Teaching The Marrow Thieves
This is a creative group assignment for teaching Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves. Students collaborate to write and format a “strategic plan” for the university proposed at the end of the novel.
Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves ends with a new beginning. While capitalist-driven climate change is leading to the decimation of settler nation states (and the rapid decline of the settler population), the protagonist, French, is full of hope for the future of Indigenous peoples—particularly now that Isaac, who holds the power to destroy the new residential schools, has been reunited with Miigwans and the rest of the found family.
The final words of the novel flourish with possibility and resurgence:
I understood that as long as there are dreamers left, there will never be want for a dream. And I understood just what we could do for each other, just what we would do for the ebb and pull of the dream, the biggest dream that held us all.
Since the future of Dimaline’s world will be defined by Indigenous knowledge, language, culture, and dreams (that which is incommensurable with the extractive machinery of settler colonialism), education will play a formative role for the resurgent community.
We see glimmers of this already in the final chapters with the creation of the youth council, “Miigwanang”, which Slopper and Bullet form to “start passing on the teachings right away”:
We were desperate to craft more keys, to give shape to the kind of Indians that could not be robbed. It was hard, desperate work. We had to be careful we weren’t making things up, half remembered, half dreamed. (214)
How does the Assignment Work?
For this assignment, students are tasked with creating a 5-year strategic plan for a “university” for the Indigenous community that Dimaline leaves us with at the end of The Marrow Thieves.
- As a class, go through the strategic plan of your university or college together. Pay attention to the goals and the language used to describe them. What is the tone of the document? What are the primary components of the plan? How are they organized? What is the overarching idea that links things together?
- Beyond the content, how is the plan formatted? What visual elements does it use?
- Does your university’s plan address Indigenous issues? Is the an Indigenous Strategic Plan? If so, how? Spend time looking at the language, tone and voice.
- It is likely (in fact, it is almost certain) that the strategic plan you look at will be a puff piece. What it lacks in substance and critical intervention, it will likely try to make up for in flowery language, buzzwords, and a flashy layout. Embrace that! This is also a rare opportunity for students to think critically about their university’s vision and objectives.
- Pick things apart with them. Have them question the document and let them pick holes in the language. As a group, try to establish what makes a good strategic plan and what’s just a PR vehicle. Keep notes in a shared google doc and shape that into your rubric.
- After you have determined the genre of the strategic plan, in groups of 4-5, have students begin to identify the content for their assignment using The Marrow Thieves as the source material. I usually do this assignment in small groups to mimic the committee format (and all its success and failures).
- Using lessons taken from close and careful reading (and re-reading) of the novel, they should craft a vision for learning and teaching that responds directly to the hopes and desires of the novel’s Indigenous communities.
- Have them start by simply collecting ideas from the text. They are looking for anything that they think could or should determine the vision for the university in Dimlaine’s world. Again, it helps to do this collectively. Have students work together, in breakout groups, during class. They should collect ideas and list them, including page references and then share them with the larger class. This way you can cover a breadth of material.
- Have your students think carefully about who their audience is. They should think carefully about how they craft their vision, who they are crafting it for, and why they are crafting it. Answers to these questions should be rooted in the novel and supported with close reading, summary, and citations.
What Secondary Reading Should We Do?
At the core of the assignment is an effort to have students “enact a decentering of settler futures and a centering of Indigenous futurities” (Hunt 87). in a university setting. To promote this type of thinking, we read Dallas Hunt’s “In search of our better selves”: Totem Transfer Narratives and Indigenous Futurities” and Eve Tuck’s “Suspending Damage” alongside Dimaline’s novel.
What is a Strategic Plan?
Strategic planning is an organizational activity used to establish and explicate a community’s priorities for the future. Strategic plans determine where energy and resources will be directed; they set common goals/outcomes; and they identify key stakeholders.
A strategic plan is a document that establishes the foundational decisions and actions from which a community defines itself as well as who it serves, what it offers, and why it offers it, with an emphasis on the future. An effective strategic plan articulates where a community wants to go and the steps it will take to get there, but it also establishes measures for defining success and/or failure.
You can read more about strategic planning specifically for schools here.
In preparation for the assignment have students familiarize themselves with the strategic plan formula. I have them read and discuss UBC’s Strategic Plan 2018–2028 and UBC’s Indigenous Strategic Plan.
Having conversations in class about your university’s own strategic plan, or Indigenous strategic plan, is a great way to get students thinking about the purpose of the university, who it serves, and how students fit within it. These are often eye-opening conversations for many students!
Strategic Plans (5-years) should:
- Have a title (including the name students have chosen for their university);
- Have a clear and succinct introductory paragraph;
- Identify each of the following in their plan: 1) vision; 2) purpose; and 3) values;
- Identify and explicate 5 teaching/learning goals/objectives derived from The Marrow Thieves
- Be laid out in an accessible, easy-to-read format (I encourage creativity here. Students make pamphlets, websites, newsletters, etc.) I also encourage the use of images and infographics using something like Canva;
- Cite liberally from The Marrow Thieves using MLA formatting;
- Include a separate works cited page following the 8th edition of the MLA style guide;
- Be between 1200-1500 words.
Strategic plans are graded for:
- Organization: Attention to logic and reasoning; unity of ideas and flow of presentation; fidelity to the The Marrow Thieves (does it match the tone, plot, setting, character development, ethics, etc. of the book? Are the main points clearly connected to specific portions of the text?): 20 points
- Content: Originality of thought and approach; appropriate evidence (i.e. quotations from novel); compatibility with the principles and ideas in The Marrow Thieves : 20 points
- Development: Clarity and described feasibility of vision, purpose, values, and objectives; developed points with high quality and quantity support; demonstrated critical thinking: 20 points
- Style: Matches the tone and scope of a strategic plan; clear sentence and paragraph structure; effective use of rhetorical devices: 20 points
- Professionalism: effective use of formatting and layout; attention to detail; free from distracting typos and other errors, content is taken seriously; follows instructions: 20 points
 Group may choose to use a designation other than “university.” This assignment was crafted before <a href="http://Hunting” data-wplink-url-error=”true”>Hunting by Stars was published, but I would love to hear how that sequel could help to build out this assignment!