CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 37. . . .May 28, 2010.
Great Musicians from Our First Nations. (The First Nations Series for Young Readers).
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2010.
115 pp., pbk., $10.95.
Indian musicians-Canada-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Native musicians-Canada-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Indian musicians-United States-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.
Review by Marilynne V. Black.
In the introduction, Kwe Kwe (Hello Hello), Vincent Schelling states, “After deciding with my publishing company to write about the lives of some amazing Native American musicians, little did I know the amazing adventure I would undertake in the course of writing this book.” Schelling’s adventure includes attending the inauguration of President Barack Obama. He also writes about meeting, and sometimes playing music with, the various musicians in this title. In addition, he relates:
Lastly, I would like to tell you why I write. I write because I hope to inspire you. I hope to inspire all my young friends who take the time to read theses chapters. When you read these words, attend to them with more than your eyes or ears. If greatness is your desire, then listen with your spirit. Do not give up – ever! I write because your life matters to me.
I will make you a promise. If you continue to make positive choices in your life (no matter how big or small they may seem), the universe has no other option than to grant you success.
As is indicated by the excerpt above, Great Musicians from Our First Nations is not just about First Nations musicians. Nor is it a book just for aboriginal students, although it certainly is a good selection for schools with high populations of native students. It is for anyone who has a dream, anyone who is experiencing difficult choices, anyone who is being discriminated against because of race. It addresses indigenous peoples around the world who face similar challenges. It is a book about hope, and perseverance, and making positive choices.
Ten contemporary musicians or musical groups, including three Canadians, cover a diverse range of disciplines. There are vocalists, composers, a flutist, a punk rock group, both guitarist and classical guitarist, and a drumming group. Cherokee, Seminole, Ojibwa, Navajo, Dené and Cree, including four women, are but some of the heritage groups featured.
Each chapter of 10 to 14 pages follows the musician from her/his early life and upbringing to the adversities faced and overcome, and eventually, the recognition and awards earned in her/his chosen field of music. Klee Benally, of the group Blackfire, says “To be recognized is a good thing because it means somebody is listening.”
Jamie Coon, a vocalist who combines jazz and pop rock, emphasized the point that hard work and making positive choices are necessary. Schelling writes:
As she made her way through elementary and into high school, Jamie knew that in spite of her young age, she was in charge of her life. In order to be successful, she would have to commit herself to achieving greatness by making positive choices one by one, even if others around her were making negative choices.
Many chapters describe native beliefs and support of family throughout the musicians’ early musical struggles. In the chapter about Michael Bucher, Schilling asserts, “His great uncle took over as his mentor, helping Michael walk the ways of his ancestors as his grandmother had done.” Each chapter addresses the musicians’ dedication to their craft and the need to bring their culture to the fore. Some discuss the activism that is needed. Michael Bucher, a Cherokee vocalist and composer, is concerned about the desecration of North American sacred sites and that burial mounds are being robbed by treasure seekers. Leela Gilday, a Dené from the Northwest Territories, is quoted as saying, “I grew up in a culture that emphasized the power of the Dené and our rights to the land.” Klee Benally, mentioned above, describes their Silence is a Weapon as an album that “expresses the need for people to speak out and take action in times of silence or fear.”
These musicians, like the athletes and brave individuals in other series books mentioned below, act as positive role models. The negative influences of their lives, such as drugs, gangs, racism and discrimination, and lack of educational opportunities on the reservation have all been eschewed by the musicians. The importance of family, community and their culture are emphasized. Schilling describes Gabriel Ayala, a Pascua Yaqui in the following manner:
Although his family was not well off, they were definitely rich in one thing – relatives. As Gabriel describes it, “On my maternal side, I had sixteen aunts and uncles and over sixty cousins. The Creator really blessed me with tons of family.
Three to five black and white photographs as well as several sidebars are included for each musician. Some of these sidebars give the lyrics to music written by the subject musician. Each ends with web sites and email and postal addresses.
Schelling has a very personable style of writing. “Are you ready for some true indigenous punk rock? If so, check out the Native American group Blackfire.” The age range indicated by the publishers is nine to 13 years of age. Although the writing is certainly assessable by some of the younger readers of the age span, the content of this book is probably most appropriate for older students up to 15 years of age. Great Musicians from Our First Nations is a very worthwhile addition to the growing number of books written by First Nations authors for First Nations children.
Other books by Vincent Schilling include Men of Courage from our First Nations and Great Athletes from our First Nations. “The First Nations Series for Young Readers” series includes Great Women from our First Nationsand a picture book, Gray Wolf's Search.
Marilynne V. Black is a former B.C. elementary teacher librarian who completed her Master of Arts in Children’s Literature (UBC) in the spring of 2005. She is now working as an independent children's literature consultant with a web site at www.heartofthestory.ca.
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