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, William 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.

Posted on: June 7, 2021knerburn

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

  1. Thank you Kent. I agree that you are entrusted with the story and a way of telling it that is necessary for white people to at least claim the unspoken heart ache and pain that is in our midst. It is in our all our relations, including the way white people treat white people. Grateful you are reaching out and willing to support. I will share your work and blog with my communities at InterPlay, The Hidden Monastery, PSR, the GTU, and Cohousing.

  2. The Wolf at Twilight totally opened my eyes regarding the boarding schools and gave me a foundation for truly understanding the horror of what was recently deemed newsworthy regarding the B.C. graves. I highly recommend this book to friends because it draws you into the story of suffering the Native Americans have endured.

  3. I, too, dislike self promotion. It feels like my skin is on inside-out.

    I will do the social media thing and make my few followers aware of the book. I will also buy the book at my local bookstore.

    Thanks for writing this. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops.

    jrs

  4. Ha! Just looked at your section of my bookshelf. I have the book already and as soon as I touched it remembered the story. Beautiful and sad and uplifting.

  5. GTU and PSR? Those were my home bases. Ph.D. from GTU, much of my spiritual formation a product of my time with Wayne Rood of PSR. Thank you for making the connection!

  6. Kent
    I grew up in Nort Dakota north of the reservation by Devils Lake. Your books gave me a great insight to the treatment of the Native children and a great understanding of the Native lifestyle and culture. They should be a required reading in all of our schools. That would help our current citizens to better understand the reasons, first Americans. Thanks for your great work.

  7. The messages that are in The Wolf at Twilight, will keep resounding in the future as people pass them down. Younger generations will learn to understand them and realise that this book should live on forever.

  8. Kent, much as The Wolf at Twilight opened my eyes to the boarding schools, your books, Neither Wolf Nor Dog and The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo, provided a very necessary and impactful Native American perspective of the present and of our combined history. I will be forever grateful to have been made aware of your writings and will pass on your message.

  9. The Wolf at Twilight should be required reading in high school and/or college. I read it several years ago. It is truth, hard truth, which most Americans don’t want to acknowledge. Let’s hope new awareness of the atrocities of the past cause us all to reflect, learn, and not repeat history.

  10. Kent,

    The Wolf in Twilight is a must read for everyone who wants to understand little known history and perspective on Native Americans. I found all three of your books about Dan and his journey compelling. I recommend them to everyone to read. This country does need to face its history. Knowing and understanding what has happened and why we are where we are today is the only way to start the journey of healing for everyone.

    Please keep writing and using your gifted voice to speak out and educate. You are an extremely gifted writer … one who knows how to write about difficult subjects and make them understandable. Your books should be required reading in the teaching of American History.

  11. Kent, from my first reading of the first editions, I’ve highly recommended the Wolf trilogy to anyone who stands still long enough for me to expound. I’ve given it to my children & grandchildren as must-reads. Thank you for this gift—not just to our Native people, but to all of us who were enlightened, educated, and armed for action.

  12. I read the book several years ago — I love all three books. I never knew any of this about our Native American people before I read your books. I just started to reread the first book and am finding it just as captivating as I did the first time, though seeing it through more awakened eyes. It still breaks my heart. Thank you, Kent.

  13. Kent, Both of your books were wonderful. My husband, Rod McAfee, passed away two months ago. He was 89 years old, a member of the Gila River Indian Community, and attended Tucson Indian School, a Presbyterian-run boarding school. He ran away in the 6th grade and never returned to school. He told me many stories, and I have since been doing research on that school in particular, and the history of Presbyterian missions on his reservation. Rod said that he had a friend, a little O’odham boy who would always keep his horse saddled in case the government inspectors came to try to drag him away to school. Rod said, “Without knowing it, that little boy was my hero.”

    Many Blessings to you and your family.

  14. Kent,
    I have it marked, here, ‘Excellent piece, Pages 118-119.
    Page 118, last paragraph:
    “But here’s what you’ve got to understand …”

    Re-reading it just now, still makes me teary-eyed. I wish I had it memorized verbatim so when I heard someone gripe, “They need to just get over it,” I could repeat it, (with credit to you and Dan of course) and leave them with something to think about.

    My wife and I have relatives on a reservation in NW Wisconsin; one of whom is our eleven year old grandson, Ozaawaa, who, along with his five other siblings and extended family, has continued to educate me about Native America since his birth; hence my good-sized library that includes your books, among others, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog;” “the Wolf at Twilight;”“The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo;” and Chief Joseph.

