Monday, July 24, 2023

Highly Recommended: Christine Day's WE STILL BELONG

We Still Belong
Written by Christine Day (Upper Skagit)
Cover art by Madelyn Goodnight (Chickasaw)
Published in 2023
Publisher: Heartdrum
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Review Status: Highly Recommended

Publisher's synopsis:
Wesley is proud of the poem she wrote for Indigenous Peoples’ Day—but the reaction from a teacher makes her wonder if expressing herself is important enough. And due to the specific tribal laws of her family’s Nation, Wesley is unable to enroll in the Upper Skagit tribe and is left feeling “not Native enough.” Through the course of the novel, with the help of her family and friends, she comes to embrace her own place within the Native community.


What I particularly like about Christine Day's books is that she includes things that I know kids know about. For example, young people are way into video games and gamer culture. More about that later.

Early on in her book, we learn that Wesley and her mom are living with Wesley's grandpa, aunt and uncle and their baby. Across Indian Country, you'll find Native homes where more than one generation is living together. Generally speaking, white families in the US don't live that way but Native ones often do. Whether it is just the way it was from day one or if it is because someone is in need of help, you'll often find more than one generation living together.

Ok--I said "later" about gamer culture but I'm jumping to it right now. It is morning. Wesley and her mom are awake before the rest of the family. Wesley asks if she can watch TV. I was with her, there. "Watch TV." I know what that is, but then Wesley turns the TV on to her favorite streaming channel app and a short list of channels she subscribes to. Here's that passage:
[T]hree gamers are online, including my favorite streamer, gemmakitty01, whose stream title makes me gasp: 
Happy Indigenous Peoples' Day! 24-Hour Live Charity Stream! Come Watch Me Game and Chat with Native American Guest Stars!
Wesley gasps and her mom comes over. She knows who Gemma is, too! They wonder if Gemma is Native. They sit together and talk about what Gemma usually offers, but this stream is different--and they are psyched! Native guests! Wesley's Grandpa and Uncle wake up and see her and her mom at the TV. Her uncle says they actually played video games instead of watching others play. Her Grandpa says they played them at the arcade. Then Grandpa says: 
"These young people today, with all their options, all their devices." 
I bet that particular passage will resonate with lots of kids--Native, or not! One generation kind of sneering at a younger one... I'm certainly familiar with it. I remember having a similar conversation with my dad when car sound systems went from the kind with two round knobs to those with way more to them! Actually, I'm probably a generation older than Wesley's grandpa! Anyway, I love this story! 

This is a bit of a spoiler: about halfway through the story (the school day is over and Wesley is home), her Grandpa gets home and urgently asks her to put the show back on. She's not sure what he's talking about. He says:
"Gemma, the pink kitty girl, the Klamath gamer girl, that's the one."
Turns out, Grandpa was watching after Wesley had gone to school and learned that Gemma is Klamath. There's banter between the two, and lots of joy, too, as they watch for awhile. 

That gamer part of the story is a delight and I think kids will like it a lot. It is fresh and new, and hot. 

As the book title suggests, there's a lot more going on than that. Belonging in this story has to do with being able to be enrolled or a citizen of a tribal nation. Wesley's mom and grandfather are, but she isn't. I'm not going to say more about that. Instead, I'm going to ask you to get the book and before you read it, flip to the Author's Note. There, Christine Day provides you with the background information you need to understand what Wesley is talking about. It is a growing conversation across Indian Country and I think it vital everybody learn about it, whether you are Native or not. 

I have many passages highlighted in my copy of We Still Belong. Activism is there and it, too, rings so true for Native kids. I highly recommend it!