Tayla: [00:00:00] You're listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online.
I'm Tayla, branch librarian at the Oakland branch of the Cranston Public Library and host of our weekly podcast, Down Time with the Cranston Public Library. My pronouns are she/her. This week, we're sharing an excerpt from a recent episode in which we talked with Lorén Spears, executive director of the Tomaquag Museum and honorary chair of this year's Read Across Rhode Island program, and Angeline Boulley, author of Firekeeper's Daughter. We discussed this year's Read Across Rhode Island pick, Firekeeper's Daughter, and the indigenous representation in books and movies.
You'll also hear our regular segment, The Last Chapter, where we discuss a library or bookish question. This week, we answer the question, who's your favorite elder from Firekeeper's Daughter? Enjoy.
Lorén Spears: [introduction in Narragansett language] Hello, everyone. I'm Lorén Spears, the executive director of Tomaquag Museum, she/her/hers. I am Narragansett Niantic and an enrolled citizen of the Narragansett Nation and welcome to our homelands here in Rhode Island. Welcome, Angeline!
Angeline Boulley: [introduction in Anishinaabe language] Hello, everyone. I'm Angeline Boulley, I am from Sault Ste. Marie, that's where my tribe is located. My pronouns are she/her/hers, and just thrilled to be here today.
Tayla: For those of you who don't know, Angeline is the author of Firekeeper's Daughter, which is the Read Across Rhode Island [00:02:00] pick for 2022. Let's jump right in. I guess to start at the beginning of Firekeeper's Daughter, what was your inspiration for writing the book, Angeline?
Angeline: There's an interesting story. I was 18-years-old and a friend of mine went to a neighboring high school and told me about a new boy senior year and she thought he might be my type. It turned out he wasn't, he didn't play sports, and he hung out with the hardcore partiers. At the end of the school year, she told me there had been a huge drug bust in their community and it turned out that the new guy had been an undercover cop. I remembered thinking, "What if we had met and what if he liked me? What if he needed my help?" Then really this idea of, why would an undercover investigation need the help of an ordinary 18-year-old Ojibwe girl?
That just a seed of an idea just has stayed with me since I was 18. My career in Indian education, I've worked in different tribal communities and I would start working out the puzzle pieces to answer that question. What if it was a drug crime and it happened on tribal land? What if it was a federal investigation? What if it was a drug that could be manipulated? What if something had a cultural component to it? What if this 18-year-old girl knew about chemistry, but also knew about plants as medicine and knew her culture and language and was connected to everybody and everything? She actually would be the ideal undercover informant. Really, once I had [00:04:00] worked out those pieces, then I was ready to write.
Tayla: You mentioned your day job, your job before becoming an author and how that was. You worked for the US Department of Education and was very involved in education. Do you feel like that influenced your writing of this book?
Angeline: Yes, I especially liked working with teens and I would see teens going through similar things that I went through. I'm a very light skinned Ojibwe person, and I knew that my experience wasn't the same as my cousins who lived on the reservation. I have found a lot of people asking you to prove your identity and to some people you'll never be enough native. It depends who's asking and why. I knew the plot of Firekeeper's Daughter, but really, I realized that the story could tell a deeper story about identity and belonging in community. It took 10 years to write. I think I was finding those deeper layers with each draft.
I also think that in the Office of Indian Education, we awarded $175 million a year to public schools, tribal schools, tribal colleges, eligible entities to impact Indian education and public schools because 93% of our students attend public school. Then it's struck me that I'm reaching more people through the book, a much wider audience and able to hopefully impact Indian education [00:06:00] in a book, in a story to a greater degree than have done previously.
Tayla: I was going to say one of the things I liked about the book is that I think it was so much deeper than a thriller. It opened my eyes to problems and issues that I didn't even know about. Then also things that spoke to me and I think will speak to a lot of people who are of two identities of any combination and who feel like they live between two worlds. That was the thing that I think made this book so fantastic and I think made it something that will appeal to a lot of young people and a lot of not young people too.
