A graphic novel series by and for Indigenous youth

with

Feathers of Hope

 

The three Feathers of Hope graphic novels. Photo by Zahra Agjee

The Feathers of Hope Culture, Identity, and Belonging Project grew out of a forum for Indigenous youth held in Thunder Bay, Ontario in September 2016.

For this project, we partnered with Feathers of Hope (FOH) and the Ontario Child Advocate (OCA) with the goal of giving voice to the stories and experiences that were shared at this forum and offering recommendations for improving access to culture, identity, and belonging for Indigenous youth.

Over the course of 22 months, we worked with a dozen youth advisors and 10 FOH Amplifiers to co-design a series of publications that would resonate with young people as well as lawmakers, academics, service providers, and other people in positions of power.

The process resulted in three Indigenous youth-created graphic novels. Each one deals with one of the three central themes of the forum: culture, identity, and belonging.

The Feathers of Hope graphic novels were released online on March 26, 2019 and are available for free download:

Blueberries: Healing the Circle (PDF)
In Blueberries: Healing the Circle, an Elder shares with his grandchildren his journey of healing from the trauma inflicted by Canada’s residential school system.

Front cover of Blueberries: Healing the Circle. Photo by Zahra Agjee
Front cover of Blueberries: Healing the Circle. Photo by Zahra Agjee

Manidoo Makwa (PDF)
In Manidoo Makwa, a young woman discovers her purpose as a defender of her community’s traditional land through cultural teachings.

Front cover of Manidoo Makwa: Spirit Bear. Photo by Zahra Agjee

Way of the Gentle Heart (PDF)
In Way of the Gentle Heart, a young writer who is bullied for not conforming to binary gender norms learns about Two-Spirit identities and gains a circle of support.

Front cover of Way of the Gentle Heart. Photo by Zahra Agjee
Front cover of Way of the Gentle Heart. Photo by Zahra Agjee

 

Learn more about how the Culture, Identity, and Belonging Project took shape. Jump to a section using the links below:

Culture, Identity, Belonging, and Colonialism
A Path to Healing and Connection
Walking Together on Unfamiliar Ground
Sharing Stories: Listening and Retelling
Disruption and Uncertainty, Support and Strength
“Sprinting” Toward the Finish Line
Co-Created Tools for Liberation

Culture, Identity, Belonging, and Colonialism

“They took my language. They took it right out of my mouth. I never spoke it again.” —Rose Dorothy Charlie in her statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Whitehorse, Yukon, 27 May 2011)

Photo of five young people standing in front of a large, red banner that reads ‘Feathers of Hope.’ One of them is kneeling over a black stand while they speak over a microphone. The remaining four stand behind, looking determined and strong.
Young people speaking at the Forum Feathers of Hope: Culture, Identity and Belonging (2016). Photo courtesy of Feathers of Hope

In the summer of 2016, Feathers of Hope1 hosted a five-day Culture, Identity and Belonging Forum in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

The forum took place one year after the release of the findings from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). This commission concluded that Canada’s Indian Residential School System, which forced the separation of Indigenous children from their families and communities, was an integral part of a conscious policy of cultural genocide.

More than 100 Indigenous young people took part in the forum. Together, they explored the connections between their personal experiences and the history of colonialism in Canada. The Canadian government’s systematic erasure of Indigenous culture was so destructive that many of the attendees grew up without access to traditional language and practices. The forum gave the youth a chance to share and experience some of these traditions, such as medicine teachings, sweat lodge ceremony, and beading and drum-making workshops.

The Culture, Identity, and Belonging Forum ended with a “Listening Table,” where elected officials, service providers, and First Nations leadership were invited to do only that: listen. The young people who spoke to the Listening Table told their own stories and connected them to history and current policy. They shared stories of feeling shame around their Indigenous identities, of self harm, of losing siblings to suicide. They also shared stories of connecting to culture and language and the sense of belonging that these experiences provided.

A Path to Healing and Connection

“We need healing, we need our Elders and our communities to teach us about our roots.” —from “Letter from the Amplifiers,” introduction to the Feathers of Hope graphic novels

Photo of seven young people standing in a line, each raising their right arm towards the sky. While partaking in this group activity, some of them are looking serious and determined, while some of them are laughing.
Young people during an activity at the Forum Feathers of Hope: Culture, Identity and Belonging (2016). Photo courtesy of Feathers of Hope

After the forum, Feathers of Hope issued an invitation to the participants to join an advisory group that would lead the creation of a publication representing the young people’s stories and offering recommendations for improving access to culture, identity, and belonging. Around a dozen young people volunteered.

