This document is a critical teaching guide for The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline. It was created by the English education students of English 308: Readings in Young Adult Lit + Antiracist Teaching, under supervision from Dr. Emery Petchauer and in collaboration with veteran San Francisco Unified School District teacher Kristia Castrillo. The guide is modeled after the Disrupt Texts teaching guides and directed at middle and high school classrooms. This guide is a “prototype,” meaning it has not yet been tested or used in any classroom. You are free to adopt and use it as you see fit. Feedback or questions can be sent to petchau1[at]msu[dot]edu.
Humanity has nearly destroyed its world through global warming, but now an even greater evil lurks. The indigenous people of North America are being hunted and harvested for their bone marrow, which carries the key to recovering something the rest of the population has lost: the ability to dream. In this dark world, Frenchie and his companions struggle to survive as they make their way up north to the old lands. For now, survival means staying hidden—but what they don’t know is that one of them holds the secret to defeating the marrow thieves.From the publisher
Considerations for Teachers and Students
Considerations around Gender Stereotypes within Native Communities
Within The Marrow Thieves, Frenchie demonstrates a constant need to prove the strength and validity of his identity as an Indigenous young man. Hunting, singing, scouting, climbing, and seeking to learn the traditional Cree language are all ways in which Frenchie attempts to prove his worth, his masculinity, and his strength. As these important cultural practices and symbols are emphasized, however, it is important to note the history surrounding stereotypes of Indigenous populations such as those of spiritual guides, shamans, or, alternatively, as “savage” or “wild” individuals that must be “civilized” into a mold of whiteness. It is also important to note that Frenchie’s concept of strength and masculinity is not necessarily tied to a white understanding of gender and sex; all genders are expected to be able to perform tasks as they are necessary to the survival and success of their communities. This is demonstrated through the alternation of instruction and teaching between Miigs and Minerva.
Considerations around Indigenous Histories
Within American schools, educators cannot ignore the cultural and economic displacement Indigenous groups have experienced, and the longterm and ongoing impact of settler colonialism. It is important we all learn the truth of past traumas, and center the conversation about Indigenous people with love and compassion. Giving a land acknowledgement before teaching content focused around Indigenous communities—attributing the land in a mindful way to the specific communities who have been forcibly removed or resisted to stay—respects their ongoing relationship with the land. At the same time, a land acknowledgment should not take the place of reciprocal relationships with Indigenous peoples today. In addition to this, general language around indigeneity, survivance, and settler colonialism will be a major factor in introducing this text. Teachers have an obligation to give space for conversations about Indigenous cultures and peoples. It is imperative that educators recognize the possible misconceptions students may have about Indigenous cultures and peoples, and redirect the conversation to understanding and empathy.
Considerations around Climate Change and Environmental Racism
Within The Marrow Thieves, environmental disaster has been brought on by the unyielding expansion and domination of settler colonialists and residential boarding schools. As water becomes a scarcity, it is the Indigenous populations who are historically displaced in an effort to hoard resources for the white population. Climate disaster is not, however, a work of fiction. Marginalized peoples are often the ones most drastically affected by its outcomes. Teachers may look into the carbon footprints and resource management of different populations; while nations such as the United States1 and Canada2 consistently produce an estimated 87 million tons of air pollution per year, it is undoubtedly marginalized populations that are most vulnerable to the unfortunate consequences of overproduction and pollution.
- Air Quality — National Summary. United State Environmental Protection Agency.
- Reporting Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Government of Canada.
Key Concepts and Vocabulary
- Settler colonialism
- Environmental racism / Sustainability
- Bone marrow
- Native survivance
Understanding indigeneity is crucial for readers when reading The Marrow Thieves. Developing a general understanding of the history of the land in the U.S. and Canada, which was stolen from Indigenous peoples by settlers from other (mostly European) countries, helps readers understand the setting and context of the story. Additionally, the concepts of genocide and ethnic cleansing should be ones that readers familiarize themselves with, as they are central to the novel as well as to American history (relating to the Native population). The following questions will help set the stage for The Marrow Thieves in a classroom setting:
- What does Indigenous mean? Who is the Indigenous population in the U.S.? In other countries?
- Where has genocide occured in human history? In recent history? How does genocide relate to Native populations in the U.S. and Canada? How do you think it will relate to the novel?
