Representation Matters: Reading Firekeeper’s Daughter
You often hear about books being pulled from school study due to them being inappropriate for one reason or another, but I don't think we talk enough about which books should be read in schools or book clubs. Writing this today, I feel confident that I've found yet another book I want to run down the street commanding everyone to read. That book is called Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley.
At the beginning of 2020, I made the decision to decolonize my bookshelf. In doing so, my goal was to ensure that I am prioritizing the stories of marginalized communities, especially the Indigenous and 2SLGBTQQIA+ stories of Turtle Island. Along my journey of decolonizing my bookshelf, and my mind along with it, I've stumbled across multiple books that have blown me away. However, I quickly burned out emotionally, mentally and spiritually when both my university degree and my extracurricular nonfiction reading held the stories of trauma and violence. Yes, I read about incredible resilience, but my emotional capacity was fried and it couldn’t support me while reading trauma after trauma, violence after violence. When I made the decision to focus on fiction as a means of healing my heart, that's when I stumbled upon Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley.
Boulley takes educational storytelling to a whole other level, crafting a thrilling narrative about a young Anishinaabe woman who is thrust into undercover work to protect her community from a new drug ring taking over. Boulley, herself, is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and Firekeeper’s Daughter is her debut novel.
Aside from being a beautiful example of what Indigenous literature can look like when we're not confined to specific, "Traditional" genres, Firekeeper's Daughter fights tooth and nail to ensure that the reader walks away with the understanding that Indigenous Peoples are not stuck in the past. We are contemporary and modern, and we have always been contemporary and modern. Our Knowledge is science and has value, but it cannot be mined to serve the State's uses. Boulley also somehow manages to cover mass amounts of ground with regard to informing the reader about Indigenous issues. Racism, blood quantum, stolen Land, MMIWG2S, unpunished sexual violence against Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit individuals, Knowledge mining and more are all huge themes throughout this story. It's seamless, real, and never ceases to amaze me how many human rights issues a well-written decolonial book can highlight.
I often speak about the importance of being seen and being represented. Despite Turtle Island being stolen Indigenous Land, Indigenous representation in North American media makes up less than 1%. Although, I suppose that's not “despite" this Land being stolen and more because this Land is stolen. Showcasing the original inhabitants of Turtle Island who continue to fight human rights violations and genocide would directly work against the colonial narrative that this Land is free and that its "natural" White inhabitants want you to feel safe in their welcoming, multicultural arms. Representation would make you question that carefully crafted facade.
So, like every other Indigenous person here, I grew up with meagre representation outside of the people around me. I remember reading books and twisting the character to fit me, or bending myself to fit into the story. Sometimes, I've even had to completely stop reading books entirely because it's impossible to suspend the author's intersectionality. I’ll find I'm rolling my eyes or grinding my teeth in frustration at the apparent White male privilege seeping through the pages (Maybe that's where my TMJ comes from…). Every encounter with a book like that wears down my Spirit more and more, as I'm sure it wears down the Spirits of so many other BIPOC and 2SLGBTQQIA+ individuals on this Land.
In decolonizing my bookshelf, and in prioritizing books like Firekeeper's Daughter, I made the decision to no longer allow colonialism to assert its control over which stories are most important. The dominant culture is already force-fed to us in society as "natural" and its continued attempts to further control which stories we read, what Knowledge we see as valuable and which accounts of history are told is just another version of settler-colonial violence that I won't entertain or support.
For a long time, the argument against Indigenous literature was that it was stuck in the past, irrelevant and no one relates to it. What I would like to argue is that it has nothing to do with relating to a piece of work and everything to do with the attempted erasure of its author, their Peoples, their culture, their history and any contributions they made or make that pose legitimate alternatives to the colonial narrative that this is a "naturally" White place. The stories given to us from outside our communities don't represent us, and they're not meant to. We're not going to see the truth, or our communities’ and Nations’ concerns adequately fleshed out for the reader to either understand better or relate to.
Representation in literature, in all genres, is absolutely necessary for everyone, not just those being represented. We need to lay to rest the myth that for written work to be Indigenous Literature that it has to be in the "Traditional" genre, telling stories of myths and legends. Indigenous Peoples exist in the present and so do our stories, so expect to see Indigenous authors branching into fantasy or sci-fi. Expect to see romance novels with healthy relationships. Expect a lot from Indigenous authors and Indigenous Peoples because we have so much to contribute, so much that we've been waiting to share.
Seeing an author like Boulley take on such an incredible task as writing a thriller that simultaneously educates the reader on ceremony, Indigenous issues and racism was incredibly inspiring. I hope you read her book, continue to decolonize your bookshelf and find even more amazing stories like hers.