    I recently gifted “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” to a neighbor whose farm adjoins mine 100-miles northwest of Red Lake, and who will likely purchase “the Wolf at Twilight,” himself after that read. It was enlightening for me to learn that both he, and his 85-year old dad who ‘walked on’ four years ago, were knowledgeable and conscientious about indigenous people, while living in a NW Minnesota community not necessarily known for its broadminded viewpoint toward people different than themselves.

    Last September Ozaawaa and I took a little trip up Mikinaak Creek in the jonboat; it took a couple hours to paddle upstream on the slow flowing tributary of the Roseau River. In two places we had to portage to access beaver ponds; I pulled the small craft over the creek bank to the other side. He carried paddles. We talked and ate lunch at one point. It was a beautiful day.

    I enjoy just being quiet when I’m on the creek or in the field or the woods. Yet, I can be a little gabby too, when there’s something I think he should know or be aware of. Ozaawaa is fun to be around, but like with many kids, you don’t always know if he’s listening, so when this happened I had to write it down when we got home; I do a lot of writing . . .

    “Well, the Europeans, and later, the Americans, stopped at nothing to get what they wanted from the land. They made treaties they never intended to keep, they greedily wiped out the beaver for their fur, killed almost all the buffalo on the Great Plains in an attempt to defeat the Dakotah and other Indigenous people. Genocide of Native people was common currency . . .”

    “So is racism, “ Ozaawaa said, shocking me into momentary speechlessness.

    He had been listening . . .

    “Yes, Ozaawaa, it still is.”

  15. Hi Kent
    I travelled to Canada in 2016 and at an exhibition of first nations art, I became aware of this issue. We did a similar thing in Australia, only they were called missions and were run by the church. The net result was the same, removal from families and cruel treatment of the indigenous children. I feel that the Canadian government is doing more to reflect on past actions and try to make some sort of amendment. Our current government refuses to even acknowledge the needs of our first nations people.
    Unfortunately, I am sure that Canada and Australia are not the only countries where white people reigned supreme. I am so embarrassed by the behaviour and my heart goes out to all of those affected.
    By the way, I am a third generation white Australian.
    Keep up your great work.
    Regards
    Jenny
    ps. I am about to retire and would like you to change my email address to jennypitkin1@gmail.com

  16. Great post….and a beautiful and profound trilogy of books. I will share this, and continue to strongly recommend your books to friends and colleagues

  17. Kent, I’ve long wanted to tell you how deeply touched I’ve been by reading your trilogy, most especially,The Wolf at Twilight.
    That book left a lasting impression on me so much so that I vowed that someday I would visit the site of the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians in Canton, South Dakota.
    In September of 2019, my husband, Greg, drove me from PA to SD where that vow was fulfilled. We laid flowers at the place of the mass grave. One hundred twenty-one souls are interred there. That site is now located on a golf course. Adding insult to injury, we had a tough time locating the grave site – golfers were totally unaware that this was sacred ground. They were shocked when we explained why we had traveled there. Finally, after asking several maintenance employees, we found one who knew its approximate location and lent us his maintenance cart. Tears flowed as I read each of the 121 names aloud; I told them of you and your book and how I had promised never to forget them. I never will, Kent. What a great gift of remembrance you’ve given us.
    Thank you for your goodness in raising awareness on this shameful chapter in our joint American history. It needs to be known and mourned. Wolf broke my heart; weeping there helped it begin to heal. They are not forgotten nor will they ever be. I pray we have friends awaiting us as we all swim to the other side.

  18. Dear Kent – thank you for all you have done to share your knowledge. My grandchildren are full Sicangu Lakota. I was adopted years ago by a grandmother on the Rosebud. I have taught the kids their culture, history and some of the Lakota language. We visit the little cemetery in a back corner of Haskell every year. This year my Lakota sister said to bring them food and water. She is going to PA with a group who is bringing the children at Carlyle home.
    It is a crime that the Native People do not have a voice in wasicu culture. Life on the Rosebud reservation gets more desperate every year. Please keep spreading your good word. I have The Wolf At Twilight. Thank you for everything. Linda

  19. As I explored the tribal cultures in my local I came upon Kents writings. We are so lucky he was accepted and entrusted to pass on the real lessons of our history. So the recent findings in Canada come as no surprise. What is odd is that no one has questioned the cemeteries around the deserted schools all over. Thank you.

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