Charlene Bearhead and Wilson Bearhead are the authors of the Siha Tooskin Knows series. Eleven-year-old Siha Tooskin (Paul) is a Nakota boy who is learning about his identity and developing a sense of cultural responsibility in a contemporary, urban setting. The series is illustrated by multi-talented artist Chloe Bluebird Mustooch.
Read our interview with Charlene and Wilson below to learn more about the series, their work, and the inspiration behind the books.
- The Siha Tooskin Knows series uses vivid narratives and illustrations in contemporary settings to share stories about an 11-year-old Nakota boy. Can you touch on what it was like working with illustrator Chloe Bluebird Mustooch?
WB: It is good to have a young Nakota woman who has gone to such great lengths to educate herself, and to become an illustrator, for books like ours. It inspires me to see how far she has come in such a short time.
CB: Working with Bluebird has been such a gift. She is an incredibly gifted artist and graphic designer. She was able to bring Siha Tooskin, his family, and the stories to life in a way that we couldn’t have even dreamed of for so many reasons. Bluebird is a young Nakota woman who grew up with many of the same teachings as Siha Tooskin, Wilson, and our own children. The fact that Bluebird grew up with my children made this especially meaningful for me. Having watched her grow into the amazing woman that she is, to have been her grade-8 teacher, to have shared in so many ceremonies with Bluebird and her family, and to have the honour of working with her on her first book series is beyond anything I could have hoped for. Every time we met to review the illustrations, I was blown out of the water. I have such a deep respect for Bluebird, her talent, and the way that she carries herself in every aspect of her life.
- Can you talk about the Nakota language and how you have incorporated it into the story?
WB: Nakota was my first language and most of my teachings came through stories in the Nakota language. For me the words express more meaning with regard to what the story is about. So as a child, it made it easy for me to listen to the storyteller who spoke to me in the Nakota language. Those stories and the storytellers are still with me today. So I hoped that by including some Nakota language in the Siha Tooskin Knows books that the children who are reading them will feel what I felt when I was a child hearing stories in my language.
CB: For me learning at least the most basic terminology to show respect to the people upon whose territory we live is just something that should be a given. The least we can do is to put forth the effort to learn. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge that there is a way to be with, and relate to, people in their own lands and communities.
On a personal note I have always been so grateful to the people who took the time to teach me words in their language. Late Ena Gladys Kyme taught me so much… and she had so many good laughs at my pronunciation when I started to learn. My own children were blessed to be taught some basic Nakota by their aunties that cared for them at the daycare at Alexis First Nation when they were very young. They responded in such a different way, a more positive way, when I used the Nakota words that they knew with them.
I don’t understand the language fluently, or come even close, but I know the feelings of hope and peace and comfort that I get when I hear the language being spoken at gatherings or in ceremony. I believe that the children, and maybe even their parents and teachers, reading the Siha Tooskin Knows stories will feel the caring and connectedness in the Nakota words that we share in the books.
- You have previously mentioned that you created these books in part to teach your own children Nakota values. Can you talk about how your experiences as parents contributed to the development of the series?
WB: What I learned early in life, and the values that were presented in how we should treat each other, are the things that I have tried to incorporate as a parent. We tried to incorporate that approach to teaching our children in Siha Tooskin Knows. We wanted to demonstrate this approach to teaching our children that inspires them to learn in the way that the people in Paul’s life teach him as he learns and wants to continue to learn.
CB: My children were raised in ceremony from the time they were babies. We have been so blessed to have generous, loving, knowledgeable people in our lives who all contributed to teaching and raising my children when they were young. Where the struggles came was in helping them understand why other people, non-Indigenous classmates and community people, didn’t understand them or who they were. The stories started out as happy, positive stories about a little boy named Paul who was like them, and who had teachings like theirs, who was supported and able to keep his teachings and his family connections and to try to help teach others in a good way.
Now let’s be honest… doing this in a children’s book where you have control of all of the elements and outcomes is much easier than real life ☺ But we tried our best to parent our children in the best way possible… which is what every parent does. We all want our children to feel happy and safe. That guided us in developing the life of Paul and his family. It is what we would hope for our own children and grandchildren… for all children really.
