Warrior Girl Unearthed: Angeline Boulley's 2023 BGHB Fiction and Poetry Award Speech

Aaniin! Hello! I am honored to receive the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Fiction for Warrior Girl Unearthed. Chii miigwech to readers everywhere and especially to judges Martha V. ­Parravano, Roger Sutton, and Chairperson Erica Marks. Every sophomore novel is a triumph, and mine would not have been possible without my editor, Jess Harold, and the entire team at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. Miigwech to the Boston Globe and the Horn Book for also recognizing Promise Boys by Nick Brooks and When Clouds Touch Us by Thanhhà Lại as honor books.

I pitched Warrior Girl Unearthed as “Indigenous Lara Croft” — but instead of raiding tombs, sixteen-year-old Perry raids museums and private collections to retrieve stolen ancestral remains and sacred objects that do not belong there.

Perry is a reluctant tribal museum intern accompanying her supervisor to a repatriations negotiation meeting at a local college museum. She is shown the human remains of “The Warrior Girl” (which is based on an actual ancestor), a young woman buried with a flint blade and whose adolescent bones showed evidence of healed knife wounds, indicating that she was recognized as a protector of her people. Upon learning about the institution’s decades of delaying tactics to avoid complying with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (known as NAGPRA) and returning “The Warrior Girl” to her homeland, Perry takes matters into her own hands.

Warrior Girl Unearthed is about the ownership of Indigenous bodies — past and present. It is also about experiencing the call to action and its consequences, what makes someone a warrior for their community, and how one voice can change everything.

[Read Horn Book reviews of the 2023 BGHB Fiction and Poetry winners.]

I’d like to share a real-life example of how one voice can make a difference. I’m speaking to you this evening from the University of Michigan. In 2007, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, on behalf of a coalition of all tribes in Michigan, made a repatriation claim for 405 ancestors, backed by data including archaeological evidence, oral histories, and traditional knowledge which supported the cultural affiliation to modern Anishinaabek tribes. The claim was unilaterally rejected by U of M, even though the university never consulted with any Michigan tribe before deeming the ancestral remains “culturally unidentifiable.” The coalition of tribes along with allies both on- and off-campus protested the decision, even holding a drum-in during exam week. A citizen from the Saginaw ­Chippewa Indian Tribe was given five minutes to address the university regents at a board meeting.

Joseph Sowmick said:

Our ancestors’ bodies…have been written on with markers and pens…laid out in cardboard boxes, on metal shelves. We ask, would you want your grandmothers and grandfathers to be treated in this way? Today, I am here to inform you that we will not stand idly by and condone this treatment, nor will we allow our research and perspective to be dismissed…We are the direct descendants of the ancestors who lived on this land before your arrival, and we are united on this issue. In the spirit of NAGPRA, we urge you to do the right thing — restore dignity to our ancestors and to your institution.

One voice. And, finally, one person listened.

One regent, Katherine White, urged her fellows to change the university’s approach to NAGPRA. The University of Michigan is now regarded as the gold standard for NAGPRA. They committed to transparency and demonstrated their commitment with a “Consultation First” approach that codified consultation as the first response to a request to repatriate.

As I completed my final edits on ­Warrior Girl Unearthed, the National Park Service issued a program report showing that, after three decades since NAGPRA became law in 1990, there are more ancestors remaining in collections than have been returned to tribes and authorized entities. I dedicated my book to the 108,328 ancestors still in these collections and to those working to bring them home. I’d like to expand this dedication to the young readers touched by books like those recognized tonight. They are moved to take action, to give voice to the causes they are passionate about.

Mazina’iganan mino-mshkikiiwin aawen. Books are good medicine. ­Stories are powerful. Aho.

From the January/February 2024 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2023 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB23. Read more from The Horn Book by and about Angeline Boulley.

Angeline Boulley

Angeline Boulley won the 2022 Walter Award in the teen category for Firekeeper's Daughter and the 2023 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Fiction and Poetry for Warrior Girl Unearthed (both Holt). (Photo by Marcella Hadden.)

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