When a little girl comes home from school one day and asks her grandfather how to say something in his first language, Cree, he is sad because he cannot. Stolen Words, by Melanie Florence, is a recently published picture book that uses the modern-day relationship between a granddaughter and grandfather to tell the story of how residential schools systematically removed children from their families in order to replace their language and life ways. It conveys the great injustice that the residential schools perpetrated on native communities. With an optimistic and touching resolution, Stolen Words is a good introduction to the history of residential schools, a tool of European colonization established as institutions in North America and elsewhere.
As much as anything, Stolen Words helped me to appreciate another picture book about the Canadian residential schools: Shi-shi-etko by Interior Salish and Metis author Nicola I. Campbell. Shi-shi-etko, the title character, whose name means “she loves to play in the water," seems perhaps nervous but hopeful - “only one, two, three, four mornings left until I go to school”. The prose and pictures combine to portray a family’s loving efforts to help their daughter preserve her culture in the lead up to Shi-shi-etko being taken, by cattle truck, to residential school. This picture book, unlike Stolen Words, is set in the times when these schools existed, not looking back from contemporary times. The portrayal of a family doing what they can to persevere amidst the intentional misuse of power – racism – makes Shi-shi-etko a powerful book. Residential schools existed in the United States, too. How recently did the last residential school in Canada close? The answer, which is in the author’s introduction, might surprise you.