The Silent Voices need to Speak: The Wolf at Twilight and the Invisible Shame of the Indian Boarding Schools

In the last several years there has been a real growth in racial awareness in America. The depth of the injustices and continuing quiet prejudices toward the Black and Asian communities are being revealed in ways much of us in White America have previously not fully recognized.

This is good, and long overdue. But, as usual, the Native American community is, for the most part, being left out of the equation.

America simply cannot face the fact that there is no appropriate redress of grievances for the truth that America stole the land on which our country has been built. There is nothing we can do to change that fact, and, being a people who believe in progress and optimism, we are constitutionally incapable of absorbing a tragedy of our historical making that cannot be made right. So we ignore it, claim that it is in the past, tell Native people that they must get over it, and otherwise marginalize it until it is as close as possible to invisible in our consciousness.

But lately, the discovery of the bodies of 215 children on the property of a British Columbia residential school has made a tiny blip on our radar. It was only after several years of working in Native America that I came to realize the dark truth of the boarding school/residential school experience all across our continent. There are children’s bodies everywhere.

Though the numbers are hard to pin down, there were at least 357 Indian boarding schools where more than 100,000 children had their lives shaped and, very often, their spirits broken and, in too many cases, their lives ended. It is easy to descend into a litany of the crimes committed and cruelties inflicted by these institutions, and it is true that in many cases the intentions of the institutions were good. But on the level of real experience, the desire of the father of the boarding school system, Richard Henry Pratt, to “kill the Indian to save the man,” too often resulted in killing the man (or woman) as well, at least spiritually if not physically.

The reason I am making this long post is that when I discovered the depth and reality of this experience and its impact on Native people, I resolved to write about it in a way that would bring it alive to readers. I did not want a litany of cruelties and injustices, I wanted to tell a story, in much the same way as Elie Wiesel told the story of the Holocaust in “Night.” And so I wrote, “The Wolf at Twilight:  An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows.” the story of Dan’s search for his little sister who got lost in the Indian boarding school system.

As you probably know, I do not do well at self promotion. It feels cheap and venal. But, as too many people have told me, if the goal of my books is to teach truths and tell stories that need to be heard, promoting them is not self-promotion, it is education.

And so I am asking you, my readers, to spread the word about The Wolf at Twilight. Blog, share, do whatever strange cyber things one does in this new world of social media to get this book known. The voices of the dead children and the wounded hearts and spirits deserve to be heard. The Wolf at Twilight was the best I could do to help those voices speak.

Time to dust this off again.

Written in 2015, made relevant over and over again.

I hate guns


Okay. I have nothing to lose, so I’m going to go all the way out to the edge on this gun issue.

In 2005 I watched as my friends at Red Lake were traumatized, killed, and besieged by reporters, then forgotten after a confused and alienated kid drove a car into the front of the school where I had worked, before pulling out an arsenal of guns and killing 7 people.

I am, as I write this, on a plane back to my home in Portland, 180 miles north of the mass murder site in the town of Roseburg, where I used to buy car parts when I lived in the Oregon woods many years ago, and where I have stopped and let my dog play in the dog park as we drove south through the magical Oregon country side.

I shop at the Clackamas mall where one more confused white kid brought out a gun and killed three people for no reason that any of us can fathom, or should have to fathom.

And all the politicians, no matter how pained and grieved, are dancing around the issue of guns with vague platitudes about the need for mental health services, background checks, the necessity of enlisting the support of responsible gun owners, and on and on.

But, let’s cut to the chase: it’s guns, pure and simple. Guns.

So, let’s go to it.

What is it about guns that so obsesses Americans? Yes, I know all about the second amendment and how it supposedly protects our rights. I know all about the perceived slippery slope into governmental control of our lives. I know about beard boys in Idaho wearing camouflage and facepaint and crawling through the woods to hold out against an upcoming takeover by a fascist and totalitarian government, and about frightened fathers and mothers keeping guns in their houses in cities and suburbs to protect against intruders. I know about all of this.

But forget all of that. Tell me about guns.

There are otherwise perfectly normal human beings in northern Minnesota where I lived who can barely feed their families but have 25 rifles, pistols, and semi-automatic weapons in their closets.

Why? You don’t have 25 refrigerators, or 25 pipe wrenches, or 25 anything other than perhaps baseball caps and pairs of shoes, and those things are questionable enough in themselves. So, what is it about a gun? Is it some feeling of power? Is there some crypto-sexual thrill in holding it? Shooting it? Stroking it?

I know I’m being a bit demeaning, but, damn it, I simply can’t understand. And, frankly, I don’t want to. I am sick of hearing arguments for these cruel and lethal objects. They scare me, they disgust me, and it makes me ashamed that such an adolescent and selfish obsession can be one of the few sacrosanct things in our country.

What drives it? Why are we like this?

Sometimes I think it is part of this culture of fear that comes with our out-of-control capitalist society where every advertisement is based on fear and perceived deficiency, and a gun is just the physical embodiment of a sense of control.

Sometimes I think it has a subterranean racism at its heart, where fear of the terrifying black man at your door drives white people to want to have the fantasy of a protective weapon at hand.

Sometimes I think it is the residual frontier ethic. But the Canadians have every bit as strong a frontier ethic, and they don’t share this cultural mental illness.

And, yes, that’s what it is — a cultural mental illness, fomented and fanned by an armament industry that needs, or, at least, wants, every man, woman, and child to be packing a weapon in the name of freedom or security or whatever abstraction they can sell us.

But, my God, children are dying, and they are dying from guns. No amount of counseling or monitoring or background checks is going to stop this. People will get guns like teenagers get beer, and no amount of laws will stop it.

Consider the sheriff in Roseburg. He stated quite forthrightly that he would not enforce any  federal gun laws, nor would he allow his deputies to do so. And now he is looking in the faces of the mothers and fathers and husbands and wives of the dead. How can he sleep at night? Is he at least a little conflicted?

Sadly, probably not. To him, it wasn’t a gun that killed all those people. It was a person. And the fact that it was a gun in the hand of that person, just as it was a gun in the hand of the killer at Red Lake and the killers at Columbine and the killer at the Aurora movie theater and the killer in every other mass murder in America doesn’t register with him or people like him. It is a mind-boggling disconnect that simply beggars the imagination.

So, what will stop it? One and only one thing: getting rid of guns on our streets. And this is no easy task. It cannot be done by fiat, it cannot be done in one legislative swoop. It can only be done by changing hearts and minds, and that takes time.

There needs to be incremental change – make it illegal to own handguns and semi-automatics for starters, then begin confiscating them as they come in contact with the legal system. Stop the manufacture, or, at least, the sale of them. Then get beneath this and start to educate our children to the reality that compassion will eventually trump fear, and there is nothing magical or mystical about a piece of metal (or, sadly, plastic) that can kill at a distance. In fact, it is simply sick to look at them as problem solvers.

So, go ahead, unfriend me, refuse to buy my books, write me enraged emails filled with the tired old tropes.

But, for the love of Jesus and Mary and Buddha and things that go bump in the night, take a look in the mirror and ask why this piece of metal that is essentially a killing machine is so damn important to you.

Red Lake. Clackamas Mall. Columbine. Sandy Hook.  Roseburg. Coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

And you will be shocked and you will be surprised and you will say, “This was such a nice quiet community. Things like this aren’t supposed to happen here.”

Well, sorry. They aren’t supposed to happen in your particular “here,” but they will. And if you prevaricate and trot out tired old bromides and talk about abstractions while another child gets its face blown off by a gun, the blood is on your hands.

Guns are an American sickness, and it is a sickness that must be cured.