Over the course of the next 22 months, this group would meet, revisit the stories they shared and heard at the forum, and dive into a deep co-design process.

From the start, the FOH staff and youth advisors decided they wanted to create a publication that was different from the reports they had issued in the past. Instead of creating a report meant only for people in positions of power, the goal for this publication was to reach young people, too.

Walking Together on Unfamiliar Ground

“Co-design binds people together in a way other standard processes do not.”—Zahra Agjee, And Also Too Production Manager

A photo of a group of young advisors presenting the findings of their work. Two advisors stand in front of several chart papers taped to the wall. One of them is pointing to an area of the paper while another one talks. Three other people stand in front of them, listening attentively.

In the first co-design session, the group became excited by the idea of creating a graphic novel. It was a medium that most young people were already familiar with, and the combination of text and images would mean that younger children could also engage with the stories, which had not been possible with the previous reports.

We did not have a roadmap for this process: this would be our studio’s first graphic novel project, and we were unable to find any existing examples of collaborative, Indigenous youth-led projects of this sort. To get started, we consulted with multidisciplinary visual storyteller and artist-educator Althea Balmes, who shared valuable advice that helped us plan our approach.

Although we were all on unfamiliar ground, everyone came to the co-design process with valuable expertise. The young people brought their lived experiences as well as their experiences of being storytellers and listeners at the forum. Some were writers. Some were visually oriented. Some were jokers who kept everyone’s spirits high through our long meetings. As adult designers and co-design facilitators coming from settler communities, we recognized the need to walk respectfully alongside the youth throughout this process and set an intention to limit our role to listening, asking questions, and holding the stories we heard in such a way that they could be re-told.

Sharing Stories: Listening and Retelling

“We heard others speak about the consequences of not dealing with that pain, the racism we experience, and the conditions in our communities that make it hard to be healthy, hard to be proud and hard to walk in two-worlds…” —from “Letter from the Amplifiers,” introduction to the Feathers of Hope graphic novels

(Left): Photo of a group of advisors working on the floor. They are kneeling over a large printout of the storyline chart. At the left of the image is a young person reaching over the chart to place a post-it on it. In the background, another young person points to the chart, filled with handwritten notes in other post-its. (Right): Photo of close up of the chart with post-it notes. The arm of a young person can be seen in the background, writing on a worksheet page.
Young advisors using a custom story chart developed by And Also Too to collaboratively flesh out characters and storylines. Left: Photo by Una Lee Right: Photo by Lupe Pérez

Over the course of six co-design sessions, the group listened to audio recordings of the stories told at the Listening Table and identified key themes.  Living in care, a lack of access to mental health services, and growing up without knowledge of their traditional languages were just a handful of the many themes that came up in these listening sessions.

Image of a large-scale chart developed by And Also Too for the Feathers of Hope advisory. It consists of a table divided horizontally in the following areas: Main Characters, Text/Dialogue, Events, Scenes, and Settings. Vertically, the chart is divided by the headings Beginning [of storyline], Middle, and Ending.
Chart developed by And Also Too for collaborative story writing.

In small groups, the advisors wove the stories together into skits. These skits were presented back to the full group for discussion. Through dramatization, oral retelling, and written notes, the skits evolved into storylines for graphic novels. We fleshed these out together using a custom story chart, along with character development worksheets.

In the end, six stories emerged as the most “real” — those that felt most true to the voices of the forum participants.

Disruption and Uncertainty, Support and Strength

“To Sam, we as Feathers of Hope youth say: ‘This is for everything you have done for us: Gitchi-Miigwetch. Thank you.’”—writer Elton Beardy, in the Feathers of Hope graphic novel Blueberries: Healing the Circle

Elders, who were present at our advisories, inspired the look and feel of some of the characters in the graphic novels, and offered much needed support when the graphic novel process was disrupted. Photo courtesy of Feathers of Hope.

After our storyline writing session, excitement was in the air: the six stories the young people had written together was the achievement of a major milestone. However, shortly after this advisory, our work was disrupted by the news that the Conservative government in Ontario would be closing Feathers of Hope’s parent organization, the office of the Ontario Child Advocate (OCA), within four months.

