The Heart of a Chief by Joseph Bruchac.
Thorndike Press: Waterville, Me, 2002.
Originally Dial Books for Young Readers: NY, 1998.

This story exemplifies several challenges that contemporary Native Americans face, using the voice of a strong, middle school Penacook boy on the verge of recognizing the leader he could be. It starts with Chris Nicola's first day at the public middle school, and he is expecting to be harassed by the nearby town's students. But his negative expectations don't materialize. He meets the school terror and doesn't provoke his ire. New friends are not immediately forthcoming, but as he begins to participate in classes, he gains attention and starts to get to know students from the town versus the reservation.

Because his father is away, dealing with alcoholism related to his wife's death, Chris and his sister live with their grandfather (who is a former chief of the community) and his sister (Auntie Doda). They both serve as a grounding influence and teach Chris to follow old traditions. His grandfather has been entrusted with caring for an island of paradise on the reservation, a place of historical and spiritual importance to the community. When the new chief gives developers approval to construct a casino which would mar the island and land surrounding it, Chris rebels against the project, stirring up the community, and brainstorms to find a way to appease both sides of the issue. At the same time, Chris leads a group, for a school project, in proposing that the school district's mascot be changed from Chiefs. The group unanimously agrees on the subject, all participate in research and delivery, and their project garners community-wide attention.

This is a powerful story by a great storyteller. I don't know what it is about Bruchac, but I feel the story. It's like there is a resonating undertone, as if it is being spoken aloud when it is not. There is a weightiness, though it is simple and accessible. Maybe it is because he wastes no words.

Chris is a great character. He obviously has insecurities like most of us. But his worries are heavier burdens than most as well. To balance this he has the strength of previous generations of his family, plus the loving guidance of two wise beings. Even so, it is crucial for him that he is finally able to communicate with his father, though from a distance Chris wishes didn't exist. Just as important is Chris's ability to stay true to his teachings and to present his thoughts in a productive way. The story is an excellent example of reasoning, judgment, and conflict resolution in action.

related-Indian reservations, Penacook Indians, Indians of North America, New Hampshire, alcoholism, development vs conservation
RL=5th and up

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