Review: Shi-shi-etko

Shi-shi-etko is one of the finest examples of an age-appropriate lesson to teach children about a dark chapter in Native history. In vivid, tender prose, Campbell conveys for children the true impact of residential school policies for Indian communities in the United States and Canada.




Written by Nicola L. Campbell (Interior Salish/Métis)

Illustrated by Kim LaFave

Published by Groundwood, 2005

Additional Information: 32 pages, Color illustrations; Grades 1-4


One of the challenges of teaching children about Native history is finding age-appropriate ways to approach difficult subjects. While it is important to empower our children with information about the genocides and injustices that our people have survived, these lessons must be delivered in ways that are sensitive to their young minds.

Shi-shi-etko is one of the finest examples of just such a lesson. In vivid, tender prose, Campbell conveys for children the impact of residential school policies for Indian communities in the United States and Canada.

Unlike most books on the subject, Shi-shi-etko does not discuss the deprivation and humiliation that our children experienced in boarding schools. Instead, Campbell describes another side of this history – one that conveys the true significance of what was lost for generations of not just children, but their entire communities. “Can you imagine a community without children?” Campbell writes in a brief foreword. “Can you imagine children without parents?”

To help young readers understand such loss, Campbell describes four days in the life of young Shi-shi-etko (“she loves to play in the water”). At the end of these four days, she will have to leave everyone she loves and everything she knows — to go to an Indian residential school where, among other things, her name, language and identity will be taken away. In the time that she has with her family during these precious four days, Shi-shi-etko’s large extended family — cousins, aunties and uncles, and Yahyah — fill her with their love, memories, and the strength to endure what they know will happen and what they are powerless to prevent. With her mother, a morning prayer in the creek. With her father, a paddle song in the canoe. With her yahyah, a visit to the woods. A sprig of hemlock, cedar and pine placed into a small deerskin bag.

Too soon, it is time. The cattle truck is waiting. With a prayer and an offering of tobacco, Shi-shi-etko takes in everything one last time — the people, the land, and the moments of life being stripped away from her.

The brilliance of this book is in the depiction of a life that should have continued, but was cut short. The moments in this little book are the substance of the lives of all growing children – walks with mom, special lessons from grandparents. By depicting everyday moments with which young readers will relate, Campbell successfully coveys the real impact of the residential school system. Children and adults alike will be able to appreciate the meaning of losing such warmth, stability, and belonging in the world.

LaFave’s rich and evocative illustrations, on a palette of mostly reds, complement this gentle story of the small elements of a great resilience: a family’s loving struggle to protect the dignity and identity of their sacred child.

We highly recommend following Shi-shi-etko with Campbell’s sequel book, Shin-chi’s Canoe, in which Shi-shi-etko returns to the residential school for another year, and this time her little brother, Shin-chi, is going too.  Unlike in Shi-shi-etko, in this sequel Campbell depicts in vivid detail the horrible experiences that the children encounter after arriving at school.

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Shi-shi-etko or Shin-chi's Canoe from Oyate's book shop.


- Cora Garcia, Oyate




© Oyate 2012


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