4. Charlene, you started off your career teaching in both Alberta and Manitoba. What inspired the transition from teaching in the physical classroom to becoming an advocate for Indigenous education?
I’d love to say that the transition was something that I thought out thoroughly and was the architect of, but that’s not true. I have come to believe that our path is set for us and if we have the humility, the will, and the courage to be open to what that might be, the path will show itself, and we just need to follow that path.
I think that journey for me began, in part, while I was still in the classroom and it just grew from there. Meeting Indigenous students who didn’t even know who they were. That had been so disenfranchised from themselves that they could only tell me “I’m Native. That’s all I know” or meeting kids who tried to pass themselves off as Asian to dodge the racism. Meeting the Elders and community members who were willing to come to my class and teach all of the students their truth, the age-old science and philosophy and legal systems and so much more… those were all the people who inspired me to step up and do my part.
Then becoming a parent myself and having so many choices and opportunities put in front of me that I could take or turn my back on. I spent some time early on coming up with all of the reasons that I wasn’t the person who had the right or was best-placed to do some of the things asked of me, but I came to realize that the only thing that I have the right to do, or the responsibility to do, is my own part. I leave the rest to others. I’d love to say that I came up with that all on my own but again… not true.
The real turning point for me was in the mid-1990s while I stood waiting to be called up by the Chiefs at a meeting at Maskwacis to make a report on our progress on the First Nations and Inuit Child Care Initiative. I was very nervous and said to late Sherman Jones, “I don’t think this should be me doing this.” He just smiled and said, “Would you just shut up about what you should and shouldn’t be doing and just do what you’re asked to do. You didn’t put yourself here. They asked you to do this, so just do it, and stop talking about who should do this part. You’re wasting time.” That was it for me. Since that day I’ve just tried to do my part when asked to help.
I believe that every single one of us has a part to play in making our communities and society better for our children and grandchildren now and in the future. I try to stay in my own lane, do what I believe I can do and embrace what other people bring to the path. I may not get it right all the time, but I want to be able to tell my children and grandchildren that I didn’t stand by and watch things that I knew were wrong and that I did all that I could do in the short time I had on this earth. I hope they will feel like I did enough when my time here is done.
5. Along with the Siha Tooskin Knows series, you are also releasing a guide for educators. What can educators expect from the guide?
WB: I hope that teachers see that not only do Indigenous stories inspire, these stories also give us direction and solutions to some of the challenges that we face in our lives every day. We have to find the solutions for ourselves, but they are present in the teachings and the stories. We hope that the guide helps teachers and parents seek out those solutions for themselves and to help their children to do the same.
CB: I hope that the guide will help teachers, but might also support parents, and Sunday school teachers, and youth group leaders and anyone else who wants to learn more with their kids but isn’t really sure how to dive in. The guide starts out by giving the adults some support to prepare for the teaching. Things like tips about how to invite Elders and Indigenous Knowledge Keepers to work with you, basic terminology to use when engaging in learning with and about Indigenous peoples, how to manage difficult discussion, and how to create an ethical space for learning.
There are also lessons for each book. Each lesson will explore some of the words, terms, and concepts used in the book. There are a series of inquiry questions offered for teachers to choose from to engage students in taking the learning beyond the stories, to learn about the Indigenous peoples where they live, and to relate the learning to their own people. There are activities that students will undertake to demonstrate their own learning and give them opportunities to share their learning with others in the school and community.
6. Wilson, as a Nakota Elder, can you explain why it’s important for children to learn these teachings at a young age? What lessons do you hope students take away from the series?
WB: I was taught that young children need to learn many things. About who they are and what they need to learn in life. Early understanding helps them to live in this world. People who present positive, traditional practices will give children confidence and connection within their own spirits.
Siha Tooskin presents a view that reflects the Nakota teachings that I learned as a child. What I hope children take from this series is that they are a willingness to be open, to share, to be a part of things… I think that Siha Tooskin brings messages of respect and kindness. Those are the most important lessons of all.
The Siha Tooskin Knows series is available now! Buy together and save here.