- Who is familiar with the term settler colonialism? What do you think its meaning entails?
Another concept central to the reading is the American Indian residential (boarding) school, which was commonly referred to in the text. Identifying and highlighting this history will help students understand how it relates to other central concepts like genocide, settler colonialism, Native culture, and (Cree) language in the text.
Pre-Reading: These terms will be essential to student comprehension, so it is important to get students involved in their own learning. Begin by having students get in small groups. Each group will be responsible for the research and “mastery” of one to two vocabulary words. Then students will enter new groups, and each new group will have one student from each of the first groups. They will then share their mastery of the vocabulary word(s) with the other students.
During Reading: Have students create a personal dictionary by making a T-chart. As they read, write down subject specific words they do not understand on one side of the chart, and non-specific terms they do not understand on the other side of the chart. When you pause, ask them to use context clues to supply the definition of the subject specific words they did not understand. This will encourage students to understand the word on a more conceptual level. Allow students time to explore definitions of their non-specific words and open a space for questions.
Post Reading: Students can go on one final vocabulary book walk to find terms they would like to understand, use words from their personal dictionary, or they can use the key terms provided. They will then get into groups, using the internet to find more texts (articles, books, infographics, etc.) that will explain the word. The “text” they select should connect in some way to The Marrow Thieves. Groups can then share their word(s) and chosen text(s) with the class and explain their reasoning.
Some of these topics that are covered in the additional resources may be difficult and upsetting for students to learn about. To address this, there are links to the full article, but certain points of the article are also listed that teachers may choose to highlight. In this section, you will find certain areas of the videos that students might find most relevant, or how to teach more difficult topics.
The Indian Act
This article is a great, and fairly brief explanation of the history of the Indian Act. This act built a lot of the foundation that led to the oppression of Indigenous people and will be useful for putting the situation the characters in The Marrow Thieves find themselves in context. The best way to have students consume this article would be for the teacher to take a read of the article all the way through and have the students all read it together as a group, through a guided reading. This will allow students to be able to ask about any definitions or topics they may be confused about.
This resource provided by Learning for Justice provides a discussion on what settler colonialism is and who settler colonizers are, while also providing a real example of this concept through discussing the standoff that occurred at the Lincoln memorial in 2019 between an Omaha Nation Vietnam veteran and a group of white boys from a Kentucky Catholic school. Settler colonialism is a prominent idea within The Marrow Thieves, and having a basic understanding of this idea will be beneficial for students as they read about how, why, and by who the dreams of Indigenous people are harvested within the novel. The best way for teachers to use articles would be to identify pieces of it that would be beneficial to students and discuss with them about the standoff and how that event is an example of settler-colonialism.
This resource is a great introduction to have students watch before reading The Marrow Thieves. This video offers some background on the history of residential schooling through the personal experiences of Chief Robert Joseph.
This interactive resource includes a variety of different materials that focus on the increasingly problematic results of climate change. By clicking on the ‘Artwork’ tab, viewers can interact with paintings and photographs of locations from around the world that portray the results of climate change. These pieces revolve around topics of: water, culture, environments, and species. By clicking on the “Education” tab, viewers can choose from different videos that are narrated and go more in-depth on the negative results of climate change.
Themes and Essential Questions
- What bonds a family?
- How does Miig and his family decide who to bring into their family?
- What do you value in your blood family? What do you value in your found family?
- What is the cultural significance of a “Coming To” story in Native culture?
- What is the function of each family member sharing or not sharing their coming-to story?
- How would you tell your own “Coming To” story?
- How does trauma affect one’s behavior?
- How does your culture create space for grief? How is this similar to and different from the Indigenous grief in The Marrow Thieves?
- How do the characters respond differently to their collective traumatic experiences?
- Has something ever interfered with your desires? How did you react to that circumstance?
- In what ways are the desires of the Recruiters and the Indigenous people different?
- What are some of the contradictions in Frenchie’s desires? How do these desires change as his character develops?
- What is the role of trust in ensuring the survival of Indigenous people?
- Why do the characters’ methods of survival change from running to fighting?
- What does survival look like in your life?
