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The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline: Why Indigenous Language in Literature Matters

By Elizabeth BJ

In the aftermath of Canada's Residential Schools, the echoes of Indigenous language suppression resonate deeply. Elizabeth BJ looks to Cherie Dimaline's novel, The Marrow Thieves, which serves as a poignant exploration of this legacy.

Photo: Penguin Press

Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend Residential Schools from 1920 until the closing of the last one in 1996, even though these institutions existed since 1870. Residential Schools were meant to “assimilate Indians into society” (Union of Ontario 2), recently on an apology agreement by the government the goal was clarified as “to remove and isolate children from the influence of their home, families, traditions, and cultures, and to assimilate into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption that Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal.” As part of this isolation, children were taught English and French, meanwhile, the use of their language of origins was prohibited “Students caught speaking an Indigenous language to each other were often physically punished. Attending a residential school had a multi-generational impact: although some children resisted and held on to their language, many thousands of others were unable to pass their languages on to their own children” (Restoule 7).

The loss of language did not only affect the generations that attended the schools, keeping them from speaking their languages even after they left the schools but also the lack of knowledge prevailed as the new generations were not taught by their elders. The impact this issue, along with all those related to the traumas inflicted by Residential Schools on native children, has had on indigenous culture is so great that it translates into all forms of indigenous art, such as literature.

“We suffered there. We almost lost our language. Many lost their innocence, their laughter, their language” (28).

Cherie Dimaline's The Marrow Thieves explores the story of Residential schools through the narrator, Frenchie. He is running up north, with the hope to find refugees from “the recruiters”, who are chasing native people in order to extract their marrow, as Indigenous people’s marrows hold the key to fix the dreamless epidemic that is attacking white people. He encounters some other natives running too, and the unfolding story concentrates on them as a group, even though he is still the only narrator.

The facilities where the marrow is extracted are built upon the residential school structures, as they were placed in key sports for the Indigenous people's control. In his narration, Frenchie highlights various issues that can be traced back to the historical consequences of Residential Schools, so they work both as a parallel for real issues and for the development of the story to function. One of these issues is related to the power and disuse of native languages.

By the end of the novel, it is discovered that the key to stopping their enemies from taking their marrow and killing them is stored in the language itself, as shown by Minerva’s storyline after being taken away from the group. They are trying to get her through the procedure to extract their marrow and as she starts to sing in her native tongue the machines break and make the whole facility collapse (174-176). However, throughout the whole story, the importance of the language is hinted at by the descriptions and structure Frenchie uses every time he talks about the old language, which is almost unknown to him, but that still he cherishes.

For example, after learning that Minerva is teaching the girls some words, Frenchie gets mad that he does not have the same knowledge of the language as them:

“‘How do you know the language?’ My voice broke on the last syllable. My chest tightened. How could she have the language? She was the same age as me, and I deserved it more…” This highlight not only the importance of this kind of knowledge has on him, even though he has just heard about it, and the key role elders play in the acquisition of said knowledge, as his own disregard for Minerva kept him away from learning the language as shown in Rose’s response to his question “Minerva. Minerva has the language and us poor guys are stuck with her so we learn” (43).

Frenchie describes the interaction of words with the surroundings as something physical. “[Minerva] was as delighted with the introduction as she was with the melodic sounds of her language sprinkled over the woods [...] I would have mouthed each one after it as said, shoving them into my pockets like sweets to suck on later” (124) that at the same time causes physical reactions on his body “I reached out to feel the language on my skin for the first time since Minerva had breathed her words over my forehead…” (157) and on the body of others “...spoke words in the language. They fell softly on his face” (212). This calls attention to the idea of language as a creation mechanism that many indigenous people have.

The way in which language is treated in the book relates to a principle for indigenous people outside the diegetic story as Chelsea Vowels explains in Writing Toward a Definition of Indigenous Futurism: “Language is not merely a tool of communication, but also a place where reality can be shaped. Language is transformational; ‘our breath has the power to kwêskîmot, change the form of the future for the next generation.’” This concept is also brought up in chapters like “Kiwen”, named after a word in the language that meant “Go home” (213), which is exactly what happens in the following segment of the book

The perception of language shown in the book is linked to the way knowledge is transmitted among indigenous people through acts such as to story, which is also represented in The Marrow Thieves, and is a key device in the teaching/learning process of indigenous collectives and individuals. By highlighting the importance of language, Frenchie also highlights topics such as the importance of elders in indigenous communities, the repercussions Residential Schools have on Indigenous people/communities, and especially the role language have as a part of their identities and their everyday lives, and as a tool to construct their present and hopefully their future. Language is a tool that suffered a detriment because of the Residential Schools trying to erase it, a factor that cannot be forgotten as one tries to recuperate or talk about Indigenous language.

Works Cited:

Cherie Dimaline’s book The Marrow Thieves (2017) it’s a novel narrated by Frenchie

Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. The Indian Residential Schools System Is Officially Established. 9 de diciembre de 2016,

Union of Ontario Indians based on research compiled by Karen Restoule. An Overview of the Indian Residential School System. Union of Ontario Indians, 2013.

Vowel, Chelsea. «Writing Toward a Definition of Indigenous Futurism». Literary Hub, 10 de junio de 2022,


About the Writer:

Elizabeth BJ, is a twenty-something Mexican writer fresh out of college (UNAM), where she studied English Literature. She has published poetry, critical analysis, fiction, nonfiction and recently interviews and research pieces, all on different online media, both in English and Spanish. Also, is interested in the creation and analysis of audiovisual media, and just recently started to build a path on illustration. Look her up at @cazandocolibris on Twitter and Instagram.


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