The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson, illustrated by Kelly Mellings
“The way our communities were set up was like a circle,” an Elder explains to a group of imprisoned men. “In the middle of that circle were children. Around those children were the Elders, who would teach them. Around the Elders were the women. Keeping the home fires burning, for us all. And we were the outside circle – ensuring the safety of everyone. We were warriors. It was an honorable role.”
But among the Aboriginal community in Alberta, Canada, that circle is devastatingly broken – and has been for generations as a result of laws, racism, and social systems. For Indigenous/First Nations/Native American communities throughout the Americas and the world, damaged circles/bonds/relationships are tragically far too common.
“Many of you around this fire,” the Elder continues, “only know what it means to be a predator and bully. It’s all about power and control. We prey on the weak – women, children, and the elderly – to get what we want.” Insisting on not assigning blame, the Elder wants to enable the newest generations to break the crushing cycles of abuse, poverty, crime, drugs, and escape violent death.
Pete has been one of those predators for most of his young life. He’s part of a vicious gang, running drugs, beating up anyone who gets in the way. One night, threatened yet again by his mother’s vicious boyfriend, Pete loses control and kills him. His vengeance shatters and scatters his family: Pete lands in jail, his addict mother on the street, his younger brother at the mercy of both the gang and the social welfare system that moves him from one desperate living situation to another.
Even behind bars, Pete falls under gang influence; when he attempts to break away, he almost loses his life. Somehow, a visiting Elder recognizes that Pete “deserve[s] a second chance.” After a year of “stay[ing] out of trouble,” Pete is moved from maximum security to a rehabilitation facility to begin the “In Search of Your Warrior” program. With soul-wrenching difficulty, he begins to heal.
While Pete’s story is fiction, his surroundings, his life-saving program, are real. The numbers are staggering: 57% of First Nations children in Canadian cities live in low-income families, 68% of children in the child welfare system in Alberta are Aboriginal, 27% of First Nations children living off reserves have mothers between the ages of 15 and 24.
Author Patti LaBoucane-Benson knows these statistics all too well: she’s Métis, PhD-ed with a focus on Aboriginal Family Resilience (!), the Director of Research, Training, and Communication at Native Counselling Services of Alberta, and the recipient of the Aboriginal Role Model of Alberta Award for Education. Beyond the facts, she’s created this remarkable story of tenacity and endurance.
Alberta artist Kelly Mellings enhances LaBoucane-Benson’s text with illustrations that insert further history and context in shocking, brilliant ways: Pete’s new gang tattoo is literally ribboned with his bloody Indigenous collective past; as the “Permanent Guardianship Order” is forced upon Pete’s mother to relinquish her younger son to the welfare system, the page she signs is a terrifying history of how Indigenous families have been forcibly separated by Canadian law for almost two centuries; when younger brother Joey is arrested, the horrifying statistics leading to his incarceration surround his angry-boy pose.
As brutal as Pete’s family’s story is, LaBoucane-Benson and Mellings’ sensitive, careful, honest presentation reveals a narrative that must be told, acknowledged, remembered, confronted, fixed. Their collaboration is a priceless gift to those surviving this life – it’s an agent of hope, it’s affirming proof of possible change. And for those of us who bear witness, now that we know, shoring up the outside circle needs to be our responsibility as well.
Tidbit: Want to learn more about the real-life Journey of a Warrior? Ask and you shall receive: here’s episode 1 and episode 2. Thanks to the Native Counselling Services of Alberta for providing the links!
Readers: Young Adult, Adult