Aboriginal Reads: A reading list

media clip

As part of a special event inspired by this year's Canada Reads, writers/broadcasters Wab Kinew, Waubgeshig Rice and Alan Neal got together with award-winning novelist Joseph Boyden to discuss the past, present and future of indigenous storytelling in Canada. They discussed some of their own books and the work of others. We've come up with a reading list if you're interested in books with unique perspectives about Aboriginal culture and history.

orenda-110.jpgThe Orenda by Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden's latest novel, The Orenda (a contender on this year's Canada Reads), is violent from beginning -- a massacre and kidnapping of an Iroquois girl, Snow Falls -- to end as it explores Canada's early years. Snow Falls' captor, Bird, is from another native group, the Huron Nation, which has battled against the Iroquois for many years. However, Bird and Snow Falls' people face a new threat from the early settlers arriving from Europe.

Boyden says he particularly struggled with how to write the very violent ending of The Orenda.

"I was absolutely frightened of that," he said during the discussion. "The one issue I had to truly wrap my head around and try to understand in writing this novel was how humans can treat each other so horribly in times of strife and warfare."

But, when it actually came time to pen the last violent scenes, Boyden says "it just poured out of me" in an almost healing way.

three-day-road-110.jpgThree Day Road
by Joseph Boyden

Boyden's Three Day Road follows the tales of two young Cree hunters, Xavier Bird and Elijah Weesageechak, during World War One. The boys come from different upbringings: Xavier's a traditional one, and Elijah's started in a residential school and ended in escape to join Xavier.

Boyden says he is working with friends in the James Bay area to translate the book into Cree.

"It's a long and tenuous process because the only book ever written in Cree is the Bible and it's like, 'Oh boy,'" he says, explaining the importance in translating the book is to help reclaim the language, which was not lost, but brutally taken away from the Cree people.

midnight-sweatlodge-110.jpgMidnight Sweatlodge by Waubgeshig Rice

Waubgeshig Rice's first novel, Midnight Sweatlodge, takes place in a sweatlodge. Naturally feeding off of his love of writing about stories of life on a reserve, Rice's novel tells the tales of those in the sweatlodge as they recall their life experiences - sometimes painful, sometimes tearful.

Rice says he was first inspired to write after realizing that he didn't see any of his experiences reflected in the literature he studied in school or had access to otherwise.

"Since nobody's writing about us, it's about time for us to really take control of the stories," he recalls thinking.

seven-generations.jpg7 Generations series by David Robertson

Graphic novelist David Robertson wrote four books for his 7 Generations series, which follows one Aboriginal family over three centuries and, like the title suggests, seven generations.

The epic's protagonist, Edwin, learns about his family's past throughout the four books. He learns about his ancestors were warriors, how some survived smallpox and how some were forced to attend brutal residential schools. With this new knowledge, will he be able to move forward and embrace what the future may hold?

When asked during the panel discussion to name some authors who are producing great Aboriginal stories, Boyden gave Robertson and his 7 Generations series the highest accolades.

jeff-lemire.jpgJeff Lemire, cartoonist

Although non-Native and not an author in the traditional sense, Jeff Lemire also drew praise from Joseph Boyden. Lemire is an artist who has created a new superhero based on a Cree teenager.

"He's going to introduce the James Bay Lowlands to the world in a way that I'm not able to, that others aren't able to," explains Boyden.

In creating the character, Lemire worked "in a really respectful way," says Boyden. Lemire visited the Native community many times and worked alongside the elders to learn more.

"He's created this really amazing, young Aboriginal girl who's going to excite so many young Aboriginal people across Canada and across the world," he says. "So, that kind of stuff is just thrilling to me."

More books to check out, suggested by Waub Rice: