Through a Native Lens is a new column from film critic and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Shea Vassar, who will dive into the nuance of cinema’s best and worst cases of Indigenous representation. This entry looks at Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls and its depiction of residential schools.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a powerful tale that dives into the dark, not so long ago history of residential schools. Aila (Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs), the main character, is an Indigenous teenager who has been forced to deal with complex circumstances in the fictional Kingdom of the Crow during the time of forced assimilation and Indian agents.
What sets Rhymes for Young Ghouls apart from other movies is the Indigenous angle that touches every part of the filmmaking. Jeff Barnaby brings a Miꞌkmaq perspective to the screen, as he was responsible for the writing, directing, and editing of the film. This creates an obvious level of care in which the tough subject is handled. The film is highly stylized with a dystopian tint covering the entire 1970s setting, but the truth in which the fictional narrative is based educates in a decolonized fashion.
To add to the film’s depth, Aila’s worldview is available to the audience. Her defiance and vulnerability bring a rarely seen perspective of an Indigenous girl to the screen. Her past experiences inform her current situations, as her plucky attitude is her most obvious attribute. Throughout the film’s runtime and between the big moments, Aila’s narration adds depth while also explaining five rules for survival.
Rule #1: Never befriend an Indian Agent
Residential schools were a common assimilation practice in the United States and Canada up until the 1990s. These institutions taught young Indigenous children the so-called “correct” ways to fit into white society and were thought to be a solution to “the Indian Problem.” In reality, these residential schools were writ with malnutrition, overcrowding, and sexual abuse, on top of the pain from having one’s culture stolen and erased.
Although problematic, residential schools were legal in Canada under the Indian Act, which has existed since 1876 and defines anything and everything that is considered “Indian.” Who is considered a status Indian, what is a reserve, provisions for those reserves, tribal band governments, as well as the regulation of religious ceremonies are just some of what is included in this document. Amendments have been made to reframe specific aspects of the Indian Act, but it is still a working piece of legislation used in Canada today.
Indian agents were government officials whose responsibility was to enforce the Indian Act. They were basically a guardian tasked with things like signing permission slips in order for Indigenous people to step foot off the reservation. Another duty for the Indian agent was to enforce the mandatory residential school policy for Native children of a certain age.
At the beginning of Rhymes for Young Ghouls, we see Aila as a child around her parents and younger brother. They drink alcohol and use drugs to escape from the nightmares of their days at residential school. What they are attempting to forget is worse than anything seen in a horror movie. Events in the film soon lead to her mother and brother’s deaths and her father’s imprisonment, leaving Aila to figure out how to survive on her own.
Fast forward seven years to 1976. Aila is now sixteen and runs the family drug business as a way to make some money for her and her uncle, Burner (Brandon Oakes). The reserve life is not easy and her situation is made worse by the heinous Indian agent, Popper (Mark Antony Krupa). He is greedy and uses his power to extort a truancy tax from the local families whose children don’t want to go to St. Dymphna’s, the local residential school.
Rule #2: Stay out of debt
Instead of becoming completely jaded by the events of her childhood along with her surroundings, Aila has blossomed into someone tough and spunky. Jacobs is a presence to be reckoned with from the moment she appears on screen. She is tenacious, taking no crap from the male-dominated world around her. She is willing to do what is necessary to save herself from the same dreadful experience of St. Dymphna’s that the generation before hers tries to forget.
Aila says that Indian agents don’t speak Indian, they communicate through dollar signs. “They speak it with their fists,” she states. “They speak it with their blood and bats.” The money is nothing to Aila compared to what lies inside the walls at St. Dymphna’s. Therefore, she will give Popper whatever amount he wants.
Rule #3: Take care of your family
Family is everything to Aila. Even if her mother and younger brother have passed, her father has been gone for the last decade, her uncle is a screw-up, and the old woman she calls her grandmother isn’t even blood-related: these are her people. The adults around her are trying to give her better opportunities than they had while also protecting her from the horrors of the residential school.
Although she believes in taking care of family, Aila also has to deal with the messy dynamics that exist between them. Her father’s return home after nearly a decade in prison causes emotions to resurface for both of them. They were never able to mourn her mother’s death or walk through the healing process as a family. Aila’s obvious resentment towards her father for his absence must be recognized in order for a rekindling of their relationship to occur.
Rule #4: Don’t act like a badass if you can’t fight — ain’t nobody above an ass-kicking
While emotional inner turmoil due to family is turbulent, there are multiple moments in Rhymes for Young Ghouls that subject her to physical damage and pain. Aila is punched in the face towards the beginning of the film, leaving a mark that lasts through the end. The circumstances around this instance are a bit lighter, included to showcase the rough location in which the cinematic story takes place and her ability to endure. This moment also displays that Aila is as solid as a brick wall. A little punch is nothing compared to the ghosts that live at St. Dymphna’s.
Rule #5: Don’t show weakness, or let your emotional barrier down
She says not to show weakness, yet there are moments in the film where fragility is evident, and understandably so. Popper brings up Aila’s father on bogus charges and sends Aila to St. Dymphna’s. She is ripped from her environment; her long hair is cut above her shoulders. Emotions are unmistakably in her cries. Does this mean Aila has let her emotional barrier down?
After escaping, her sadness turns to anger. Aila decides to take revenge on Popper by breaking in to set her father free and taking back all the money the Indian agent has taken from her. Again, she shows her aptitude and ability to take action. Some might say that revenge is for the weak, but when those in charge have been empowered to oppress and deny you basic human rights, revenge is that much sweeter.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls is the sort of representation Indigenous audiences deserve. It is not a product of grief that is there to trauma bond with viewers. The characters might be messy, but the film does not paint them as weak or incapable of dealing with their traumatic pasts. Instead, there is an understood possibility in hope for the future. Rhymes for Young Ghouls entertains with its cinematic abilities while also educating on lived experiences. And most importantly, it is a reminder that with each generation, the trauma that has been passed down can only find more healing.