Recently I have been trying to educate myself about the Native Americans in my community. When I posted a review of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee on Facebook, several friends made suggestions of further reading. The semi-autobiographical April Raintree by Beatrice Culleton/Mosionier was one of these.
In this powerful exploration of what it means to be native in modern Canada, we follow the lives of two Metis (mixed blood) sisters who take different paths in response to their heritage. The girls are taken away from their alcoholic parents as young children and placed in different foster homes. Some of these are very supportive situations, but not all, and school is full of bullies. Mrs. Semple, April’s social worker, chooses to believe the abusive foster mom instead of the girls
and tells them their attempt to escape indicates they are headed for what she calls “native girl syndrome”—fighting, running away, lies, paranoia, uncooperative silences, feeling sorry for themselves, and eventually, pregnancy, alcohol, drugs, prostitution and jail. April “thought if those other native girls had the same sort of people surrounding them as we did, [she] wouldn’t blame them one bit.” (Culleton 1984: 49)
April is light skinned. She despises the derelict Indians she sees along Main Street and finds success by passing for white, even to the point of marrying a rich white man. Bob marries her to spite his socialite mother, and the marriage doesn’t last, but April is left with plenty of money to live independently—not the situation most mixed-race young people find themselves in.
The darker skinned sister, Cheryl, has always identified more as Indian. She is an excellent student and goes to college to become a social worker, forging connections with needy Indians as she volunteers in an urban Friendship Center. Cheryl’s spunk shows up at a New Year’s Eve party while April is married to Bob. Hoping to humiliate April, her mother-in-law introduces her sister to others at the party. Remarks are mostly on the level of the following:
“Oh, I’ve read about Indians. Beautiful people they are. But you’re not exactly Indians, are you? What is the proper word for people like you?” one asked.
“Women,” Cheryl replied instantly.
“No, no, I mean nationality?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. We’re Canadians.” (Culleton 1984: 91)
I seethed right along with her.
It looks like this book is used in high schools to raise awareness, and the two compelling characters certainly do a good job of that, even if the writing lacks emotional impact. I suppose it doesn’t need the craft techniques we teach when the story itself is so impactful.
In the end Cheryl burns out. There is no suggestion of any relationship with God to sustain her through the disappointments of working with people who continually fall back into their old destructive habits. She has no resurrection power of Jesus Christ to offer them, nothing but guts and bootstraps, and all too many, including Cheryl, follow their parents into alcoholism and suicide. April succeeds by assuming a white identity (and getting a lot of money from her divorce settlement). Although she has become more compassionate toward Indians and her fellow Metis by the end of the book, she has nothing to offer but patronizing generosity. I long for so much more for the Ojibwe community around me where drugs, alcohol, and domestic abuse are rife. I long for the possibility of embracing a Native identity as one created by a just and loving God without falling into “native girl syndrome.” Unfortunately, I don’t see this book offering any path in that direction. But then, it has no gospel. I'm not directly involved in any ministry to the Ojibwe community, but I can use this book to pray intelligently for those who are, for that resurrection power to be evident in their lives.
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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