The news was devastating. The OCA had been a vocal champion of the rights of the most vulnerable children and youth in the province, and Feathers of Hope had become a close-knit family with hundreds of members—Indigenous youth, allies, and elders coming together to learn, share, support each other, and create together. There was anxiety and uncertainty about what would become of this family and the work we were doing together.

Throughout the graphic novel process, all involved were grateful to have the support of Elders Sam Achneepineskum, Ma-Nee Chacaby, and Cindy Crowe. After the OCA’s closure was announced, the Elders offered words of hope and wisdom, shared traditional stories, and led us in smudging and sweat lodge ceremony. The young people also had the support of mental health workers who offered culturally anchored counselling at each meeting for anyone who wanted it.

Our project was challenging and ambitious even without this news; now we had just four months to release the graphic novels before the office closed. But we also had each other and the shared commitment to see this work through.

“Sprinting” to the Finish Line

“There will never be a finished story—it will continue unfolding.” —from And Also Too’s meeting notes, March 2019

(Left): Photo of two young artists working on graphic novel storyboards taped to a wall. Both artists are wearing black and face away from the camera, attentively staring at the storyboards. (Right): Close-up photo of a graphic novel storyboard. Visible on the image are several hand-drawn frames, with various characters and settings inside of them. Some of the frames are crossed with a red ‘x,’ to indicate they are to be discarded. Some have post-its with comments on them.
Photographs from our December sprint in Toronto. Writer Elton Beardy and artist Kaia’tanó:ron Dumoulin Bush work on the graphic novel storyboards. Photos by Lupe Pérez

To meet the new deadline, we decided to focus on producing three black-and-white graphic novels instead of the six full-color publications we had originally planned. We then organized a “sprint” in Toronto. For 2.5 intense days, we cloistered ourselves in an apartment with Feathers of Hope staff writer Elton Beardy and artist Kaia’tanó:ron Dumoulin Bush to turn the story charts into scripts and storyboards. The storyboards were then shared with artists Chief Lady Bird and Monique Bedard (Aura). Each artist worked on one of the three graphic novels. In very little time, all three produced first drafts.

Photo of two young advisors standing in front of a window, to which are taped several graphic novel storyboards. The advisors are giving feedback by placing post-its on individual panels.
At our last co-design meeting, advisors provided feedback on the storyboards done by the artists. Photo by Una Lee
Sample of graphic novel panels done by Monique Bedard (Aura), for Manidoo Makwa: Spirit Bear. It shows outline drawings of a young Indigenous character and their grandmother. The panels also feature caption and speech bubbles with handwritten text.
Storyboard sample for Manidoo Makwa: Spirit Bear. Image courtesy of Monique Bedard (Aura).

We shared these drafts with the advisors at one last meeting in Thunder Bay. The advisors were candid and thorough with their feedback, providing comments and revisions on flow, character rendering, ceremony, and more. This feedback vastly improved the work. After many months, the stories were finally coming to life.

Co-Created Tools for Liberation

“Through my art, I am able to explore who I am, discover more about my family and community, and express, share, release and spread love. It is not just about my own healing journey, but other people’s as well. This is all part of what belonging means to me.” —artist Monique Bedard (Aura), in the Feathers of Hope graphic novel Manidoo Makwa

Spread from Manidoo Makwa: Spirit Bear.

At the last stage, And Also Too completed the design and layout of the three graphic novel books—each a story created by the young people, along with an executive summary, a series of recommendations to those in power, letters from Feathers of Hope, and resources for readers.

We worked closely with the artists to develop the cover images, which we converted to stencils. We then photographed these with light and sage smudge, a process and style unique to the Feathers of Hope brand.

For creating the graphic novel covers, we photographed stencils of the artwork with light and sage smudge. Photos by Una Lee

The Feathers of Hope graphic novels demonstrate how culture, identity and belonging help Indigenous young people know who they are. They speak of the strength of their nations, communities, and families, despite the impact of ongoing policies that continue to perpetuate harm against Indigenous people, lands, and cultural practices. We are honoured and humbled to have participated in the co-design process alongside Feathers of Hope in the making of such powerful stories.

