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Anti-Bias Book Club: Reading When We Were Alone

>>blog post by Monica Reed, Michael Lampkin, MadelineGibson, Nadia Mindra (students in the Winter 2022 Social Justice in K12 Education & Anti-Bias Education Courses at Portland State University<<

When I was your age, at home in my community my friends and I grew our hair long, just like our people have always done. It made us feel strong and proud. But at the school I went to, far away from home, they cut off all our hair. Our strands of hair mixed together on the ground like blades of dead grass.
“ Why did you have to wear hair like that?” I asked.
“They didn't like that we were proud,” Nókom said
“They wanted us to be like everybody else.”


When We Were Alone by David A. Robinson is a story that teaches children about the importance of family and culture while also teaching them about the horrific methods used at residential boarding schools that forced young Indigenous children to assimilate to the dominant culture. The book follows a young Cree girl as she spends time with her Nókom (Cree for grandmother). As the granddaughter helps her Nókom in the garden, she is curious about why she always does things a certain way and begins to ask her questions about why Nókom wears colorful clothing; wears her hair long; speaks in Cree; and always spends time with her brother. For each question Nókom responds by telling her story of being taken away from her home and forced to live in a residential boarding school. This was a difficult time for Nókom because she was separated from her family, forced to wear a uniform, forced to cut her hair, and speak a different language. Thus, stripping away Nókom’s traditions, culture, language, and forcing her to assimilate to the dominant culture. While explaining the harm she experienced at the school, Nókom also celebrates her strength and resilience as a young girl that fought back against the harm and oppression from the residential school by maintaining her relationship with her culture, identity, and family. The book follows themes of Cree culture, identity, cultural assimilation, family, and resilience.


This anti-bias book club consisted of a group of students in a P.S.U. senior Capstone who were interested in the dismantling of settler colonialism through reading, discussing, and doing identity work in relationship to Indigenous stories. Here are their reflections:


The quotes “They didn’t like that we were proud,” and “They wanted us to be like everybody else,” poignantly illustrates how these residential boarding schools have devastated Indigenous nations by creating places of assimilation that stripped these children of their tradition, culture, language, and sense of self. This story highlights the intergenerational trauma and emotions of the students attending these residential schools, but in a way that is accessible for young people. After reading the book, it allowed me to reflect on the harmful legacy of residential schools and understand how these schools systematically undermined Indigenous peoples, in an attempt to assimilate them to the dominant culture.


This story is an amazing example of how very serious and real topics can be taught to young children in an informational but simplified fashion. People often feel that topics as serious as Indigenous peoples being placed in schools in order to be assimilated, are too complex for children. This story exemplifies how effectively topics such as this can be explained to children through picture books. As an adult, this story gave me an understanding of the pain residential schools caused the Indigenous Community, and it can do the same for children.


The story When We Were Alone does a great job at explaining the history of boarding schools as a place where Indigenous children were forced to assimilate, while also sharing the small ways they showed resistance. The quote “We would say all the words we weren’t allowed to say so that we wouldn’t forget them,” explains one of the ways the Indigenous children showed resistance in order to maintain their Native language when they were being forced to assimilate and only speak English. I think this would be a great book for children and adults to read, to gain a better understanding of the history of boarding schools and the effects that assimilation has had and continues to have on Indigenous communities.


When We Were Alone is a beautiful story of a grandmother teaching her granddaughter what had happened to her and her family when she was younger. The story gives a great perspective of the atrocities done to Native children in schools and what you could essentially call ethnic cleansing by removing the children's culture from themselves. The story is tame enough for children to understand that what had happened was wrong and that the history should be remembered, while also giving great views of this history to adults of what had happened and the autobiographical format that the book uses from the perspective of the grandmother helps teach this even better. This book is a great piece to help children and adults understand what has happened in the past and how these wrongs were never truly fixed.


When We Were Alone is a powerful story that showcases the harmful legacies of residential schools within Indigenous communities, families, and individuals. The story also highlights Indigenous resistance and strength and the ways in which children held on to their culture and language amidst forced assimilation. This book provides young readers with a comprehensive understanding of the experiences of this generation of Indigenous peoples and what resistance can look like.


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