Quite some time ago, I made a preview post about a comic book that I hadn’t yet gotten my hands on: A Residential School Graphic Novel, by Jason Eaglespeaker out of Calgary, AB. A few weeks ago, the book arrived and I feel that the review is now long overdue.
Title: UNeducation Volume 1: A Residential School Graphic Novel
Author/Illustrator: Jason Eaglespeaker (with dozens of community names listed under “contributors”)
Published: 2011 by Jason EagleSpeaker via “The Connection” in Calgary, AB – with support from Alberta Foundation for the Arts and Canada Council of the Arts
You can tell that Eaglespeaker isn’t messing around: he has a vision and he means business. This project has the righteous and unwavering purpose of educating native and non-native alike on the raw and real history of the residential school system and its effect on the first peoples of this land.
In addition to loving comic books, I am also a lover of zines, political literature, scrapbooks—in general, I am fascinated by ideas and how people choose to convey them.
Eaglespeaker’s Residential School Graphic Novel is a mix of all four of the mediums that I mention. There are original comic narratives here, mostly told in the Black Foot language. There are scores of newspaper clippings, compiling news coverage from around Canada of residential school abuses, even murders, that have never been solved. Overarching this are quotes and core ideas about the residential school system that the author has selected to point out some fundamental truths: quotes like Dr. Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs in 1920, who said:
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed.”
…and so, generations of children were torn away from their families. Their heads were shaved, their clothes were burned, their bodies were bruised until they stopped speaking their language. Generations of children never learned what it meant to be a parent, because they had none. Family units and knowledge of the importance of those roles within a community began to disintegrate.
The format reminds me a lot of a zine: different sections use different methods of conveying these ideas. The beginning has quotes and newspaper clippings; the next section is oriented to look like a newspaper, called ‘Residential School News’ (it looks like the cover of Weekly World News). In it, the author uses his natural talent with slogans and sound bites to talk about some of the many issues that can be addressed with regard to residential schools: the psychology of being born with this severe emotional and cultural baggage, the storm of emotion at knowing that this baggage is not his people’s fault—that it was imposed, through the school system, by law; likening the treatment of native children to the treatment of POW’s in war-time; searching for what remains of native culture; and finally, settlement. Resolution. Eaglespeaker points out that the last residential school closed in 1996. (That’s right 1-9-9-6, as in less than 20 years ago).
Towards the end of the book are several short comics. The first depicts a native mother having her child torn away from her. The text is in Blackfoot, which, as a non-speaker of the language, emphasizes the realness of the story. It also makes me feel like I don’t have control—I’m an outsider, a bit, I guess—as I’m reading it, and I can only imagine flipping that around and being in her position as she approaches the residential school, asking for her child, and everyone is talking in English. Or the next scene, where the children are in school, and a nun slams a little boy’s head on his desk for speaking in Blackfoot.
Monochrome colours in the residential school depict a drab existence, devoid of culture or anything from the children’s previous life (their clothes are thrown away, and their hair is chopped off.)
The following comic is about two children who attempt to escape from the residential school. They finally make it home to their family, but the strip ends with their parent explaining that they have to go back to the school (it was written into law at the time).
The final comic is of a reality that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen in a comic, ever. I will note that I ordered the “uncut” version of the book, and that there is a PG version available for schools and younger audiences.
It is (essentially) titled “Will the circle ever end?” and depicts a young native boy who is the victim of repeated sexual assault at the hands of a white man of his residential school. It is unclear exactly who this paedophile is, but he is depicted as some kind of priest or pastor. The panels themselves are crumpled, torn, burned in some sections, taped back together. It’s so terrible and intense. Finally it depicts the boy growing into a man, and he himself has now become a predator-within his family and community. He then is charged and sent to jail, where he again becomes a victim of the other inmates. The story ends with the man, now old and out of life, holding up a black and while photograph of himself as a child. Below the panel are the words, “…my life is unredeemed.”
The volume, as a whole, is a tour-de-force on the realities of this history. Residential Schools are a behemoth of an issue: so many ideas, concepts and debates stem from it—one of the reasons it’s such a crime to dismiss it, or downsize is as “a native thing”, ignoring the fact that it would not have even been a “native” issue if whites had not imposed it upon them for a century.
Eaglespeaker rightly sees it as a past, a history, from which stem many, many, many stories. In this book, you’re looking at the system from the past, the present, and the future looking back; you’re feeling the abuse as the native and reading the first-person quotes of government officials, seeing how they justified the atrocities. It is well-rounded and no-holds barred. I’m extremely grateful for its existence, and hope it reaches every school, every student, every corner in this country, and beyond. It’s about time this book has come into being.
For more on Eaglespeaker’s work, his full catalogue of published work can be found on The Connection.