Lorén: I think that there was such a great layering of the twists and turns, which, of course, we won't tell anybody the little surprises along the way, but I think that you did an amazing job of hooking the reader right away. It was interesting because when they asked me to be the chair, honorary chair of Read Across Rhode Island, I said, "Well, I've got to read the book. [laughs] I can't just say yes, I need to know what the book's about." I very quickly read the book and I will tell you I was very happy because it was not a non-fiction book that you have to slog through sometimes to get through the information. You were very engaged, it's a page-turner in other words right from the beginning.
The layering of identity certainly spoke to me as an indigenous person because we do as a museum leader and an educator as well. My career was in elementary education and I founded a small school that I ran for seven years for native youth, so I understand what Angelina is saying about most native kids go to public school, but most public schools don't reflect [00:08:00] native kids and they often don't see themselves in the curricula that is presented for them. Even when there's a "Native American unit," it's often represented from a Eurocentric perspective of the stereotypes and generalizations and misconceptions around indigenous people and indigenous life.
Not something that's written from a today perspective and about the dynamics and beauty and complexity of our communities today. I suppose even the good, bad in there as well that can happen, which, of course, in a murder mystery, there's going to be a bit of that. It was very exciting to read. For me, and others that I've talked with, it also speaks to indigenous people today and their agency in their communities. What they're doing to unpack historical and intergenerational and lateral trauma in our communities and I think the book speaks to that really well also.
Tayla: Lorén, you were talking about when they reached out to you to be the honorary chair that you had to read the book, so I'm curious if you felt like despite it happening with a different tribe than the tribes that are located here in Rhode Island, do you feel like the book speaks to the experienced of you and your community in some way as well?
Lorén: Most definitely. First off, Anishinaabe people are relatives of ours, we're under the Algonquian umbrella. Even though they're a little more west today, they were a little more east long ago. I feel certainly a kinship and that language in there, which I always love to see when indigenous languages there, the root words are very similar. We have dialectal differences that are extremely different, but there's also root words that are very similar, and so I enjoyed that. I think our communities are dealing with [00:10:00] all these same issues around jurisdiction. My husband happens to be an environmental police officer for our tribal nation.
There's a lot of issues around jurisdiction, who has jurisdiction, the town, the state, the feds, the tribe, and the complexities of when something bad goes wrong. Things happen. No matter what nation you're from, things go wrong that are legally tangled, and how do they get handled? We all feel the identity issue. Our history was meant to erase indigeneity from all indigenous peoples across this nation, and we feel that today, and unpacking who belongs, who's federally recognized. I introduced myself and said I was an enrolled citizen of my nation.
It's unfortunate, but it's part of, I guess, the divide and conquer that's happening here in the United States that now indigenous people, not only have to fight to be indigenous but then we have to fight to be recognized as such by a state entity or a federal entity as opposed to just be who you are. I think the book speaks to that. It speaks to identity and belonging and community and what does that mean? Because you can have community and belonging and still have attacks on your identity. You can have identity and have attacks on your community and your belonging, so it's very complex.
I think, Angeline, you did a beautiful job of weaving in all those modern-day elements that indigenous communities are dealing with. They're dealing with, are you indigenous enough? If you can't go around singing a song, saying a prayer in your language, doing those overtly indigenous things, does that make you less indigenous? I think one of your main characters is indigenous, but didn't really grow up in the community and so isn't connected like your other main character is connected to the plant life and the community and her family. [00:12:00] There's no sense of not knowing who you are because it was steeped in her life, right?
Then, the person that's undercover officer, he's indigenous, but not necessarily steeped in his home community, so he's trying to understand his identity, and that's another way of looking at it.
Angeline: Thank you for that.
Lorén: The bottom answer is we do see ourselves in the story. We see our communities, we see the interactions of people, which I thought was really fun like the relationships and the conversations between people. You could almost picture people in your own home community that are those people, the ones that are the talkers and the grandmothers that are there doing their role. It was really great.
Tayla: Speaking of the grandmothers and the other elders, I know mine, and Dave had said it to me as well when we were fangirling over the book, that the elders were some of our favorite parts of the book. I thought the scene of where she received all the affidavits was such a powerful scene because it really did show that she is very connected to her community even if her identity is in question because of her lineage. I'm dying to know, were the elders inspired by elders that were in your life?
