First Impressions: This was one of the books that I had to read for a course on Indigenous literature. I wasn’t sure what to expect since I hadn’t heard of this novel, nor its author before I read this book.
Two Cree brothers try to make their way as artists while trying to come to terms with the effects of residential school education.
One thing that you must realize when reading Indigenous literature, you are not going to find idealized pictures of how Indigenous people used to be. Or as Thomas King says in his book The Inconvenient Indian, “dead Indians.” After reading Wenjack by Joseph Boyden a few months ago, (you can read my review here), I came to realize how ignorant I was in Indigenous affairs. After reading two novels, a few plays, two non-fiction books, reading news articles, listening to interviews, and hearing lectures about Indigenous issues at university, I feel as if my eyes have been opened. Unfortunately, as a non-indigenous person, I was extremely ignorant to Indigenous issues.
Kiss of the Fur Queen was probably one of the most important materials which helped me become more aware about Indigenous issues. Sometimes, reading about facts isn’t enough to understand the psychological and sociological impacts. In this instance, fictional novels are extremely important. They are a vehicle which can draw readers to a broader understanding. It is like walking a mile in another person’s shoes. While I cannot begin to comprehend entirely the trauma that residential schools have brought to Indigenous people after absorbing material, I would argue that it is a start.
The novel begins with two Cree brothers living in a small community in Northern Manitoba. The brothers are happy and healthy, and even at a young age, they demonstrate a lot of artistic potential. One day, the eldest brother, Champion Okimasis, is swept away from his home and parents and carried off to a residential school hundreds of miles away. At this school, Champion is renamed Jeremiah. He is taught English in hopes of eradicating his native tongue. A few years later, Jeremiah’s brother Gabriel (original name Ooneemeetoo), is subjected to sexual assault from a priest at the school.
Years later, Jeremiah and Gabriel find themselves living in the city trying to make their way as artists. At this point I found it rather interesting that Highway decided not to focus a great deal more on life at the residential school. This suggests that for Highway, the aftereffects of attending the residential school and being immersed in a society which seeks to eradicate Indigenous culture is much more devastating. It becomes clear that although the brothers have received an education which has allowed them to pursue their artistic interests, they become isolated individuals as a result. If they go home, they cannot fully adapt into their family life and culture. If they stay in the city, their Indigenous heritage turns them into outcasts. They appear to inhabit both worlds at once without fully being able to root themselves firmly in either world.
This book is extremely valuable for a non-Indigenous Canadian or even American person if they wish to begin to understand Indigenous issues. The effects of residential schools may appear to be a facet of the past (the last one closed down approximately 21 years ago in 1996 in Canada), but the trauma is very much alive today. Although there is a slight blending of Indigenous myth that I certainly had no experience with, Highway writes in a particular way which is conscious of his audience. You do not need to be an expert in Indigenous culture to understand this novel, and any Cree words used in the novel are conveniently translated in a glossary at the back of the book.
About the Book: Title: Kiss of the Fur Queen Author: Tomson Highway Genres (subjects): Indigenous fiction, Canadian fiction, fiction, novel, residential schools, Canadian culture, Cree culture Pages: 320 Year Published: 1998
Until next time,