Instructors can use these questions in small groups, for writing/journaling, and for full-class discussions:
- Take a look at the book’s title. What is marrow? What do you think about the idea that “thieves” can take a part of someone’s body? Who do you think these “thieves” are?
- Is the stealing of marrow, or something else anatomical, plausible in real life? What would be the motivation for this theft?
- What prior knowledge do you have regarding the history and cultural practices of indigenous groups in the United States? Where does this knowledge come from?
- What is the importance of stories to you? How are stories told to you?
- What kind of stories are dreams?
- Why are dreams such an important aspect of the human experience?
- What role does community play in your life? How does it affect how you move through life?
- Who, in your life or in general, can be considered “family?”
- What defines a family?
- What is a found family? Have you read any books with “found family” tropes?
- Frenchie says “I was no danger to anything. At best, I was prey,” (9). What does he mean by this? What is the significance of metaphors that rely on nature? On page 42, he notices that “the hunted [are] trying to hunt,” (47). What sparks this change from portrayal of victim to perpetrator? Who does Frenchie give power to in these quotes, and how is this power dealt with?
- How does Frenchie learn about the past of his “family” and, more broadly, his community? Why does this mean so much to him?
- “Dreams get caught in the webs woven into your bones. That’s where they live In the marrow there”(19) What role do “dreams” play in Frenchie’s life, and the life of Minerva and Miig?
- “We took turns, splitting into groups, Hunting and Homestead, Switching off every three months” (34) Who has responsibility in Frenchie’s group? Does this align along gender or age? How does everyone’s ‘role’ benefit the survival of the group?
- “There were seven of us in the group: five boys and two girls, not including the Elders. Not one of us was related by blood…But it was also lonely not having the common connections of grandparents or aunts like we used to have often” (20).Who is a part of Frenchie’s biological and tribal family? How is Frenchie’s family different from “traditional” or “nuclear” ideas of family?
- What was the significance of Minerva’s story of the Rougarou?
- “My own braid was two days old, and tufts stuck up here and there.” She untied the bottom and pulled it apart. I noticed the asshole watching us, a peculiar look on his face like jealousy, and I smirked” (166). What does Frenchie’s long hair mean to him, and what does it suggest about his community/culture? Can you think of examples in your life of how physical or appearance-related markers have larger, more symbolic meanings?
- Frenchie’s community’s circumstances were influenced by climate change. How? Do you see this progression of events as realistic given current events?
- Compare your definition of “family” from before reading the book to now. How did it change? How did it stay the same?
- How does the maturity of individuals in the group affect how the story of the elders is carried on? What about gender?
- What is the significance of the reunion on the last pages of the book?What does this ending suggest about Indigenous communities outside of the novel? Why is this element of survivance important?
- What is the role of loss in the book? What is the role of hope? Find examples such as “Suddenly, I realized that there was something worse than running, worse even than the schools. There was loss” (110). How can life be both apocalyptic and hopeful?
- “You must always go home” (211). What is home to Frenchie? How does the definition of home change throughout the book? Does physical migration detract from the possibility of “home?”
- What is the implication behind the dystopian society in The Marrow Thieves losing the ability to dream? Who didn’t lose their ability to dream? Why do you think they retained it?
- Writing through the eyes of another character: Write a letter as Frenchie to his brother Mitch recalling his life so far without him. Include specific characters and details from the story.
- Family: How would you define “family”? What might it mean to a character like Frenchie vs. a character like Wab? What does family mean to you in your own life – how important is it?
- Dreams: What is significant about the character’s ability to dream? Why is their ability to dream being hunted in the first place? Are dreams important to you? Is the ability to dream something that warrants being killed over?
- The significance of the character’s ability to dream is… Their ability to dream is being hunted because… Dreams are important to me because… The ability to dream is/isn’t something that warrants being killed over because…
- Storytelling: How is storytelling important in The Marrow Thieves? How does storytelling help define our identity and culture?
- Values: What values does this group share with each other that keeps them united despite facing collective tragedy? How do similar values play into your own life and close social groups?
- One value the group shares with one another is… One value I have that I also share with others/ someone else is…
- Trauma: Characters in the book face both physical and emotional trauma. How is emotional trauma different from physical trauma? How are they similar? Identify one instance of physical trauma Frenchie faces and one instance of emotional trauma he faces. How do these instances of trauma impact Frenchie?