the four colors. It is most gratifying to read here that the image does not seem like stereotyping or appropriation. It is a gift.

Gaylord Schanilec