On the cover of Powwow Summer, a book for young adults by Nahanni Shingoose, the protagonist looks upward, bathed in red light. Her name is River, and she’s stuck between two worlds. Part Ojibwe and part white, she travels to Winnipeg to spend the summer after high school with her Indigenous father and grandmother. Here, she sees firsthand the multi-generational trauma left behind by the residential school system, but also discovers a deep connection to her cultural traditions.
“Red is powerful colour in our culture. It’s a woman’s colour,” says Shingoose of the book’s bold cover. “I think it’s very fitting since it really is a story of a young woman and her identity journey.”
Shingoose, who lives in Stoney Creek, is Saulteaux, originally from Roseau River First Nation in Manitoba. She is an elementary teacher who has received a Golden Leaf National Publishing Award, an Indspire Indigenous Educator Award, and two Prime Minister’s Awards for Excellence in Teaching. She’s also Lead Writer for the National Film Board’s Indigenous Education and Reconciliation Program. As an educator, she knows the importance of creating meaningful opportunities for youth to explore themes like identity and belonging.
“I feel like every adult I know is at some point in their adult life still asking those big life questions: ‘Who am I and why am I here?’ Perhaps if our youth found that sense of belonging earlier in life, they could find that happy place sooner,” she says. “And by happy place, I mean that true sense of self and spirit; having a happy and peaceful soul.”
River’s experiences in Powwow Summer will resonate with all young readers, whether they’re navigating relationships with friends and family, or dealing with cyberbullying, the domestic abuse of a relative, or intimate relationships with a partner. However, on a deeper level, Shingoose says, as a young Indigenous woman, River “grapples with finding her identity as a child of mixed-race parents.”
“She lives in two worlds, or two cultures so to speak. She highlights those differences and how they make her who she is,” says Shingoose. “The story goes beyond the superficial and examines what ‘identity’ really means.”
Above all, Powwow Summer is the gripping story of one young woman who, amidst many changes, no longer feels like she has control of her own life. It’s a feeling many readers will undoubtedly know.
“I think that young people sometimes feel their lives are spinning out off control with the pressures we put on them (job, school, chores, etc.) They are struggling to find that sense of self, a sense of place, a sense of belonging, in addition to a sense of control and independence in their lives,” says Shingoose. “We know that their brains are not yet fully developed until mid-to late twenties, yet we expect them to make adult life decisions. I feel like youth need to hear that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that you really are in control of your own life.”
Interspersed with River’s journal entries, Powwow Summer is a coming-of-age story about community and resilience. It’s also a book that doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, including systemic racism. Shingoose hopes that the situations River and her friends and family find themselves in will help prepare young readers for experiences in their own lives.
“The sooner we start talking about these issues, perhaps the better the chances are that youth will be armed with information, which in turn, helps them make better decisions,” she says.