Wandering Stars

Tommy Orange

February 27, 2024 
The following is from Tommy Orange's Wandering Stars. Orange is a graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. An enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, he was born and raised in Oakland, California. His first book, There There, was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and received the 2019 American Book Award. He lives in Oakland, California.

“In Indian civilization I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization, and when we get them under holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.”
–Richard Henry Pratt

There were children, and then there were the children of Indians, because the merciless savage inhabitants of these American lands did not make children but nits, and nits make lice, or so it was said by the man who meant to make a massacre feel like killing bugs at Sand Creek, when seven hundred drunken men came at dawn with cannons, and then again four years later almost to the day the same way at the Washita River, where afterward, seven hundred Indian horses were rounded up and shot in the head.

These kinds of events were called battles, then later—sometimes—massacres, in America’s longest war. More years at war with Indians than as a nation. Three hundred and thirteen.

After all the killing and removing, scattering and rounding up of Indian people to put them on reservations, and after the buffalo population was reduced from about thirty million to a few hundred in the wild, the thinking being “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone,” there came another campaign-style slogan directed at the Indian problem: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” When the Indian wars began to go cold, the theft of land and tribal sovereignty bureaucratic, they came for Indian children, forcing them into boarding schools, where if they did not die of what they called consumption even while they regularly were starved; if they were not buried in duty, training for agricultural or industrial labor, or indentured servitude; were they not buried in children’s cemeteries, or in unmarked graves, not lost somewhere between the school and home having run away, unburied, unfound, lost to time, or lost between exile and refuge, between school, tribal homelands, reservation, and city; if they made it through routine beatings and rape, if they survived, made lives and families and homes, it was because of this and only this: Such Indian children were made to carry more than they were made to carry.

But before the boarding schools, in 1875, seventy-one Indian men and one Indian woman were taken as prisoners of war in Oklahoma and put on a train to St. Augustine, Florida, where they were jailed in a star-shaped prison-castle—a star fort. It was the oldest masonry fort in the country, and the first European settlement in the continental United States, built on the backs of Indian people under Spanish order in the late 1600s out of coquina—a kind of ancient shell formed into rock over time. The star fort built to defend the Atlantic trade route was named Castillo de San Marcos by the Spanish, after Saint Mark, patron saint of, among other things, prisoners, then under U.S. rule it became Fort Marion, named after the American Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, who’d been nicknamed the Swamp Fox, and was known to have raped his slaves and hunted Indians for sport.

Their jailer, Richard Henry Pratt, ordered that their hair be cut and that they be given military uniforms. Pratt also ordered that the Indian prisoners of war at Fort Marion be given ledger books to draw in. One Southern Cheyenne man named Howling Wolf took to it best because he’d been doing the same thing on buffalo hides to tell stories long before that. In the ledger books, he drew things from way back and high up. A bird’s-eye view. That hadn’t happened before the same way on the hides. It was only after that long train ride from Oklahoma to Florida with iron chains around his wrists and ankles that Howling Wolf began to draw from where birds saw things. Birds see the best of any creature with a spine, are sacred because they soar the heavens, and with just one of their feathers, and some smoke, prayers make it to God.

The Indians were allowed to sell their drawings to white people who came to witness the prisoners of war, these Kiowa, Comanche, Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Caddo people, to see them dance and dress up Indian, see the vanishing race before it was gone, and take home a drawing, a polished sea bean, or a bow and arrow, curios they were called, as if a souvenir from an amusement park, or human zoo—which were popular at the time, and tended to include Indians. Drawings of Indian life as depicted by Indians, on pages made to keep track of transactions, were sold as some of the first Indian art. Pratt drew from his experience at the prison-castle as if it were a blueprint for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which opened just a year after the prisoners were released.

Starting in 1879, Indian parents were encouraged and coerced, and threatened with jail time if they refused to send their children to school. In one case, Hopi parents from Arizona who had refused such orders were sent to California, to Alcatraz for nine months as punishment. The prisoners were stripped of their clothes and given military uniforms, told they’d be there until they learned beyond a shadow of a doubt the error of their evil ways. They were held in wooden boxes smaller than solitary confinement cells built later for the famously draconian prison. During the day they were made to saw large logs into smaller ones like some cartoon’s dream of sleeping. When they were released and taken back to Arizona, they continued to resist having their children put into schools, and continued to spend time in prison.

Some Indian parents understood that their children were hostages kept to encourage better behavior from the more problematic Indian tribes. Others were forcefully taken from their homes, on what some Indians then called the iron horse, on loud trains across unknown lands, to a school where they were subjected to disease and starvation, and taught that everything about being Indian was wrong. It became law that Indian children attend these schools, just as Indian medicines and ceremonies, rites and rituals were being outlawed.

At Carlisle, they were taught that they were to become Carlisle Indians. A new tribe of Indians made up of many tribes but belonging to none, belonging to the school, which belonged to and was funded by the U.S. government.

As soon as they arrived at the school their long hair was cut, their clothes were taken, and new names were handed out along with military uniforms—which is to say the war began immediately. Each day they did military drills and marched as if against themselves in daily battles happening first from the outside in, and then from the inside out like a disease. If Indian children spoke English instead of their Native tongues, they were rewarded at first, but being rewarded for not doing Indian things was not where it ended. Beatings and jail time and countless other kinds of abuse became routine. You were supposed to kill the entire Indian if they were to be saved. Later it was said that Indian children in boarding schools had the same chance of dying as soldiers in one of the world wars.

All the Indian children who were ever Indian children never stopped being Indian children, and went on to have not nits but Indian children, whose Indian children went on to have Indian children, whose Indian children became American Indians, whose American Indian children became Native Americans, whose Native American children would call themselves Natives, or Indigenous, or NDNS, or the names of their sovereign nations, or the names of their tribes, and all too often would be told they weren’t the right kind of Indians to be considered real ones by too many Americans taught in schools their whole lives that the only real kinds of Indians were those long-gone Thanksgiving Indians who loved the Pilgrims as if to death.

Boarding schools like Carlisle existed all over the country, and for almost a hundred years operated with the same principles as Carlisle. For decades, the Native dropout rate has been one of the highest in the country. Today it’s twice the national average.

To become not-Indian the way they meant it at Carlisle meant you killed the Indian to save the man, as was said by the man who made the school, which meant the Indian children would have to do all of the dying.


Excerpted from Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange. Copyright © 2024 Tommy Orange.

More Story
Kyle MacLachlan Keeps Himself Open Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi. Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso is a weekly series of intimate conversations with artists,...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.