The kids are all right

Published February 24, 2014

Voices of Indigenous Kids
By Deborah Ellis
Groundwood Books, 2013
ISBN: 978-1554981205
256 pages

(A shorter version of this article first appeared in the February issue of the Anglican Journal.)

You will leave feeling honoured that you have met-even vicariously-the 45 native American and aboriginal young people interviewed by Deborah Ellis for her outstanding new book, Looks Like Daylight.

I had steeled myself for an emotionally charged experience, absorbing the personal stories of native youth, ages nine to 18-descendants of people who endured the oppressive legacy of colonialism in Canada and in the U.S., many of whom, to this day, still face monumental challenges.

There were sad, dispiriting moments as I read accounts of racism and the inter-generational effects of the residential school system. I also learned about the horrors of the “Sixties Scoop”-a Canadian practice, starting in the 1960s through till the late 1980s, of apprehending aboriginal children and fostering or adopting them out, most often to white families.

But, in the end, the overriding emotions I was left with were hope and admiration.

The kids are all right. Many continue to struggle against overwhelming odds. But even in the most broken places, their spirits refuse to give up and most have gained wisdom beyond their years.

Each chapter in Looks Like Daylight is interspersed with powerful quotes from native historical figures, native history and current events, and information about the interviewees so that their stories are not told in a vacuum. For the most part, Ellis lets her interviewees speak, in their own words, the unvarnished truth about themselves, their lives, their hopes and fears, their dreams and aspirations.

Ellis has selected a remarkable group of young natives: Blackfoot, Choctaw, Cree, Haida Gwaii, Inuit, Lakota, Métis, Nez Perce, Ojibwe, Mi’kmaq, Pueblo of Laguna, Seminole, and other American Indian and First Nations people. Some live hardscrabble lives; others enjoy middle-class privileges; one dreams of making scientific discoveries while another wonders what life will be like outside of prison. But what they all say will humble the best of us.

“The more of us who succeed, the more examples there will be for others,” declares Brittany, 17. “If the white world thinks native kids are worthless, then the best answer we can give them is to become the best-the best athletes, the best scholars, the best lawyers, the best parents-whatever.”

Ellis’s respect for her interviewees and her ability to earn their trust is evident. Those familiar with her work will likely say that she’s done it again. A multi-awarded writer, Ellis captured the voices of Afghan, Iraqi, Palestinian and Israeli children in her other books, and is the author of the international bestseller trilogy, The Breadwinner.

Looks like Daylight offers an astounding range of stories-from gut-wrenching experiences of young people who have been through hell and back, to accounts of placid childhoods that involve octopus-hunting, competing in science fairs and caring for wild horses.

There are stories that illustrate the power of the human spirit even at a tender age. Tingo, 14, has drug-addled and alcoholic parents; he has lived in a dingy motel, cared for a younger sibling and gone to school hungry. When Ellis meets Tingo, he is at a native friendship centre, trying to better himself. He takes free drawing lessons and goes to ceremonial events and sweat lodges where he lifts up his concerns to the Creator. “I’ve learned from all this that it’s going to be okay,” he says. His advice to young people in a similar boat: “Try not to worry too much. Try to do your best to look for things that are bigger than you.”

These young people have no illusions: they know that being native can often mean the odds are stacked against them. Yet most have a healthy dose of self-pride and a sense of their place in the world. Lane, 14, comes from six generations of lacrosse players and he, too, plays what natives call “the Creator’s game.” When he goes to a mall in Brantford, Ont., Lane hears racist insults hurled at him. “I think, ‘Oh, grow up.’ And then I get on with my day.”

Danton, a waggish 14-year-old Métis, attends a francophone school that includes many cultures-French, Haitian, Somalian-and says they are all so different that “there’s no time for racism; we’re all too busy just trying to get to know each other.” His brother experienced racism in university and dealt with it by focusing on his music. “Well, guess what?” says Danton. “None of those idiots got to play at the Olympics.” Danton, his brother and two other siblings constitute the successful Métis Fiddle Quartet, and performed at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Many stories demonstrate that these young natives have an enormous sense of pride in who they are and where they’re from. Most know their people’s history and are aware that whatever gains they may enjoy today were hard-won by their ancestors.

“All my friends in Ottawa think it’s really cool that I’m Inuit,” says Abigail, 16. “My ancestors were the first people here and that gives me a huge sense of honour.”

Tulane, 14, a young artist from New Mexico, says, “Native people used to be told they had to forget who they were and what they knew…That time is over. We are remembering all that wisdom, and learning from it and building on it.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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