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Native Authors Share Their Stories and Culture During Cor Unum Week

Native Authors Share Their Stories and Culture During Cor Unum Week

Two Native American authors shared their personal and cultural histories and narratives through discussions about the printed words and pictures in their award-winning books.

The 4th annual Cor Unum Week was highlighted by separate on-campus visits by two Native American authors who are devoted to representing the beautiful and complex experiences of Native peoples in their work.

Angeline Boulley, the author behind the #1 New York Times bestselling Firekeeper’s Daughter, inspired Grade 7–12 students on March 22 by sharing her remarkable story and creative process. The following week, Kevin Maillard delved into big questions with K–6 students about Native American history and identity through the lens of his picture book, Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story. Both authors also held talks for the Convent & Stuart Hall adult community.

Building on the themes presented by visiting author Tommy Orange in the fall, Ms. Boulley and Mr. Maillard both spoke about a common belief that Native American people only exist in the past. “Native people are still here, living dynamic lives,” Ms. Boulley said. Despite patterns of struggle, Mr. Maillard reminded students that Native Americans are the most culturally diverse ethnic group in the United States, with the biggest Native population living in New York City. “I wanted everybody to see that we are still here,” he said. “People believe that Natives disappeared, that they vanished. That is not true because we are still here.” 

In front of an audience of students in Grades 7–12, some seated in Syufy Theatre and others attending virtually from their classrooms, Ms. Boulley spoke about her Sault Ste. Marie Tribe’s Ojibwe heritage and the inspiration for Firekeeper’s Daughter (the title refers to her father who was the firekeeper of their community). “Really I learned storytelling from my dad,” she noted. Decades after the idea first came to her, Ms. Boulley wrote the book over a 10-year period. She described her creative process and the moment she realized that her Hero’s Journey could be told from a young Ojibwe woman’s perspective while using the medicine wheel as a framework. “That’s when I knew my story would be out in the world,” Ms. Boulley said, adding that, “At the heart of the story is a story of identity.”

During the Q&A portion, Ms. Boulley paused to laugh when a student stood up and asked if he could play a role in the upcoming Netflix series adapted from the book. "I'll make you a deal," she said. "You read the book and tell me what role you'd be best suited for and tell me the role you think you could never play." Scheduled for release in late 2023, the series is being developed by Higher Ground, President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama's production company.

Ms. Boulley also led a small group workshop in Williams Library titled “Being the Hero of Our Own Stories.” She asked 30 eager students from across a range of grades to share their favorite Hero’s Journey from film and literature, and then the group discussed what elements and techniques make each one iconic. 

On March 29, Mr. Maillard started the day by asking K–3 boys and girls to share examples of good secrets. “Every single page in Fry Bread has a secret on it,” he told them. Walking between two monitors on either end of the Little Theater, Mr. Maillard read his book, pausing on each page to ask students to identify the secrets and adding context about the history and complexity of fry bread and what it represents to Native American families.

Speaking to Grade 4–6 students in Syufy Theatre, Mr. Maillard described the elements of a story — discovery, recording and relay. As he moved from one slide of his book to the next, he asked students to imagine themselves on The Trail of Tears. “What would it be like if someone stole everything out of your room?” Mr. Maillard later told faculty, staff and parents that it’s never too early to introduce painful topics like Native American expropriation. When sharing the same topic for different age groups, “I’m just changing the angle of the thesis,” he said, adding, “sometimes the best way to do that is through pictures.” 

In his talk for adults titled “Social Justice in Children’s Literature,” Mr. Maillard opened by saying, “Let’s talk about layering.” Referring to a 15th century painting that he studied as a freshman at Duke University, he explained that his work focuses on deconstructing the multi-layered Native American experience. “When we have a family that looks like this,” he said, glancing up at a page from his book depicting a family with different skin colors, “and we say this is a Native family — all of the people are related to each other — it changes people’s conception of what they believe Native people to be.”  

Alyson Barrett, Kathleen Esling and Talbot Moore joined Mr. Maillard on stage to ask questions and field comments from the audience. He spoke about the power of using allegory and symbolism to convey meaning. “It’s wonderful to be able to work with these pictures,” he said, “because you can use the pictures as words.”

Please enjoy browsing the photo albums below.

Photos: Angeline Boulley's Visit
Cor Unum Week 2022: Angeline Boulley Visits Campus
Hover on the cover photo and use the arrows to scroll through photos or view the full album.

Photos: Kevin Maillard's VisitCor Unum Week 2022: Kevin Maillard Visits Campus
Hover on the cover photo and use the arrows to scroll through photos or view the full album.