February 20, 2019

Surviving the City

Written by Tasha Spillett
Illustrated by Natasha Donovan
HighWater Press
56 pp.
Ages 13+
November 2018

Though of different Indigenous heritage, Dez, who is Inninew, and Miikwan, who is Anishinaabe, are more like sisters than best friends. They completed a year-long Berry Fast together and have been important supports as Dez worries about the health of her kokum with whom she lives and Miikwan struggles with the loss of her missing mother.
From Surviving the City by Tasha Spillett, illus. by Natasha Donovan
Walking everywhere in the city, the two girls are seen among blue spirits of Indigenous women watching over them while scary black shadows partner with some men to encroach on their spaces and safety.  When Dez sees her grandmother with the social worker at their house, she is fearful of being sent to a group home. So Dez walks away, her phone battery draining, and ends up sleeping on a park bench, watched over by the spirits of murdered Indigenous women but vulnerable to the predators of white men shadowed by monsters.
From Surviving the City by Tasha Spillett, illus. by Natasha Donovan
When Miikwan does not hear from Dez for several days, she is scared that her best friend may be lost as her own mother was. After talking to the elder of the school's culture room, Miikwan agrees to participate in a march to recognize missing women, girls and two-spirit persons.

Fortunately, while Miikwan helps support her community in a march that attends to those who have been lost, Dez is helped by another Indigenous woman to the Ka Ni Kanichihk Indigenous centre and the two are ultimately reunited.
From Surviving the City by Tasha Spillett, illus. by Natasha Donovan
With extensive notes, including statistics and references, about murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people, Tasha Spillett takes Dez and Miikwan's story from very personal to big picture. But don't be deceived that this story is anything less than personal.  It may reassure that the spirits of those missing and murdered are always there to guide and protect, and that there are those on this earth who want to help but the ubiquity of glowing blue spirits and shadowy monsters suggests that the stories of those missing and murdered and the families left behind are still too common. Sitting on a park bench should not be an invitation for assault. Being followed and in fear for your safety because of your heritage should not have become the norm for girls like Miikwan and Dez. But sadly Tasha Spillett reveals the very real worries of Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit persons go beyond the everyday concerns and expand into those about personal safety and loss of home and family.
From Surviving the City by Tasha Spillett, illus. by Natasha Donovan
Author Tasha Spillett is of Nehiyaw and Trinidadian ancestry and dubs herself as a PhD student by day and a poet by night. Relevantly she begins Surviving the City with a poem titled "Little Sister" which, with poignant words, notes the starkness and vulnerability of being a young Indigenous woman but offers support, hope, and recognition.

Métis artist Natasha Donovan likewise focuses on the teen realities of Dez and Miikwan, from school to home and in between but overlays it with the supernatural blanket of spirits. The starkness of the city is conspicuous, with colour and brightness only evident when the teens honour their cultures and people and each other.

Surviving the City is not a happy-ending story of everything working out. It's a story about reality for far too many Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit persons who are negatively targeted rather than honoured for being just as they are. But, with Tasha Spillett and Natasha Donovan telling the story of Dez and Miikwan, reality is brought to the light and little sisters are seen.

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