The History We Don’t Want To Hear

A Young Woman of the Flathead Tribe courtesy of the Walters Art Museum

A Young Woman of the Flathead Tribe
courtesy of the Walters Art Museum

I’ve been working hard on the third book in my Montana Romance series, In Your Arms, this August. It’s been a challenge to write (as most books are), but if there’s one thing I love about it, it’s the characters. I particularly like my heroine, Lily Singer—or Singing Bird, as she was born. Yes, the heroine of this book is Native American.

And this has led me down the rabbit hold into some very interesting, very dark chapters of the history of the United States. There were a lot of details about Native American life in the 1890s that I wanted to be sure I got right, and researching those details brought up some chilling information.

It’s amazing the pain that well-intentioned people can inflict when they don’t know what they’re dealing with or what the result will be. I knew before I started writing In Your Arms that I wanted the heroine to have been raised in the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, PA. I’m a native Pennsylvanian, so I have known about the school for years. But for those who don’t know, in a nutshell….

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was founded 1879 with the very well-intentioned mission of educating Native American children off their reservations and integrating them into society. It sounds like a great idea on paper, but in fact what it did was take children away from their families, their cultures, and everything they had known, changed their names, and spit them back out into society as people who no longer fit with the tribe that they had come from, but who were also not fully accepted by the society they had been trained for. This is what has happened to my heroine, Lily.

Flathead child, circa 1911

Flathead child, circa 1911

The sad fact is that countless children died while at the Indian School, simply because they “failed to thrive”. Many others also died of infectious diseases, not uncommon for the time period. And I’m not saying it was all bad. These children did receive a solid education and were able to go on to bright futures. But it was at the expense of their identity and sometimes against their will.

That wasn’t the only thing I discovered about the Native Americans, in Montana especially, as I did my research. Granted, I don’t have a PhD in the subject and I have only touched the surface of the story of the Native Americans. On the other hand, since so much of our traditional schooling ends the story of what happened to the Native Americans in this country after the era of cowboys and Indians was over, when westward expansion was complete and all former territories became states, a lot of what I learned might come as a shock to some people.

Most Americans are aware somewhere in the back of their mind that the Native Americans were sent to live on reservations. That’s a big fat generalization, by the way, but by and large it’s accurate. The trouble with reservations was that they meant a substantial lifestyle change from what these people had known for centuries. Tribes that had been nomadic were limited to one spot. All too often those spots were in places that the white settlers didn’t want. Many reservations were treated like prison camps with the army monitoring who went in and out and restricting the rights of people to leave.

There’s more too. One of the other plot points in In Your Arms involves an election for mayor of Cold Springs. As I started to research when women were granted the right to vote in Montana (which is a fuzzy issue all on its own) I looked into when Native Americans were given the right to vote. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Native Americans were denied the vote until 1924, and even after that it took several years for Native American women to be allowed the right to vote!

Flathead family (the Native Americans that play a part in In Your Arms are Flathead, although Lily is not)

Flathead family
(the Native Americans that play a part in In Your Arms are Flathead, although Lily is not)

The problem is that Native Americans were not considered citizens of the United States, except under special circumstances. There were some (one place I looked stated the number 60,000) who were considered citizens before all Native Americans were considered citizens. These were people who had served the US government or army as scouts, translators, or in other capacities, those who had gone to schools like the one in Carlisle, and those who had distinguished themselves somehow.

The rest were considered to be members of their tribe, not citizens of the United States. As such, they were not afforded the same rights and protections that US citizens were. Within the borders of the United States! They were not protected by law the same way everyone else was, and often the law found insidious ways to hold them down. Those who left their reservations without permission, for example, could be dragged back by the army as prisoners for small reasons. Sometimes even those who did have permission to be off the reservation were attacked and carted back.

Scary stuff! Not what you want to think about in the land of the free and the home of the brave. The saddest part is that so many of these attitudes of prejudice and indifference exist still today. My grandma has a story she tells now and then about being out west at a shop and watching as the cashier refused to serve a Native American woman until all the white people in the store had been served first. It’s a shame. It breaks my heart and gets me all fired up at the same time.

Of course, I should probably mention that I am a large part Native American myself. Cherokee, to be exact. And if you want to talk about something that really irks my taters, we could talk about the Trail of Tears. But I’ll save that story for another day. The important thing to remember is that there are things in our history that we can’t be proud of. There are dark chapters that go unnoticed. They’re there though. I hope that I do justice to the people who suffered through these things with In Your Arms.

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3 thoughts on “The History We Don’t Want To Hear

  1. My paternal grandmother, full Inupiat, died of tuberculosis. She was not allowed in the hospitals in Alaska, where she could have at least received some form of treatment. Top it off, she was the single mother of three children, all fathered by an unknown Norwegian that left her once the war was over. After her death, all three were sent to an orphanage until the siblings were adopted. I have the original paperwork – the only reason they were adopted was because, “Mrs. X needs help around the house in her advanced age, the three siblings are of working age and able bodied.” As the children of those siblings, we paid in ways many could not understand – including some very serious hatred and bigotry during school in the south.

    It hasn’t ended. I’ve heard a lot, seen a lot, when it comes to the overall attitude. I’m glad you learned so much researching, and are willing to write it. Many wouldn’t.

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