Following her hit debut, Firekeeper’s Daughter, which is being adapted for Netflix, Angeline Boulley returns with Warrior Girl Unearthed (Henry Holt, May 2). The first book centered Daunis, who has a White mother and is part of the Anishinaabe Firekeeper family on her father’s side. In this stand-alone companion novel, Perry and Pauline Firekeeper-Birch, Daunis’ twin cousins who are Black and Anishinaabe, are interning with their (fictional) Sugar Island Ojibwe Tribe’s summer program. Through this experience, gutsy Perry learns shocking truths about institutional thefts of Indigenous human remains and cultural artifacts—and gets her community involved in a daring repatriation scheme. The tragedy of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is also addressed. Boulley, an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, spoke with us over Zoom from her home in southwest Michigan; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I loved returning to the world of Firekeeper’s Daughter.

I always envisioned it as a four-book series: Each could be a stand-alone but interconnected, with a different narrator and a mystery that gets wrapped up at the end. I had the idea while I was editing the first book, so I was able to put some easter eggs in there knowing that they weren’t going to pay off until Book 4.

Perry is less conventionally driven than classic overachiever Pauline—Perry wants to enjoy life, not be stuck inside doing an internship.

I’m a person who has always thrown myself into every job—come early, stay late. It’s taken me a long time to realize that children and teens need balance. Perry’s journey is, yes, she cares passionately, but what did our ancestors sacrifice for? What were their greatest hopes for us? That we then sacrifice ourselves? Or [that] we live full lives, love our families, and bring up children in homes that are safe, stable, and filled with our culture, language, and teachings?

But then, through interning in the tribal museum with Cooper Turtle, Perry is outraged to learn about violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act—and she wants immediate results and is frustrated by Cooper’s methodical approach.

When we look at activism and how to be effective, the race isn’t to the swift. It’s to those that are in it for the long haul. Perry doesn’t want to wait, and I appreciate that, [but] when we’re looking at our ancestors in museums, I think that following the processes holds people accountable. Making sure that we’re following those steps, we can clearly show the foot-dragging and delaying is on the part of museums and institutions tasked with following the law and returning ancestors at the request of tribes.

If you’re the more vulnerable party, you have to be beyond reproach—you know you’re going to be scrutinized.

Yes, that’s it exactly. When I worked in schools as an employee of the tribe as an advocate and liaison for Native students, I would see groups of kids goofing off in the hallway, but somehow it was always the Native students that would get pulled aside for disciplinary action. So that’s another reason why Cooper has this methodical approach and wants Perry to see the value of conducting yourself in a way that invites no criticism. For Perry, the allure is [the attitude of] her other supervisor, Web: If you could get away with anything, how far would you go? That does appeal to people fed up with bureaucratic delays. I wanted to show Perry being torn between these two approaches. I think there is some merit to some things that Web does. Waiting 30 years for museums and institutions to follow the law and the fact that there are more ancestors not repatriated than have been repatriated? What is it going to take?

What is your working style?

[This time] I had to become a different writer than I was for Firekeeper’s Daughter. With that book, I could fly by the seat of my pants, but my agent would say, young adult readers aren’t going to wait 10 years for your next book. So I did make a concerted effort to have more intention but still leaving room for that magic of this great idea that just pops into your head. I think that our ancestors are keeping an eye on us. So, if the story is coming through me, I’m happy to be receptive. But I just had one year to write Warrior Girl Unearthed, and I did need to plot more. I ended up giving my editor a 20-page Excel spreadsheet that had the whole story laid out.

I appreciate your expansive, inclusive portrayal of the various ways there are to be Ojibwe.

I recognize that even people who are Ojibwe and from my community still experience colorism and enrollment issues. I just wanted young adult readers to know that they’re not alone and hopefully to find a way to claim their identity and their place. So many members of my tribe don’t live on the reservation, and I think about them as this audience that I want to speak to. I don’t presume that every Ojibwe reader knows their language or has gotten these cultural teachings and been as fortunate as I have been. And then so many non-Native people have never been taught about Native history and, more importantly, modern Native life. So I’m happy to write with that mindset of not assuming the reader knows anything about a tribal community.

There’s still lots of room for improvement in how Native content is handled in school curricula.

I hope people look at the resources included in the back. Teachers: If the only time you’re talking about Native Americans is during history class in November, you’re missing out, you’re shortchanging students. I think many teachers are so afraid of doing the wrong thing that they opt not to do anything—but that omission is just as harmful. There are great resources out there that help educators. I think highly of the work Dr. Debbie Reese has done with the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog; she has explained her process and the questions that she asks when she’s critiquing a book.

What reader reactions have meant the most?

My favorite thing to hear is when a student who has been reluctant to read any assigned book raced through mine and couldn’t stop talking about it. I just had a speaking engagement at a local community college. An older man came up and said, I haven’t read a book since high school, and I wanted to let you know that I read your book. Firekeeper’s Daughter came out a year into the pandemic. I did a couple of book signings, and [everyone] would be masked. More than once a Native woman would come up to me and want to tell me that she liked the book, but she would get choked up. I could see it in her eyes—and then I would get choked up, because all I wanted to know was, did I get it right, our story of coming-of-age as Ojibwe women? That exchange was so much more powerful because sometimes it happened without words, just with our eyes. That’s something I will always have with me, that connection with readers. I always recommend Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves next. It made me feel every single emotion a human could feel.

Laura Simeon is a young readers’ editor.