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Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013): Indian Agents & Forced Assimilation

Jeff Barnaby rocked our world again and educated us about the horrors indigenous people face in Canada. It follows the story of teenager Aila as she navigates a complicated native world that is actively being “reformed.” Traumas include accidental deaths, suicide, incarceration, Indian agents, and forced residential school abuses.

Sources in this Episode:

Rhymes for Young Ghouls’ and the Legacy of Residential Schools

Muskrat Magazine

Unsettling the Settler Within Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling and Reconciliation

Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition

Indigenous Foundations

Canada’s Grim Legacy of Cultural Erasure, in Poignant School Photos

Ways to Help/Get Help:


Media from this week's episode:

Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013) Director: Jeff Barnaby

Summary by IMDB: Red Crow Mi'kmaq reservation, 1976: By government decree, every Indian child under the age of 16 must attend residential school. In the kingdom of the Crow, that means imprisonment at St. Dymphna's. That means being at the mercy of "Popper", the sadistic Indian agent who runs the school.


Rhymes for Young Ghouls: Teen Girl Hero vs. Beast of Assimilation

by Gabe Castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Trigger Warning: Forced Assimilation, Violence Against Children

Jeff Barnaby rocked our world again and educated us about the horrors indigenous people face in Canada. Rhymes for Young Ghouls is immediately heartbreaking. It follows the story of teenager Aila (played by Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs) as she navigates a complicated native world that is actively being “reformed.” Traumas include accidental deaths, suicide, incarceration, indian agents, and forced residential school abuses. Kat will dive deeper into the residential schools horrors in her section but here’s a brief overview I found in a super helpful article on Film School Rejects in their Through a Native Lens column titled, ‘Rhymes for Young Ghouls’ and the Legacy of Residential Schools by Shea Vassar.

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.

With Blood Quantum, we learned that the practice of measuring blood was ​​used by the United State’s Department of Interior to commodify the racial identity of Native people as a means to avoid treaty obligations. With the residential schools, we discovered that it was one of the ways the country sought to control what was considered “indian.” The legal program was sanctioned under the Indian Act which has been active since 1876. We are still discovering what awful things happened in those schools today with bodies of children being found in unmarked graves as recent as this year. Kat will go into that so let’s talk about the film.

Our protagonist, Aila, has far from an easy life but she’s a bada** who still manages to hold so much on her shoulders. Throughout the film, there is commentary about how she isn’t a teenager, forced to grow up too soon due to her lack of parental figures and the aggressive world that simply won’t give her a break. She takes many hits to the face and suffers other abuses throughout from foe and friends. In an interview in Muskrat Magazine, Jeff Barnaby talked with Jamaias DaCosta about the decision to have a female protagonist.

My Nation is a matriarchal society, and paying respect to that archetype of a woman and the strength that is there particularly in First Nations women, it’s imperative for me as a First Nations man who loves his mom, and loves his wife and loves his sisters, to pay reverence to their struggle and their strength...I thought, if there was ever a point in time that this residential school was going to crumble it would have been in the 70’s, it just made sense to me to have a young Native girl bring this institution of ugliness to its knees. It made sense to me because First Nations women are the language and cultural keepers, they are the epicenter of our matriarchal society.

Aila doesn’t attend the residential schools and has figured out her own way of navigating the heavily restrictive and violent world she lives in. Her mother committed suicide after a horrific accident and her father was incarcerated the same day. Trauma is processed differently for everyone. Finding companionship with a young boy who I imagine reminds her of her deceased brother (the beginning of this film sets the tone for the entirety of it with his accidental death). And an older woman she calls her grandmother and others call the witch who provides her with herbs for her booming business. Under the harsh reign of the Indian Agent, Popper, Aila has to get creative in order to pay the truancy tax. This is how she settles on the dangerous heist scheme to steal from the tyrant himself which means breaking into the very school they are trying to avoid.

We are given an internal look into the school where Popper is seen threatening the children. He orders them to only speak English and forbids them from making any sounds or moving anywhere. Assimilation is a strangling beast that lurks over the entire film, a shadow influencing the character’s desperate actions.

Barnaby never holds back on some of the more extreme and traumatizing themes in his work. He doesn’t want to censor the horrors or sugarcoat his messages. In that same interview with Muskrat Magazine, he explained this means he often feels separated from other native creators who feel his work is too harsh or that they promote harmful stereotypes.