Dez and Miikwan are childhood friends that stick together through the thin and thick. They help each other through the struggles of life while sharing their cultural connections. Nothing can stop this dynamic duo until Dez finds out that her Kookum is ill, flipping her world inside out. She fears a deep rooted threat many Indigenous kids face: being taken away by the foster system.
Tasha Spillett Sumner’s first book “Surviving the City” and the sequel “Surviving The City: Roots Up” are a comic book miniseries that won the Indigenous Voices Award For Work in an Alternative Format in 2019 and a nominee in the 2021 contest for the second volume. She is from Inninewak and Trinidadian ancestry and is a scholar at the University of Saskatchewan. Her work and teachings reflect on her background as an Afro-Indigenous woman, being a harbinger of colonial revolution. Her personal ties to the Black Lives Matter and the Land Back movement give Tasha an igniting determination to create a better world for her newborn daughter.
So it’s no surprise that her first book is for younger readers. The novels themselves are fairly thin and the text is easy to understand, making it accessible to anyone. Every page is clearly stated in it’s motive, littered with bits and pieces of information circling back to the overarching theme of cultural connection.
Miikwan and Dez’s relationship is tested against all odds of literally surviving the modern era. Creepy men ogling at the mall, cops lurking around every corner in suspicion, and the childcare system always one step behind. They connect to each other spiritually during traditional events like their Berry Fast: a coming of age ceremony for young girls and attend in school meetings with Geraldine. Their bond becomes fractured however, as Dez experiences a feeling of not belonging being passed to a foster worker. She goes through the grief of her Kokum that changes her mentally and on a spiritual level.
Throughout the book two types of spirits roam amongst the urban landscape. Ethereal ghosts of indigenous women accompany other indigenous people like spiritual comfort. Some are complete strangers while others are relatives that are dear to the character’s heart. The women seem to be from different eras of the past, with one’s wearing protest shirts and others wearing traditional attire. These souls are a visual reminder of the buried history, and that nothing ever says put in the ground. The other type are undead grey aliens. They follow the non-native people and appear whenever Dez or Miikwan encounter someone sketchy.Another interesting trait about the aliens is that they don’t just follow white people around, but other non-native minorities.The blank slate martians don’t have ill intent, and are more like a metaphor for not just colonizers, but immigrant people that didn’t originally come from Canada.
The art by Natasha Donovan, a Métis illustrator from Vancouver, B.C, brings a warm, slice of life ambiance to a small, urban town. Muted autumn tones like coral red, yellow and pale blue are mainly used throughout the book. The characters are soft and flowey, resembling a traditional brush pen linework. The style is in contrast to Dez’s troubling situation, showing that there is still warmth of community in this cold systematic society.
The story in my opinion is somewhat lackluster in a narrative perspective. The characters are flat and could be interchangeable in their personalities. With such thin novels there isn’t enough wiggle room for breathers or development.
I don’t think that’s the point though, in that it must be a breakthrough of comic entertainment. The purpose of the book is a peek through the eyes of modern Indigenous women. It’s a breath of fresh air to see this type of realistic representation that is very much needed compared to a fantasy or crazy zombie action novel. Languages like Cree are casually spoken between friends, ceremonies are held and Miikwan mentions her Berry Fast: a coming of age ceremony for young girls.
The Surviving The City Series is a contemporary journey connecting the new generations of Indigenous people with the old. Women and the indigenous community helping each other out whenever one falls and reminding them to stay strong. It is a respectful tribute to the Missing and murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two Spirit and the prevailing problems that happen to this day.
All Image credits by Natasha Donovan