House of Anansi Press, 2017
Reviewed by Jesse Wilson
Seven Fallen Feathers is a well-written, eye-opening work of investigative journalism that focuses on the deaths of seven First Nations teenagers from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The seven students died between 2000 and 2011. Near the end of the book, it also references a painting of the same name by one of the parents of the teens.
In the prologue, Talaga addresses an Ojibwe legend about a giant named Nanabijou. He protected the people in a small village along Lake Superior, as long as they didn’t take away any of his stash of silver. However, a Sioux man, who was taking advantage of their hospitality to get at the silver, stole some of it, and was coaxed by some European explorers to locate the rest of it was. After getting him drunk, he told the explorers where it was, and they took everything. Once Nanabijou heard what happened, he suddenly lay down and turned to stone, becoming the mountain fittingly named “Sleeping Giant.” This is a great opening to the rich First Nations and gives some insight into the setting.
Talaga then inserts herself into the story, talks to Nishnawbe Aski Grand Chief Stan Beardy about voting statistics among First Nations peoples across Canada. He doesn’t answer any of her questions, and asks her to look into the disappearance of Jordan Wabasse, who would later be, one of the Seven Feathers.
After that encounter, Talaga never appears in the story again, and dives instead into great detail about the seven teenagers, their stories, their families, and their cases. With some interconnectivity, she devotes one chapter of the book to each student, and doesn’t miss a morsel of information or testimonies.
She also reveals the conditions First Nations had to endure in residential schools. Not only were the children taken from their families and leave behind their rich Indigenous heritage, but once they got sick, they weren’t treated properly, resulting thousands of deaths.
Talaga records the statements from the families of the seven teens, heart-wrenching testimonies to their loss. At the end of Chapter 8, after finding the body of Kyle Morrisseau, his father Christian is quoted saying: “It was not easy to thank the river for taking my son.”
Despite investigation, to this day, no one knows who killed these students. The mistreatment of First Nations cases people is underscored throughout the book. A 41-year-old man’s “accidental drowning” goes uninvestigated even though his debit card was used after his death.
Tanya Talaga is an Anishinaabe Canadian investigative reporter for the Toronto Star. Seven Fallen Feathers won the 2018 RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction and the 2017 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.