Angeline: Yes, of course, aunties and cousins and elders in our community. Then I worked for my tribe, not only as the education director, but I also oversaw our elders' division and our culture and language programs, and so I would eat lunch with our elders, and they would just crack me up. They would just make me laugh. My dad is [00:14:00] 80 years old and he has an iPad. Our local town got a grant and they made them free for senior citizens if they would agree to be tutored by high school students doing a service-learning project, and so my 80-year-old dad is watching banjo videos on YouTube and different things.
I also really wanted to capture the vibrant lives that our elders live and adapting to technology, which plays an important part in the story too. I'm just so glad that you mentioned that scene where, for readers, Daunis is so connected to her father's family, but her father passed when she was seven, and because of her non-native's grandparents prejudices, they refused to have him be on the birth certificate. We do have situations in tribal communities where there are 574 federally recognized tribes. Each of those tribes has the sovereign right to set their own criteria to be a citizen of that nation.
In one community, it's a certain blood quantum amount, and then my community it's descendancy, or you do have to trace your family tree to someone, but the blood quantum requirement is not there. Other tribes, someone might be an enrolled member, but their child necessarily wouldn't be? I really wanted Daunis to serve this putting in the mind of someone who is [00:16:00] native, but yet she's not enrolled. Then at a certain point in the story, she has this opportunity to apply for membership, and it requires that she get affidavits from elders that aren't related to her. It's a really emotional scene. I love it when people tell me that, "Chapter 26 made me cry," and I just think, okay, job well done. [laughs]
Tayla: You mentioning iPads made me think about how the setting of the book, because I know that that was one of the things initially when reading it, that I was like, "Oh, okay, this is set in 2004," I believe, right? The early 2000s.
Tayla: Was the particular time that it was set really important to the story in some way that you felt like you needed to put it there?
Angeline: Yes, three reasons. First, that's when meth really exploded across the country, was in the early 2000s. Had I set the story more recently, I would have had to deal more with opioids. Also, in Michigan, in that time, early 2000s, there were some Indian gaming in Michigan for some tribes that had a great location. It was especially lucrative, so I liked that these two things go on happening simultaneously and what that does in a community. Then two, I needed GPS technology to be present but imprecise.
Cell phones at that time they weren't smartphones, so they didn't have GPS. If you're searching for someone nowadays, we just Find My Friends on my iPhone, so [00:18:00] it made sense to tell the story in that time.
Lorén: I really loved how you explained the payouts from the casino too in the book. We have the nearby Mashantucket Pequot Foxwoods casino. There's a lot of negativity around tribal nations that have casinos as though we become less native if you have some financial resources, but I loved how you called it being a stockholder. This is the same kind of thing, but people don't look at it that way. They often look at it as a negative thing and make negative comments about indigenous people that are from tribal nations that have casino as a form of economic development. I thought it was really interesting how you framed that to give people a different insight and a different way of thinking about it.
Angeline: Thank you. I really wanted to provide a more balanced view about tribes that do per capita payments. It takes on a life of its own. It's like money. Money isn't inherently good or bad, it's what you do with it. Breaking it down how Daunis explains it to Jamie, that is no different than being part of the Ford Motor Company, the Ford family, and getting profit-sharing dividends off of stocks. It's not any different, but for some reason when an impoverished community develops economic resources, there comes a lot of judgment of how a person spends this money and whether or not they truly deserve it. I think in communities, it can be really tough.
In Sault Ste. Marie, the unemployment rate, gosh, [00:20:00] back in the '70s, it was like 80% unemployment rate for native Americans. Now, our main casino in Sault Ste. Marie is the number one employer in, I believe at one point, it was in all of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. To go from huge unemployment to being the top employer, I think sometimes other people in the community have to get used to Native Americans not being the way that they always thought of them. That new money, it's like you still get expected to put up with the same stuff that you always have, but once you have economic power, it ruffles feathers and it changes things.
Lorén: Angeline's right, Mashantucket and Mohegan have certainly helped not only the native communities in Southern New England, but all communities with jobs and opportunity, but then there's tribes like my own that don't have casino and we won't even start to talk about that. [laughs]
Angeline: One time my tribe did this where you could cash your check at the casino and they would pay out in $2 bills, and then you would get change back from a store and there'd be all these $2 bills. It was really interesting to show the economic impact that the casino was having in this very visual way.