The Feathers of Hope graphic novels were released online on March 26, 2019. Due to the closure of the Ontario Child Advocate, it was not possible to organize a release event in time; however, this is not the end of our story. Stay tuned for a community release announcement in the near future.

Photo of the Feathers of Hope graphic novels. The image shows a top-view of the three books, displayed in a row and sitting against a bright red background.
Photo shows the front cover of the graphic novel Blueberries: Healing the Circle. It is a black cover with a glowing, red illustration in the center. The illustration shows a blueberry branch, forming a circle as it closes in on the book’s title: Blueberries: Healing the Circle. Inside the branch, partially hidden between the berries and leaves, stands a mysterious, long-haired figure with their chest bare.
Photo of a spread of the graphic novel Blueberries: Healing the Circle. It is a series of black and white panels from pages 14-15.
Photo of a spread of the graphic novel Blueberries: Healing the Circle. It is a series of black and white panels from pages 20-21.
Photo shows the front cover of the graphic novel Manidoo Makwa: Spirit Bear. It is a black cover with a glowing, red illustration in the center. The illustration shows an undulating path moving upwards. On the path we can distinguish a bear standing behind the silhouette of a young person holding a drum. They seem to be flowing along with the path, as if they were one with it.
Photo of a spread of the graphic novel Manidoo Makwa. It is a series of black and white panels from pages 18-19. On the left page, we see a scene set in a kitchen. Makwa stands next to her grandmother, an Elder wearing a handkerchief on her head, as she cuts vegetables for a meal. In the next scene, we see a close-up of the grandmother’s face, as she praises Makwa for her voice and hair, and comments Makwa will be loved by boys or girls, and that either choice is “more than okay!”. On the right page, we see a beautifully-composed scene from the Elder’s memories. In the foreground of the panel is baby Makwa, being held by her grandmother when she was born. In the background there is a bear holding herbs in its mouth, and a young person touching a tree—the Tree of Life. An undulating white path emerges from the hand touching the tree, framing the entire scene in a loving way.
Photo of a spread of the graphic novel Manidoo Makwa. It is a series of black and white panels from pages 24-25.
Photo shows the front cover of the graphic novel Way of the Gentle Heart. It is a black cover with a glowing, red illustration in the center. At the center of the illustration stands a fire, from which a series of leaves and flowers are blossoming.
Photo of the opening page to the graphic novel Way of the Gentle Heart. It is a black and white illustration of an Elder sitting on a couch, holding a feather. Their eyes are closed, and their expression is one of complete peace and tranquility. There is an open notebook in the Elder’s lap—from its pages are blossoming a series of undulating flowers.
Photo of a spread of the graphic novel Way of the Gentle Heart. It is a series of black and white panels from pages 18-19. On the left page we see a scene set in an office. The main character of the story, a young Indigenous person named Hunter, sits with their back against a large bookcase full of books. Hunter is holding a notepad against their chest, and looks sad and concerned as they speak to a school counsellor, who is sitting next to them. Flowers and leaves are coming out of Hunter’s chair, enveloping them in a gentle and loving way. In the dialogue, the counsellor is inviting Hunter to come to a ceremony, but Hunter is hesitant because that would mean they would have to wear a skirt. However, the counsellor assures Hunter they are welcome, and that the Elder leading the ceremony has good teachings for them.

All three graphic novels are available for free download:

Blueberries: Healing the Circle (PDF)
In Blueberries: Healing the Circle, an Elder shares with his grandchildren his journey of healing from the trauma inflicted by Canada’s residential school system.

Manidoo Makwa (PDF)
In Manidoo Makwa, a young woman discovers her purpose as a defender of her community’s traditional land through cultural teachings.

Way of the Gentle Heart (PDF)
In Way of the Gentle Heart, a young writer who is bullied for not conforming to binary gender norms learns about Two-Spirit identities and gains a circle of support.

 


1 Feathers of Hope is a non-profit organization dedicated to amplifying the voices of Indigenous youth in Ontario. Through workshops, forums, and publications, FOH forges a direct line of communication between Indigenous youth and decision makers at all levels of government. The organization was formerly part of the Ontario Child Advocate (OCA), which was dissolved in 2019. The dissolution of the OCA impacted the timeline and launch of the Indigenous youth-led graphic novels that grew out of the Feathers of Hope: Culture, Identity and Belonging forum.