Children's Books

CHEYENNE AGAIN, by Eve Bunting, Illustrated by Irving Toddy; Clarion Books: New York, 1995. 32 pages, hardcover, $14.95. ISBN 0-395-70364-6

It's unusual for a reviewer to spend time on a book's dedication. Nevertheless, that's what I'm going to do.

In very brief text, Bunting sketches the story of a 10-year-old Cheyenne boy who, in the late 19th century, is taken far from his family and put into the Carlisle Indian School, more than 1,000 miles away, in Pennsylvania (it isn't named). Founded by Captain Richard Henry Pratt, the purpose of this school -- thought to be the most successful of many -- was assimilation or cultural genocide. "Kill the Indian, save the Man" was one of Pratt's mottoes a little more representative of actual treatment at these schools than the "From Savagery to Civilization" motto Bunting quotes.

Not usually mentioned is that the labor of Indian youth was also exploited: they were hired out as work gangs, or farmer's helpers for various simple manual tasks. The school received the money for this contract labor. Carlisle rejected the idea of anything other than a life of manual labor for Indian people. Academics were at a minimum although athletics were encouraged. Children wore high-collared military uniforms (and rough work clothes during contract labor). Team athletics was encouraged; Carlisle had a famous football team. Carlisle was run on military lines; uniformed students were marched everywhere double-time. The book does not mention that there were many deaths: from malnutrition (food was poor and was skimped), from diseases, from beatings.

Children had no communication with their relatives, sometimes for as long as 15 years. When finally permitted to return, they often found them dead, and almost always found themselves unable to survive in the prevailing conditions. They were not accepted by white people, socially or for any kind of jobs; but they were often distrusted and shunned by more traditional Indians, including those of their own age who had been able to hide out when the school-takers came, who were often scornful of the misfit returned students. Those who tried returning had often been brainwashed to be scornful of thir "blanket Indian" relatives.

Bunting -- and especially Toddy -- have well conveyed Young Bull's miseries and loneliness, although Bunting has made it appear better than it was. There would be no kindly teacher with salve for sores made by shackles, no one who said "Don't let us take your memories. Never forget that you are an Indian inside." The school was set up as a kind of torture machine to destroy memories, and especially to make students forget they were Indian inside, outside, all around anyside. That was the raison d'etre of all those schools.

The book is unrealistic only in that it understates the misery and wretchedness that were deliberately used against these children. Unrealistic in that the word "genocide" does not appear, though that was the goal of these schools: cultural genocide, making a race of people vanish.

The other thing that's unrealistic about the story portion is its ending. Young Bull is seen drawing a ledger-art style picture of braves on horseback, letting him escape, through art and memory, to be "Cheyenne again." Crayons and paper weren't lying around encouraging kids to be creative. Materials were locked up. The students had no privacy, not even any cubbys for personal property, and improvised hiding places were frequently searched out (resulting in individual or general punishments). Drawing such pictures would be committing the sin of survival-as-Indian in a very public way.

Ledger art like that was drawn by Indian prisoners at the Army hellhole prison Ft. Marion, Florida. Pratt ran this prison in preparation for running Carlisle, but that doesn't mean he'd have tolerated that type of art from the brainwash-in-progress students.

So we have to take this ending as a kind of metaphor: in spite of the brutality, the punishments, the deprivations, a few student-prisoners did survive and later wanted to re-learn a diluted Indian identity, which a few were able to do. We can take the imaginary ledger drawings as a metaphor for Young Bull's survival tactics, whatever they might have been.

More because of Toddy's powerful, beautiful illustrations than because of Bunting's rather uninspired text, this will be an effective book for most children of ages 8 - 12. Just because the situation is one they can empathize with, and is so frightening, they will have many questions, that few non-Indian adults will be able to answer. Thus the total inadequacy of the little piece of non-fictional history Bunting provides at the end leads me to review Toddy's dedication.

Toddy is a well-known and talented Navajo artist. The jacket notes say he "went through an experience similar to the one described in this book," and his dedication -- "To all the students of Intermountain Indian School, Brigham City, Utah" makes it clear which one. He has obviously studied old photos taken at Carlisle. His paintings show the same miserable expressions -- the very same little faces -- as appear on Carlisle's "before and after" photos of their students, hair clipped, jammed into high-colored woolen military uniforms. Civilized. As the book dedication and jacket notes indicate, Toddy is an alumnus of Intermountain Indian School.

Bunting's brief history -- a part-page at the end of the story -- makes it seem as if these residential schools, this kidnapping, forced schooling in manual labor, severe discipline, militaristic approaches was a thing of the long-ago past. "Boarding Schools for native American children still exist, but they are now more sensitive to the young people's needs and encourage them to treasure their skills and take pride in their heritage," she says. Her implication is that white educators have become Nice, now, all this was long, long ago.

Oh, yeah. Ask Intermountain alums. Intermountain was not a thing of the long-ago bad old days. It was a military hospital, declared surplus by the Army at the end of World War II. After a bit of shuffling, the BIA took over the whole thing (which from aerial photos rather resembles a miniature Auschwitz). They converted it to a residential school, almost exclusively for Navajo youth. It was a minimum of 700 miles from the Navajo reservation (over a thousand miles from the homes of some youth). As in the 19th century, most of their parents couldn't read, none had phones, so there was no communication with relatives at home.

