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Urban Tribes: Native Americans in the City

by Lisa Charleyboy (ed.); Mary Beth Leatherdale (ed.)

“So, just how connected are you to your Indigenous roots if you live downtown?” This is the key question posed by editors Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale in Urban Tribes. Charleyboy and Leatherdale are the pair who created 2014’s highly acclaimed anthology Dreaming in Indian. Like its forerunner, Urban Tribes shreds stereotypes, promotes understanding, and features positive stories about indigenous people. The striking black-and-white graffiti-style cover art evokes an urban-hipster vibe with its repeated image of a First Nations man in jeans, scarf, and headdress placed against a backdrop of skyscrapers. Inside, designer Inti Amaterasu selects more high-contrast images and figures, which are similarly superimposed on city landscapes. The abundance of photos combined with stylized typography results in a magazine-like design that is perfectly suited to the punchy, confident content.

Urban Tribes Lisa Charleyboy Mary Beth LeatherdaleContributions from more than 30 indigenous youth take the form of Q&As, descriptive articles, personal essays, profiles, poems, and spoken-word lyrics. The entries are organized into four sections, beginning with “Tribal Citizens,” which highlights how aboriginal youth in the city “stay connected to and draw strength from their culture.” “Shattering Stereotypes” shows how indigenous kids “challenge and overcome the racism and discrimination they face.” “Building Bridges” reveals how they “strengthen their communities and build relationships with non-Natives,” while “Native Renaissance” demonstrates how they are taking charge in “leading Indigenous revitalization.” This structure provides an uplifting, optimistic tone for the flow of diverse ideas.

Throughout the book, the young people discuss how they connect with the land, seek out nature, worship, enjoy traditional foods, and reach out to other aboriginals while living in a city environment. Each piece is linked to the book’s central question, providing a rich, multi-layered discussion.

But Urban Tribes also casts its gaze outside of indigenous culture. A provocative photo series called “Perception” confronts society’s tendency to misjudge First Nations men and women. “Love You Some Indians” by spoken-word artist Roanna Shebala deftly addresses racism in sport branding. The book is not perfect, however. “City Girls,” a photo essay celebrating
the friendship between two First Nations teens, would have better supported the section’s focus with snapshots of the pair interacting with non-indigenous friends. And some readers may be confused by the NDN (“Indian”) abbreviation, which is used twice but not defined.

Still, the messages of pride and inspiration shine through. Urban Tribes is an excellent resource for challenging racism and replacing it with understanding, knowledge, and acceptance. In the words of McGill student Stephanie Willsey, “There is so much more that defines us, even off the reserve.”