The last residential school for Native American Indian children in the United States was closed in 1973. The last residential school for First Nation Canadians closed in 1996. These schools were specifically designed to force children, native to their countries, to assimilate to the cultural norms of white people. The methods used to force this assimilation included physical and sexual abuse, changing the children’s names (in some cases to numbers), forbidding the use of their native languages, cutting their hair, and changing the way that they dressed. Not to mention that these children were forcibly removed from their families. Residential schools are not only a part of North America’s history, they are a part of our recent history. The effects are still felt in communities today.
I was recently given the opportunity, by NetGalley and Second Story Press, to read an Advance Reader Copy of I Am Not a Number written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer and illustrated by Gillian Newland. This is the story of Dupuis’ grandmother, Irene Couchie Dupuis, who was taken from her family in Ontario and placed in a residential school in 1928. Irene is a member of the Nipissing First Nation community and this book is written in both English and Nbisiing (the dialect of her community). The Nbisiing text is placed in larger font above the English, which is a powerful shift in display from what many of us are used to seeing.
On the first page of this book, the Indian agent speaks the words, “I am here for the children.” This has sent shivers through me every time that I have read the text and I imagine that it always will. What could be more terrifying to a parent or to a child? When Irene arrived at the residential school, she is told that she will now be called 759. The nuns within the school attempted to erase every part of her culture and that included evidence of her humanity such as her name.
Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer use language throughout the book to keep this same feeling of tension flowing for readers. While this is a picture book, it is very intense, and might be best read with children in the upper elementary grades or above. Dupuis and Kacer do not shy away from documenting some of the abuses that occurred during Irene’s time at the residential school. The illustrations, by Gillian Newland, also mirror the fear of the children within the school. The white adults within the book all appear as though the reader is looking up at towering and intimidating figures.
Even surrounded by all of this anger and hatred, Irene stays strong. Her story is one of triumph, but that was not the case for all of the children taken to these schools. Nothing can make up for what happened to these families, but talking about it with the next generation could prevent it from happening again.
Diversity 8: I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.
Diversity 10: I know that the way groups of people are treated today, and the way they have been treated in the past, is a part of what makes them who they are.
Justice 13: I know that words, behaviors, rules and laws that treat people unfairly based on their group identities cause real harm.
Justice 14: I know that life is easier for some people and harder for others based on who they are and where they were born.
RI.3- Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.
RI.8- Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text, identifying which reasons and evidence support which point(s).