Tayla: Read Across Rhode Island has partnered with the Tomaquag Museum for this year because of the subject of Firekeeper's Daughter. Lorén, could you talk a little bit about the programs that the Tomaquag Museum is doing related to the book?
Lorén: Sure. I know that we have done a couple of things already in partnership with Read Across Rhode Island [00:22:00] and have been some various talks and Zoom presentations, the grand opening night which was so fun. Silver Moon is the one that has been leading our book club, so I'm sure she's going to lead Firekeeper's Daughter as the book club book, that is definitely happening. I'm not 100% sure of the date at this moment. Of course, being on here is a lovely thing to be doing and actually getting to meet Angeline. It's so lovely to talk to you in the spring.
We are doing a big event and I believe, Angeline, you're actually coming to the museum and doing something live here, and then we're going to Newport and having an evening event. I believe that's in May.
Tayla: That's May 26th. There'll be a live stream at 1:00 PM for high schoolers and we will also stream that live from the RILA Conference, so if you were a librarian attending the Rhode Island Library Association Conference, you can watch it with other librarians live there. Then I'm seeing the in-person event at Solvay at 6:30 PM that same evening, May 26th. We will have links on how to register and more information down in the show notes. I wanted to make sure that everyone could attend these events and hear you speak more about your book.
Angeline: I love talking with readers. I always ask them who their favorite elder was. It's still surreal to me that this story that has been with me since I was 18 that people are now reading it and excited about it and talking about it. It's still disbelief sometimes that this dream has come true in a way bigger than I ever could have imagined.
Tayla: I have a question for you because it's something that gets asked of us a lot. What was your process in going to [00:24:00] get a book published? Because a lot of people have a dream of a story. Even if they can manage to write something on their own, particularly the native people that we're working with especially, they're very curious about how did you get started to actually get a book published?
Angeline: There's two great nonprofit organizations that were so helpful to me, actually three. One is we need diverse books and that's a nonprofit organization that's dedicated to believing that every child deserves to be seen in a story. I applied for one of their mentorships and was selected. I applied twice and the first time I didn't get picked, and so I tried the next year and I could see in my application, I could see that working on my draft over that year, I could see my writing skills had improved. Yes, I did get picked for a mentorship, and so I had an author named Francisco Stork and he read my manuscript and offered me critiques on it.
That was so helpful. He also put me in touch with his agent and who is now my agent. I believe that we need diverse books as doing a native creative, some programs for emerging native writers to learn about the industry, and some resources. Also Kweli literary journal, and that's K-W-E-L-I, they do a conference every spring and it's Kweli Color of Children's Literature Conference. They actually have a scholarship. If you are a native writer and you don't have anything published and you've never attended Kweli before, [00:26:00] you can apply for one of these scholarships and attend this virtual conference for free.
It's just a great resource. Then I also pitched my book on #DVpitch, which is a Twitter pitching event and I had 60 agents and 20 editors that had liked my tweet, and so that was considered an invitation to query them.
Tayla: Thank you so much for sharing that. That'll be amazing for people to know more about. I didn't even know that there were hashtags so that you could pitch your book to editors and things on Twitter. Like you hear about people breaking into the music industry by using YouTube and now like TikTok and the power of the internet. I hadn't really realized the power of the internet. It's firing authors to break into the industry, so that's awesome.
Lorén: Yes, because as a museum in Southern New England, there's just not a lot of writing that represents our communities from our own communities. We're starting and there's different ones, but there's just not the abundance. John Christian Hopkins is a Narragansett author. He was also a columnist and a newspaper writer as well and he's written a couple of fictional books; he pronounces it Carlomagno, the pirate prince of the Caribbean. It's a fun book thinking about what if after King Philip's War when they kill off the leaders, the wife and the child are sold into slavery, what happens to them?
He's done this whole what if on the Spanish main with pirates and all kinds of other things happening and it's really, really great, but there's just not enough. As a museum, we've been really encouraging people to write and to give us more voice so that we can have a multitude of [00:28:00] ways of seeing ourselves. Firekeeper's Daughter is one way to see yourself as an Ojibwe person. There's enough Ojibwe authors today that have really made it into the mainstream that I think there's a decent amount of options for readers to see themselves.
