Fatty Legs is a short chapter book for elementary school children, telling the true story of eight-year-old Olemaun (Margaret) Pokiak-Fenton’s two years in residential school in the 1940’s. The vocabulary is basic but the writing is artful, evoking both a place and a culture, so this is not just a book for kids. The subject matter is serious but not macabre, so this is not just a book for adults.
Olemaun (OO-lee-mawn) is named by her grandfather, for “the hard stone that is used to sharpen an ulu.” Her inner strength hurts her at residential school, a place where the nuns’ goal is to “take the Indian out of the child”, so self-confidence is punished. But her resilience also allows her to hold on to her culture, to flourish as an adult, and to write this book.
(Illustration: Liz Amini-Holmes)
Fatty Legs reads like an oral tale, composed in the moment with keen attention paid to images that help listeners keep everything straight. “When I was a young girl, outsiders came flitting about the North. They plucked us from our homes on the scattered islands of the Arctic Ocean and carried us back to the nests they called schools, in Aklavik.” This writing is concise yet rich, a consummate example of a strong artist’s voice. Soon, a bitter nun is named Raven, a kind nun named Swan, and the children Wrens, so we can picture them small and vulnerable in the nest.
It is important for settler Canadians to seek out multiple accounts of residential school experiences not just so we can sympathize with modern Indigenous challenges, not just so we can learn to recognize the symptoms of colonization and racism, but also to root out our own assumptions and biases, and to diversify our concept of the Indigenous experience. I realized that I wrongly assumed that Inuit children were spared from residential schools, because I didn’t think colonizers cared about the north. But Olemaun was from Banks Island, and she went to a settler village in Aklavik, near Tuktoyaktuk. Why did I assume that the Inuit were protected by their remote homes, and that this allowed their culture to stay strong? I’ve also been fighting the assumption that all Indigenous should get along, even though I don’t get along with all settlers. Olemaun’s mother warns her “about the Gwich’in. They were not like us Inuvialuit and did not get along with our people.” Of course I can’t assume that all Gwich’in and Inuvialuit are enemies either, as my own history includes marriages of Irish and Scots, historical enemies.
I wrongly assumed, too, that all children were taken to residential school by force. Olemaun wanted to go, even after her father and older sister warned her it would wear her down, like the sea turns a jagged rock to a pebble. I wrongly assumed that survivors would share their stories and warn their relatives, but I neglected to consider how traumatizing it is to re-tell these stories, how impossible it is to describe feelings of disenfranchisement. Olemaun’s sister tries to explain, while still protecting her own hurt, by saying “they cut our hair because… they don’t have the patience to wait for you to braid [it]. They want all of your time for chores and for kneeling on your knees to ask forgiveness.” But Olemaun says, “Oh, well. It’s only hair.” And her sister can only reply, “It isn’t just your hair, Olemaun. They take everything.”
One of the residential school’s many victims was the family, as survivors were so traumatized by their experiences that parenting became impossible. Then the trauma turned intergenerational, as these children of survivors were never taught how to parent, so could not parent themselves. Fatty Legs offers hope, as Olemaun’s parents love her so deeply and accept her so completely upon her return:
“My mother had brought a small package of all the things that I had liked to eat, assuming that I would be eager to try them once again. However, the food was strange, and difficult to eat. It felt greasy and was salty, with a strong smell. I was not sure I would ever be able to eat it. My mother cried and said I was now an outsider. On the way to our camp, she asked my father to buy me some of their outsider-food from the Hudson’s Bay store in Tuktoyaktuk. He laughed and told her that I was still Inuvialuit, and when I got hungry enough, I would eat. Eventually, I did.”
Like almost every aspect of this story, these details stand in for greater lessons. Food represents the two worlds battling for Olemaun’s attention; her mind yearns to go back to the way things were, but her tastebuds cannot unlearn where they have been.