Saturday, July 22, 2017

Book Review: Sweetgrass Basket

This is a powerful book, that I actually picked up on a whim when browsing my local library. Even though this is a work of fiction, it tells a horrific and true story so many women and men of Native American heritage suffered through. This is the story of two young sisters forced to live at a boarding school. Which doesn't sound too bad until you read some of what happened in these places! It isn't pretty, it isn't okay, and it's time for stories like this to be told. Below is taken from a few websites to give you a little history on boarding schools, A little history on this whole boarding school thing, please stay with me.

" The first boarding school was established by the Bureau of Indian affairs. The first school was on the Yakima Indian Reservation in the state of Washington. These schools were part of a plan devised by well-intentioned, eastern reformers Herbert Welsh and Henry Pancoast, who also helped establish organizations such as the Board of Indian Commissioners, the Boston Indian Citizenship Association, and the Women’s National Indian Association.

Ultimately the goal of these so called reformers was to use education as a tool to "assimilate" tribes into the main stream way of life, or at least the so called "American way of life".  This followed a religious ideology that was very popular in the mid 19th century. Which stated essentially stated that Indian people would be taught the importance of private property, material wealth, and monogamous nuclear families. They believed it was necessary to "civilize" native people. Force them to accept white culture, beliefs and value systems. "

I loved that this is a work of fiction which is told through poetry. To me poetry is such a powerful way to share your thoughts, and express your emotions in ways that might be hard other wise. The poetic text just leaks onto the pages, and you can feel the emotions down to your soul. One of my favorite lines from one of the poems is, 

'Poor Father.

He knows deep in his heart
that Sarah and I did not want
to leave our home.

Father said it would be best,
best for us, best for our family,
and that we had to be good.'

This is the heart breaking story of Sarah and Mattie. Two sweet girls from the Mohawk tribe in the early 1900s. At the start of the book their mother has passed away, and their father he is sending them away to Pennsylvania to a boarding school called Carlisle Indian Boarding School. I never could figure out if he was doing this, or he was being forced to do this. He seems to promise them that everything will be okay, that they will be taken care of, have a good education, get fed. He seems to genuinely expect good things to happen to his girls, which makes me think, he has decent intentions. He sends them by train, with the hopes to be reunited again, although this will never happen. 

What they get at the boarding school is anything but care and compassion. They get beatings, almost total loss of identity, and a gut wrenching loss of culture. This abuse is used to punish and publicly shame these children for how they were born and who they are. 

Told in alternating perspectives of both sisters you see just how damaging the abuse is. They attempt to make friends and avoid conflict, but somehow they always seem to be in trouble. Their story talks about racism, difficult economic times, a parent’s desire for them to have a better life. The deal with growing up, and friendship.  These issues are dealt with in a very interesting way, through their inner most thoughts. 

I believe this book needs to be in every school and library. It would make a great book for a class assignment. I believe everyone should read this one. 
Goodreads Description:

In prose poetry and alternating voices, Marlene Carvell weaves a heartbreakingly beautiful story based on the real-life experiences of Native American children. Mattie and Sarah are two Mohawk sisters who are sent to an off-reservation school after the death of their mother. 

Subject to intimidation and corporal punishment, with little hope of contact with their father, the girls are taught menial tasks to prepare them for life as domestics. How Mattie and Sarah protect their culture, memories of their family life, and their love for each other makes for a powerful, unforgettable historical novel.

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