Storytelling school

The Importance of Indigenous Storytelling in Post-Apocalyptic Survival Narratives

As many provinces across Canada lift vaccination and mask mandates, concerns run high. If COVID-19 becomes rampant, we must pursue what philosopher Jonathan Lear calls “radical hope.”



Read more: Radical Hope: What Young Literary Dreamers Can Teach Us About COVID-19


However, alongside trauma and especially in times of pandemics throughout history, hope can come in the form of stories about resilience. And for Indigenous peoples in particular, who have disproportionately suffered the effects of the pandemic, what better way to find hope than to look to Indigenous survivors in post-apocalyptic narratives?

Survival stories

Métis author Cherie Dimaline gives us the opportunity to do just that. Dimaline is best known for The marrow thieveswhich won the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Kirkus Prize. The marrow thieves is listed as one of TIME magazine’s best YA books of all time.

The novel was written in response to the suicide epidemic within Indigenous communities. In her work with Indigenous youth, Dimaline wanted to show them a viable future of which they could be heroes.

Cherie Dimaline at the Walrus Talks in 2019.

The marrow thieves and its sequel, star hunt, follow mixed-race protagonist Frenchie and her reunited family of other Native survivors as they journey through a post-apocalyptic wasteland ravaged by climate change. In this new world, everyone except the Natives has lost the ability to dream. Without dreams, people go crazy, kill others and commit suicide.

Governments respond by creating schools modeled after the residential school system, and characters called “recruiters” seek out Native survivors to bring back to the schools to be “harvested.” The marrow in the bones of Indigenous peoples contains dreams, and by harvesting and consuming the marrow, non-Indigenous survivors can finally dream.

star hunt reflects contemporary concerns about residential schools as well as contagion:

“…medical masks hanging from their ears like second-hand jewelry. They had the plague. The bins at the end of each aisle were filled with syringes, as many vaccines and remedies thrown away because none would work. People were jostling, knocking over tin cans and crunching needles. They had that look, the one that let you know they had no dreams.

History and hope

In Dimaline’s novels, there is the Story: As Native survivors tell their stories, the overall story changes slightly to include these new voices. The story, with a capital “s”, is made up of a “shared oral history”, produced by the stories of the different characters.

Miigwans, the elder figure in the novel, is tasked with telling the story to ensure that the young Aboriginal survivors in the novel remember their history. Therefore, his Story narrative ensures that he will never be forgotten. However, Story is not just the story of the indigenous characters in the novel; History is the history of all who live in Canada, whether they are aboriginal or not.

The story includes climate change, pipelines, colonialism, treaties and the residential school system.

Dimaline admits that stories are how she understands herself and her community.

The cover of Cherie Dimaline’s 2021 novel, star hunt.
(Random Penguin House)

Given that Dimaline’s original inspiration was to bring hope to Indigenous youth amid rising suicide rates, the relationship between Story and hope cannot be overlooked.

Dimaline’s novels resonate in today’s world. The reintroduction of boarding schools to the world of Dimaline’s novels is timely, given recent confirmations of unmarked burial sites at former boarding schools across Canada.

plagues and zombies

Story plays a similar role in Mi’kmaq director Jeff Barnaby’s 2019 zombie film, quantum of blood. In quantum of blood, a zombie-producing plague has ravaged the world, but the native peoples find themselves immune to the virus. They establish a safe zone on the fictional Red Crow Reservation and protect Native and non-Native survivors. However, the latter’s inclusion is a point of contention for some characters.

In the film, there are a few animated scenes that represent Story. In the final animated scene, an elder named Gisigu appears to perish under a mass of zombies. However, the scene cuts to animation and Gisigu emerges victorious. Gisigu may have perished in the material world, but in Story he lives on. When animated Gisigu emerges from beneath the mass, he swears never to let the zombies pass, thus protecting the future of his surviving native family.

a man stands over a pile of zombies in a room with bloodstained walls
An image from the Aboriginal zombie horror movie, quantum of blood (2019).
(Elevation pictures)

Understand through history

For many Indigenous peoples, storytelling is a form of recovery – what Anishnaabe writer Gerald Vizenor would call “survival,” a portmanteau of survival and resistance. The concept is based on the use of stories to ensure the continued presence of indigenous peoples.

In response to recent confirmations of unmarked burial sites at boarding schools, survivors are telling stories of those who sadly did not survive. To do this is to survive – these stories bring lost Indigenous children back to the present and give those who survived, and those who sadly did not, a voice and agency.

As a third generation residential school survivor, I cannot understand what my grandmother went through inside residential schools. I can, however, read Story and begin to understand my own role in Story. Therefore, we can all learn a little something about ourselves and our world through Indigenous survival stories.