I think in Southern New England in particular, that's why I mentioned Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel because that's an example of someone who's writing young adult books that gives someone an option to see themselves here in Southern New England in our experience and our history and how that impacts us today.
Tayla: Before we wrap up, Angeline, is there anything else that you would like our listeners to know about your book?
Angeline: I have 20 foreign publishing deals, so my book is being published in many different countries and languages and it's so exciting. Then I did sell the film rights to the Obamas for them to do a Netflix series, and so I'm just thrilled. It was about two weeks after my book auction that a similar process happened with the film rights. There were several production companies that were interested in acquiring it and I would tell them the same thing; representation is my core value. It's important to have native creative talent, not just in front of the camera but behind the camera in the writer's room and at every level of production.
There was one production company where a guy said, "Oh, are there any native screenwriters?" and I thought, "Why would I do business with this person and I have to do Indians 101 with them?" The reaction from a higher ground was just the opposite. They were like, "Absolutely, [00:30:00] these are the networks were tied into, these are some people that we're thinking about working with and if you know of anybody." They got it. Then it's been so good to see that representation in shows like Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls when you have native people in the writer's room.
For example, on Reservation Dogs, there's this scene where they come up to Uncle Brownie's house and there's an owl and Willie Jack is like, "Oh," because in her culture, you're not supposed to look at an owl in the eyes. When the camera shows that owl, they pixelated the eyes and it was so funny. That probably went over the heads of many viewers, but for indigenous people who are familiar with certain teachings and if they have those similar teachings, it was like, "Oh my God, that is priceless."
Lorén: Quite excited about that this might be on Netflix in a bit.
Congratulations, Angeline, that must be so exciting.
Angeline: Yes, it is.
Tayla: I'll definitely be watching. We wrap up the show with the segment I call The Last Chapter, where we talk about a library or a bookish-related question. I did have a question prepared, but then, Angeline, you said about you love hearing about who everyone's favorite elder in the book was. I think that's a great question and I think we should do that question instead. For me, it was definitely Granny June. All of her antics, the thing about her dog being named Tribal Council so that she could yell at her dog and being yelling at Tribal Council at the same time was hilarious to me, so Granny June number one fan right here.
Lorén: I think I was [00:32:00] thinking of her as well, but you know what I love? What really resonated with me is the connectedness of the elders and how they used their power, if you will, to help along the way in the story and unpack certain things. I think the elder that she kept going to. I'm terrible at remembering real people's names, [laughs] so I can't quite remember the name off the top of my head, but that she was going to the teacher. They were talking about the medicinal properties of the mushrooms and unpacking that from a scientific perspective, but also from an indigenous perspective.
I was really interested in that partly because as a community and as a museum too, we've been highlighting a lot of people that have traditional ecological knowledge and sharing that on walking tours and bolstering our own knowledge, so I was really intrigued by the insights that she got from elders for that information. That was exciting to me.
Angeline: Of course, Granny June, I aspire to be Granny June someday, but also, I love the Mini Mustang and I have a red sports car, so I think maybe I am going to be Mini Mustang. She just cracks me up by buying a sporty car at age 75 and calling it her midlife crisis car.
Tayla: That's true.
Lorén: We all knew one of those at 75!
Tayla: Mild spoilers for the book, but real hero in the end. Mini and her Mustang plays a real integral part at the end.
Angeline: Yes, that'll do.
Lorén: Yes, I didn't want to give any tips. That's what I love about the elders.
Angeline: With the Netflix series, [00:34:00] I don't make decisions on where it gets filmed or anything like that, but I sure hope that that fairy scene, I don't know how you could film it anywhere else, but Sugar Island off of Sault Ste. Marie Michigan and have that fairy boat. Every time I'm on that ferry, I visualize those scenes that take place there.
Tayla: Thanks for listening. For the full episode, including our book and movie suggestions, search for "downtime" with the Cranston Public Library in your podcast player and learn more about our show at cranstonlibrary.org/downtime. Rhody Radio is a resident partner of the Rhode Island Center for the book and is brought to you by the American Rescue Plan: Humanities Grants for Libraries, an initiative of the American Library Association made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. When you're listening to Rhody Radio, you know you're listening to something good.