5 Nonfiction Books to Read this Indigenous History Month

Photo by Manny Becerra

I’m going to begin with a caveat: I am 1) not Indigenous and 2) not an expert on this topic. However, I was born in Canada and I move freely on the traditional lands of many Indigenous nations.

I’m also curious, and that curiosity led me to books, like it usually does.

At the end of May, 215 bodies of children were discovered at a former Residential School site in Kamloops, British Columbia. Canada, a country known for progressive politics and overly polite people, is now having to confront that which has been unavoidable for Indigenous people for generations: Canada’s colonial history.

Due to travel restrictions last year, my summer consisted of local travel to small cities and towns that were within reasonable driving distance. Travelling locally piqued my interest in the province and in the country. Part of this rediscovery of Canada had to include the story of the Indigenous peoples that have called this land home for longer than Canada has been Canada. I was somewhat familiar with the relationship between Canada and Indigenous people, but I was not as familiar as I should have been, considering I’ve lived most of my life in Canada and was raised in the Canadian school system.

May’s horrific findings brought on discussions about Canada’s shameful record of injustices against First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. And with June being Indigenous History Month in Canada, I’m reminded of the work I started last summer, and that the work needs to continue and to be shared. In that spirit, I’m sharing five nonfiction books that helped better understand the unique lives of Indigenous peoples in North America.

(Good Minds is probably The Best Place to purchase them, and find others.)

Understanding First Nations: The Legacy of Canadian Colonialism by Dr. Ed Whitcomb

Understanding First Nations was the first book I read on the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples last year. This unassuming book was written by an academic in accessible language for a general public, and it provides an excellent historical overview from which to continue learning.

Whitcomb covers a lot. In addition to offering a general historical context upfront, he also tackles treaties, the Indian Act, Residential Schools, incarceration rates, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the lack of clean water on Indigenous reserves, among other issues.

21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Joseph

21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act was written by Bob Joseph, a member of the Gwawaenuk Nation and cultural sensitivity trainer. The book is based on an article Joseph published in 2015 that went viral.

21 Things, similar to Understanding First Nations, covers a lot of ground. It focuses primarily on the Indian Act — a piece of legislation passed in 1876 to regulate relations between Canada and the First Nations (or, an outline of how Canada was to deal with/get rid of the First Nations). Joseph uses the Indian Act to talk as a springboard.to explore the context that has led Canada and Indigenous nations to where they are currently, debunking myths and correcting misunderstandings along the way.

The Indian Act has been amended several times, but as its very name suggests, it remains a troubling document. You can read it online.

Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga

This national best-seller and winner of multiple awards is a heartbreaking account of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of seven Indigenous students over 11 years in the city of Thunder Bay. The author, journalist Tanya Talaga, uses the stories of these individual students to address larger issues of systemic racism and human rights violations faced by Indigenous communities. Many First Nations students from remote communities have to leave home to pursue secondary education due to lack of adequate schools on their reserves. These accounts speak not only to the racism these kids face in this harsh city, but also the system that makes this city a reasonable — and sometimes, “better” — option for them.

There is also a podcast called Thunder Bay that picks up where Seven Fallen Feathers left off.

The Truth About Stories by Thomas King

Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories is quite different from the previous three titles, partly because it was initially conceived as part of the Massey Lecture series, which means it’s a written version of oral stories. To read it is to listen in as a master storyteller leads his audience through an exploration of the ways in which stories impact in our lives. Writer and academic Thomas King tells us about the wondrous power of stories, and expounds on our relationship to them and the ways in which they’re dangerous. As a reader, you’ll hopefully start to think about how settlers have created and reinforced inaccurate, violent stories of Indigenous people across North America, and how that has affected both them and you.

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is a collection of deeply thoughtful, beautifully written essays by Alicia Elliott. What A Mind does most powerfully is it challenges — forces — readers to see Indigenous people as people, and not just as a subject to be studied. It pushes readers to consider Indigenous people’s humanity and see them as individuals and human beings with desires, dreams and challenges, as opposed to a purely historical and almost mythical monolith. There are stories of trauma, but Elliott also writes about love and parenthood, and challenges readers to reconsider what they think they know.

I’m a writer and teacher from Toronto, with roots abroad and interests everywhere. alisonisaac.com

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Alison Isaac

Alison Isaac

I’m a writer and teacher from Toronto, with roots abroad and interests everywhere. alisonisaac.com

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