By Melissa Blair
I was six the first time a peer told me that Native people (they used a much harsher word) didn’t exist anymore. I laughed. It was the only thing my six-year-old brain could think of doing because that child had to be joking. “They’re only in the movies,” is what the little boy told me as he moved a plastic horse and cowboy across the sandbox we were sitting in.
I sat there utterly confused. I was sitting right in front of this boy. I had given him pieces of bannock my Ojibway grandmother had sent me to school with. I had just brought the tikinagan that my mother swaddled me, my brother, and later that year, my little sister in, to class for show-and-tell the week before. He had been the one to suggest we tie our classroom Elmo doll up into the cradle board so everyone could see how the tikinagan worked. But there he was saying I didn’t exist?
That would only be the first of many confusing encounters I had at school. Over the years, my classmates would learn that Native people did exist, but with that came with an overwhelming sense that being Native wasn’t a good thing. It wasn’t something to aspire to. It wasn’t something to be proud of. This was reinforced every time I would talk about my culture or retell a story my grandmother had given me and I would be met with the snickering of my peers and the quiet whispers of let’s talk about something else from teachers.
I won’t lie. Eventually, all those moments added up and I stopped talking about it at all. I retreated into the only comfort I had in my tiny town in the middle of nowhere: books. I read everything and anything. Within three years, I had read every book in the middle grade and teen sections of our library and the school library too. I read stories from every genre and some even in different languages.
By the time I was twenty, I had read over 3,000 books, but I had never read a single book by a Native author. Out of all those books, I had only read two (popular) series featuring Indigenous side characters, both of which are terribly problematic. That is when I realized the systems that were supposed to be providing me with well-rounded education and access were lacking, and being a curious person, I wanted to understand why.
From that day forward, I read book after book, attended lecture after lecture, teaching after teaching, trying to understand the mechanisms behind what had happened to my people. I knew the history, my great-grandfather had survived residential school, but for the first time I wanted to understand the how. How did the past happen and, more importantly, how did it create a world where Native people didn’t exist in books or the minds of six-year-old boys?
I started learning history from a new perspective, one that followed the steps of colonization back through time like rabbit tracks in the snow. Tiny, close movements in legislation and hops in ideology that led to genocide and colonization across Turtle Island. Having learned to track these events through history, I developed the ability to see those rabbit tracks in current time. And I saw just how widespread and connected the tracks of colonialism were. It was no longer a disappointed look or a peer who held a stereotypical belief about my people; colonialism was everywhere, and it was now.
This impacted the books I read, but more importantly how I read them. The Anishinaabe people are a storytelling people. We learn and share knowledge through our stories and understand that the words we use have a power that must be revered.
Reading novels, especially fantasy, as an Indigenous reader became complicated. It had become obvious, too obvious, that many of the worlds in the fantasy books I was reading were colonial by nature. With the freedom to create magic systems, fly on dragon back, or govern in any kind of way, these authors still could not imagine worlds that weren’t founded on the loss of land, the loss of culture, and the loss of a people—many of whom were nameless ornaments for their stories. Even in these fantasy books, I could find the little rabbit tracks of colonialism inked into the pages.
So, I started searching out fantasy books that weren’t at the front of bookstores or libraries. I found stories written by Black, Indigenous, and authors of color that shed those colonial foundations. Stories that sought to break this mold and, in turn, I found so many books that not only dared to imagine what a world without colonialism would look like but were a hope for what our world might one day become.
That difference in perspective is what I sought out to do with my book A Broken Blade. I had recently discovered paranormal fantasy romance and devoured series after series. But no matter how many I read, I couldn’t find one that questioned the colonial nature of the world. The main characters were almost always colonizers of some sort and the Indigenous peoples, if featured at all, were side characters at best.
I wanted to write a story that still captured all the elements of the genre that I loved. The fast-paced action, the dramatic love plot, a morally grey character for readers to sink their teeth into, but I wanted to tell one that didn’t shy away from the colonial underpinnings of the world. I wanted that to be the point.
In the Halfling Saga, the main character is Keera, a half-Elf, half-human, who is forced to do the bidding of a colonizing king. While she can get into a lot of trouble on her own, it isn’t until she reconnects with her own kin, the first people of Elverath, that they are able to work at taking their homeland back.
It might seem like a simple thing, but the stories we consume matter. The first way we learn is through story, and therefore the stories we read, even fictional ones, impact how we see our world. Seeing Indigenous characters exist is important because Indigenous people exist. And seeing a character question the legacy of power is vital because it helps us do the same.