Charlene Bearhead, an educator and Indigenous education advocate living near Edmonton, Alberta, says that the Siha Tooskin Knows series of eight books for middle-years readers was born out of a need.
“I started writing the books when my children were very young as there were not a lot of children’s books where they could see themselves represented. The books sat in a briefcase for over 20 years in their unfinished forms.”
Her husband, Wilson Bearhead, saw that need, too. “I thought there should be more stories about Indigenous people,” he says. “I felt that children are the ones that are going to make change, and they need a new perspective on Canada. I often think back to the old people, when they would cry and ask why they (Canadians) don’t want to know about us and our stories.” So Wilson kept encouraging Charlene to finish the stories and get them into kids’ hands.
In each of the eight books, Paul Wahasaypa, or Siha Tooskin (which means Little Foot), an 11-year-old Nakota boy, explores an element of his and other First Nations’ cultures.
In Siha Tooskin Knows the Gifts of Our People, he learns from his father about many innovations and technologies that originated with the First Peoples of Turtle Island, in the areas of transportation, architecture, communication, medication, agriculture, and more.
In Siha Tooskin Knows the Love of the Dance, Paul’s uncle takes him and his best friend to a powwow where they learn about the different dances and their meaning. For example, “Men’s traditional dancers can be warriors or hunters. Some dances tell stories about tracking enemies or animals in a hunt. That dance is called a Sneak-Up.”
In Siha Tooskin Knows the Nature of Life, Paul goes for a walk in the woods with his mother and learns the lessons to be found there: kindness from the tall grasses, generosity from the birds and animals, and strength and resilience from the rocks.
Other titles include Siha Tooskin Knows the Best Medicine, Siha Tooskin Knows the Catcher of Dreams, Siha Tooskin Knows the Offering of Tobacco, Siha Tooskin Knows the Sacred Eagle Feather, and Siha Tooskin Knows the Strength of His Hair.
Charlene says that while she does the actual writing, “Wilson is the one who brings the expertise around cultural practices and Nakota language.”
“But we both bring our own experience with children,” says Wilson, “our own children and all of the other children that have been part of our lives.
“I’m a storyteller, but Charlene is a writer, so we bring all of our different gifts together.”
Speaking of artistic gifts, Chloe Bluebird Mustooch, a graduate of the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, illustrated the books with coloured pencil and “just a touch of digital.”
“Working so closely with the writers Charlene and Wilson was such an enjoyable experience,” she says. “They were so trusting with my own creative ability that this project came with great ease.”