The school was the largest employer in Brigham City, whose Mormons constantly bombarded the kids with their own brand of religious propaganda. Of course there were the haircuts, the militarism, much brutality and little in the way of academics. The National Indian Youth Council, founded in the mid 1960's, targeted Intermountain almost from its first days of existence. They started a special NIYC chapter of Intermountain detainees. They were able to get some legal help and filed suit, charging a variety of violations of student rights -- some life threatening, such as massive forced tranquilizer injections.

For more than a decade, the courts played games with the NIYC lawsuit, refusing to hear it on various technicalities. It was said the NIYC Intermountain "alums" lacked standing to pursue the suit, since they were no longer students. Or that those who were still students lacked standing to pursue anything legally, because they were minors. Their parents lacked standing, because all Indians were incompetent wards of the BIA. The issues of the lawsuit were said to be moot because the BIA said it was doing reforms, or was going to shut the school down one of these years.

Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation had fought the BIA into being allowed to have its first Native-controlled school -- Rough Rock demonstration School -- around 1966, and by the 1970's, there were several on-reservation schools, and the first Navajo Community College had opened in a building shared with the first high school. Intermountain, with as many as 2100 students resident, was sending virtually none on to college. the Navajo schools were (in the early 1970's) sending almost 2,000 of their graduates to college -- 500 at the local community college, and another 1500 to a variety of colleges and universities elsewhere.

By the mid-70's Intermountain was an obvious failure -- which provided employment for a great many Brigham City whites, who held all supervisory positions (and most other well- paying jobs). There was constant political pressure from them, and their Utah Senators and Representatives, to keep this source of white income going. The BIA was talking budget cuts, and finally the Navajo tribe determined that its own painfully-built and growing, successful educational institutions would not be shut down to maintain the distant Intermountain money machine. In 1972, the tribe passed a governmental resolution to stop sending students to Intermountain. The BIA then began beating the bushes among other tribes to find raw meat to send there.

Intermountain was the worst, because it was the largest and one of the furthest from loving relatives, and perhaps also because the isolated youth there were subjected to some of the worst religious terrorism and commercial exploitation -- not just the usual contract manual labor, there were well-attested stories of commercial prostitution of young girls by local white businessmen. But there were still other Indian boarding schools, which removed kids from their homes and homelands, and whose goal was to destroy their cultures and languages -- to kill the Indian to save the man, as Pratt had put it more than a century before.

Bunting suggests by omission that changes in Indian education have come about because white people became nicer, more civilized themselves as time wore on. This isn't true. There have been changes. There are Indian schools now -- mostly not remote boarding schools -- that foster pride, language, culture, not misery, isolation, loneliness and a constant feeling of inferiority. How these changes have come about is that Indian people fought for them, and it is a never-ending fight, not finished today.

Where education for Native youth changed, from militaristic or religious concentration camps and brainwashing academies, it was Indian people that did it, forced it, fought for it and won it. Indian people became the teachers to teach Indian youth to live, not to die, not to turn into miserable attempted imitations of white people. Indian control of schools for Indian youth is the key to humanizing such schools, and making schools something conducive to survival, not something intended to destroy cultures. Indian control is the only key. Without that, programs and policies are irrelevant. Those schools will continue to function as they always did: as instruments of cultural genocide.

That's the way it is now, with many public schools on the edges of reservations which have large Indian student populations. Since the 1960's, these schools have received hundreds of millions of dollars of federal Indian educational funds, under several Congressional provisions. With no real, effective Indian control, those schools spend the money to benefit white students and staff, and the Indian kids are pushed out, drop-outs, unwanted except for the green scalps they bring in, the per capita Indian student allocations. Urban schools in ares with large Indian ghettos, as a result of the termination and relocation policies of the post World War II era are as bad. The offenses are recent and continuing, near-reservation public (non-residential) schools are among the worst offenders.

This past school year I was involved in combatting a near-reservation rural school which had used its Indian monies to build many small, windowless, lightless tiger cage cells, soundproofed and triple-locked from the outside. Half a floor cellblock for the older students, and two cells in each elementary classroom. (Tiger cages are a form of torture devised during the Vietnam war. Outside-locked doors were illegal under all fire codes.) That didn't use up too much of the green scalps the Indian kids came to this school wearing. The rest of the Indian monies were spent equipping the little rural school with a very fancy computer and media lab, a fleet of vans for excursions, and other goodies that didn't increase local farmers' taxes. Guess which students were locked into the cells (one 13-year old for 18 hours)? Guess which students never got to use the computers or media lab their green scalps bought? Guess which students were never taken on educational excursions, or school team sports in the vans their money had bought? That's right. Forms of cultural genocide may change; substance continues.

I would a thousand times rather see non-Indian youth read this book than some of the idiotic multicultural-industry materials that present boring, usually inaccurate pre-historic native cultures, or that provide culturally twisted and out of context dumbed-down "myths and legends". But I feel there should have been a good, long, accurate non-fictional postscript, providing true, historically documentable answers to questions kids reading this book are bound to have. Bunting deliberately shirks that job, because there is no way to present any nice kindly pictures of this reality, 19th or 20th century, and she especially doesn't want to say this is not a long, long ago phenomenon, but one both recent and continuing.

So this is a mixed-feelings recommendation. Lacking an actual historical perspective, librarians or teachers might cut this one out and tape it into the back of the book, where perhaps some students or adults facing student questions can read it.

--Paula Giese

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Sunday, August 11, 1996 - 7:22:15 AM