Reconciliation’s Unconcluded Epilogue in Five Little Indians by Sarah Orejuela

Reconciliation’s Unconcluded Epilogue in Five Little Indians by Sarah Orejuela

     Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians follows the story of five residential school survivors as they strive to overcome, or at least dismiss, the trauma they endured during their time in the church-run “Mission School” and, eventually, to find a way ahead. Similarly, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) seeks to “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation” through their 94, ironically unconcluded, Calls to Action (TRC Commission). Another irony is the novel’s “Prologue,” a metaphor for Canada’s reconciliation with residential school survivors. Indeed, Good’s paradoxical placing of an epilogue in Five Little Indians “Prologue” foreshadows the initial process of closure on the lasting impacts of the Canadian Indian residential school system on Indigenous students and their families. More precisely, through Lily’s burial, the intersection of Kendra’s and Mariah’s contrasting medicine, and the symbolic imagery around the sweat lodge in “Prologue,” Michelle Good lays the groundwork for reconciliation in which transformative changes must occur within the Indigenous community.

     In “Prologue,” Lily’s burial symbolizes the liberating point of departure that physical memorials offer to the deceased loved ones. For instance, the third-person narrator limited to Clara, a residential school survivor, mentions that, while Lily’s casket is guided “to the open place in the earth for her” and placed “in the raw earth,” Clara “we[eps],” and says that they “finally got to go home” (Good 3). This encounter emphasises Clara’s emotional reaction to a moment she has been waiting for a long time: the literal burial of Lily’s remains, from when she died in the Mission due to Sister Mary’s negligence of her tuberculosis. The burial grants both Lily and Clara a permanent resting place, and Clara’s announcement of their need to depart to where they both belong symbolizes her desire for a closure to her transforming grief. But Clara’s determination to move on also involves reconciling with the Mission and its role in Lily’s death. For example, to the collective effort between “a dedicated researcher to find Lily’s remains,” and the “almost impossible” concession of “the Church to give her up,” Clara says, “we found you, Lily” (3).

     By acknowledging that the cooperating group found Lily’s body together, despite the struggles, Clara illustrates the effectiveness in restoring beneficial relations with institutions that were once responsible for the Indigenous community’s demise, like the Catholic Church and the scientific society. Even if the resulting collective is challenging and takes a while, as shown by the discovery and burial of Lily’s remains, Good reveals that the TRC’s Missing Children Project is a real part of the process to build the foundations for Indigenous and national reconciliation.

However, for transformative changes to occur within communities affected by residential schools, cooperation between these institutions is not the only requirement. The intersection of Kendra’s and Mariah’s contrasting medicine symbolizes the powerful healing approaches that different knowledge provides the Indigenous community. Indeed, in “Prologue,” Clara presents Kendra, her best-friend’s assimilated daughter, as the “First Indian doctor in Canada” that “need[ed] a fancy school,” and Mariah, an elderly Indigenous traditional healer, as “a doctor” that “sure fixed [her] up,” but “didn’t need no fancy school” (2). Here, Clara uses “doctor” to illustrate that both Kendra and Mariah can provide healing, even if it is not the same kind or way. While Mariah is able to heal Clara’s physical and emotional wounds from the lasting impacts of the Mission, as well as her relationship with her traditional culture, Kendra, as an intermediary integrated to both cultures, is able to heal both communities’ uneasiness with each other and reconcile for their future ahead, where both Canadian society and the Indigenous community will learn from each other. For example, when “the magical scent of the medicines [rose], filling the lodge,” Clara ironically says to Kendra: “[d]oc, … [g]et ready for some doctoring” (3). This encounter between Kendra and Mariah’s medicine suggests that dominant medicine needs to learn from Indigenous traditional knowledge, which is governed by laws of nature instead of by economy since its science has been around for the longest time on earth and uses trial and error methods rather than fancy schools. Finally, Good indicates that, to set the groundwork for healthy ties within both Canadian and Indigenous nations, symbolic exchanges of knowledge and ways of healing should be intersected.

     Additionally, the setting of “Prologue” portrays that more ongoing processes are needed to conclude the reconciliation process. The ironic imagery around the sweat lodge symbolizes Indigenous peoples’ need to reclaim the purifying nature of their lands. For instance, Clara describes “a faint tinkling rising on the breeze from the grove around the lodge” (2), and “an air of peace beautifying the simple cabin” (3). Here, nature’s sensorial imagery works on many levels to equate “breeze” with fulfilling “peace,” as if Clara is walking in a dream. In the same way, the breeze symbolizes a calm flow of harmony in the land where Mariah’s cabin is located; far from violence and war, the forest is portrayed as a sacred space where Indigenous people purify their bodies and minds. For example, Clara “walked, oblivious to time, only turning back when the sun was high, and the birch leaves shimmered all around her” (1). Here, Good describes the captivating forest in which Clara walks, as a place where there are no concerns nor any tracking of time, a dream in which the invasive pain of the past goes away. The irony in this description is that, ever since the arrival of settlers in Canada, Indigenous lands and ancestral cultures have been constantly stolen from them and anything relating to the community’s essence is followed by dominion, violence and destruction. Thus, in “Prologue,” Michelle Good represents the Indigenous community’s unfulfilled fantasy to reclaim its lands through the ironic symbolic images of mystical nature since Indigenous people can only get glimpses of their purifying earth in the holy forest of their minds.

     Five Little Indians’ “Prologue,” therefore portrays a mitigating process that has just started and that needs to receive positive action from the government of Canada and the Catholic Church. More precisely, Lily’s burial, the intersection between Canada’s medicine and Indigenous medicine, and the ironic images around the sweat lodge symbolize the paradoxical ways in which Canada’s reconciliation with Indigenous nations can be slowly constructed. After all, even if the five main residential school survivors’ transformative quest in Five Little Indians is resolved, the whole Indigenous community still needs a permanent reconciliation. To bring closure lies at the heart of a reconciliation between the Indigenous peoples who attended these schools, their families and communities, and all Canadians, together.


Works Cited

Good, Michelle. Five Little Indians, Harper Perennial, First Edition, 2020.

TRC Commission. “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action.”         

     National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, 2012, columbians-our-governments/indigenous-people/aboriginal-peoples-documents/calls_to_action_english2.pdf.

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