Reporter's Notebook: Finding That My Ancestor Taught in an Indian Boarding School
Editor’s Note: This story is the first in a three-part series that explores the history of the federal Indian school on the Western side of the Navajo Nation in Arizona — and a man who taught there and in a nearby day school for more than two decades.
One Sunday last May, I logged into a popular genealogical site to research my family tree. Specifically, I wanted to know more about my mother’s grandfather, John A. Keirn, who had left his wife and three children and moved out West.
Searching his name in newspaper archives, I was shocked to find a small notice in the August 5, 1927, issue of Arizona’s Coconino Times newspaper: Keirn had been the principal of the Western Navajo Indian boarding school in Tuba City, Arizona.
Keirn was my ancestor by marriage, not by blood; but that did not make him any less family. His son, my step-grandfather, had been an important influence growing up. I felt embarrassed, almost betrayed, having researched and written about some of the horrors perpetrated at schools like this one.
And then I remembered hearing he had a bad temper. That bothered me more than anything else. I wondered how many children had felt its sting.
I had to know more.
Digging through archives
Census records show Keirn, the son of a farmer, moved from Illinois to Omaha, Nebraska, in the early 1890s to teach school. There, he met his future wife, fellow teacher Clara Rood. They married in 1896 and eight years later moved to rural Elbert County, Colorado, where Clara got a job teaching.
At the time, schools in rural counties were makeshift and scattered: Clara rode on horseback from one school to another. In 1907, she was elected president of her school district and in 1908, promoted to county superintendent of schools.
But her husband was not so lucky. He drifted from one job to another — working at the local mercantile store or on a railroad bridge gang.
In November 1912, Clara was up for reelection and nearly lost over public charges of nepotism: She had opened the county’s first high school and appointed her husband as its sole teacher. He was earning $100 a month — a generous salary — to teach only two students.
Voters also questioned why the couple’s oldest daughter had been sent away to school in Omaha instead of attending one of the schools that Clara supervised.
Ten days after the allegations surfaced, the Elbert County Tribune reported that John Keirn had left Colorado for Arizona.
Vocation, escape or last resort?
It is hard to imagine what motivated my great-grandfather to leave a wife and three children — the youngest, my step-grandfather, only a boy of 7 — to join the Indian service.
Denver was only 80 kilometers (50 miles) away and by 1912 had a well-established school system.
It is possible that Keirn could not meet Denver’s hiring requirements: A 1928 report of conditions on Indian reservations — a so-called Meriam Report — noted that the government regularly hired teachers whose credentials would not be accepted by any good public school system.
“… there is even some evidence that the Indian Service is receiving teachers who have been forced out of the schools of their own states because they could not meet the raised standards of those state,” investigators said.
Historian David Wallace Adams, author of “Education for Extinction,” writes that some teachers were driven by “a sense of Christian responsibility to save a vanishing race from extinction.”
In her 1954 memoir “Red Moon Called Me,” Gertrude Golden, a former teacher in the Indian Service, noted that when Native American children were fortunate enough to have good teachers, “inestimable good was accomplished.”
“But it happened all too frequently that the teacher was in the work only for money and adventure and acted upon the principle that ‘anything is good enough for a lousy Indian,’” she wrote.
Another possibility is that Keirn was looking to leave his marriage.
Whatever his motive, he would have seen one of the job notices that the U.S. Civil Service Commission periodically published in regional newspapers.
He would have had to pass a civil service examination requiring him to write neatly, spell correctly, draw a simple picture and write brief essays on questions in basic algebra, geography, history, physiology and hygiene, nature study and American literature. The U.S. Civil Service Commission (CSC) published sample questions such as:
“Compare Ohio and Cuba as to climate, physical features, vegetation, leading industries, character of inhabitants, form of government, etc.”
“Discuss the peculiarities, characteristics, habits, etc., of the bobolink [a songbird], including food, mode of nesting and rearing young, etc.”
“A field is in the form of an isosceles triangle. The two sides are 26 rods each and the base is 20 rods. What is the altitude?”
The CSC cautioned applicants: “The object of the schools is to prepare the Indian youth for the duties, privileges and responsibilities of American citizenship by training them in the industrial arts and developing their moral and intellectual faculties ...“The conditions of life at these schools differ from ordinary school or home life … There is little opportunity for recreation or social pleasure."
NOTE: Part Two of this series will explore student life at the Tuba City Boarding School.
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What Mattel Got Right — and Wrong — in Designing the Wilma Mankiller Barbie
Members of the Cherokee Nation were delighted last month when the Mattel toy company released a special edition Barbie honoring the tribe’s first female principal chief, women’s advocate Wilma Mankiller.
“She truly exemplifies leadership, culture and equality and we applaud Mattel for commemorating her in the ‘Barbie Inspiring Women Series,’” Cherokee principal chief Chuck Hoskin said in a statement.
Not long after the doll was shipped, Cherokee buyers began complaining that Mattel had not done its homework.
Some said the doll’s skin tone was too dark, implying an effort to make the doll look more “Indian.”
The Cherokee have always been well-known for their traditional basketry styles, but the doll's basket is patterned after traditional English baskets.
She wears a tear dress (pronounced tare), the official dress of Cherokee Nation women, but she is not wearing any jewelry.
“Chief Mankiller was well known for her tribal necklaces,” Cherokee researcher David Cornsilk told VOA via Facebook. “And in addition to being the first female chief of a major U.S. tribe and first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation, she was the first woman to wear our traditional gorget necklace, a powerful symbol of leadership.”
The gorget is a crescent-shaped metal plate that the British military gifted to 18th Century tribal chiefs as a reward for loyalty and a symbol of authority. They are still worn by Cherokee chiefs today.
Missing, too, Cornsilk and others say, are the traditional pucker-toe moccasins, always worn with official dress.
Perhaps the most glaring error is on the doll’s package, which features the Great Seal of the Cherokee Nation.
“The word ‘Cherokee’ should be ᏣᎳᎩ but is written as ᏣᏔᎩ,” Cornsilk said.
Which, translated, reads: “The Chicken Nation.”
A Google search shows the mistake may have come from an image posted on Wikipedia that was created in 2013 by a now-retired contributor. It, too, reads, “Chicken.”
A note beneath the faulty seal challenges its “factual accuracy.”
Mattel spokesperson Devin Tucker told the Associated Press that the company is aware of the problem and is “discussing options.”
Mankiller’s daughter corrects the record
Mankiller’s only surviving child, Felicia Olaya, was disappointed that she was left out of the Barbie design process, just as she says she was with a 25-cent coin the U.S. Mint released in 2022.
“Just like when the quarter came out, neither my sister, who was living at that time, nor I knew anything about it,” she told VOA. “We found out about it secondhand or on social media.”
“And then this happens. And there've been a few other small events that have happened over the years that we didn't know about until they were done,” she added.
Mattel says it worked with Mankiller's husband, Charlie Soap, and his production partner Kristina Kiehl. Neither Soap nor Kiehl responded to messages left by the AP.
Olaya is less critical of the doll itself than some others in the Cherokee Nation.
“It's a doll. It’s not supposed to be an exact portrait of my mom,” she said.
She would change the doll's eye color, something not easily detectable in photos.
“Her eyes weren’t brown. They were hazel,” she said. “And yes, my mom was a jewelry person. She wore clay or cornseed bead necklaces a lot, so, I would have added those.”
She does credit Mattel with getting it right on the shoes.
“Some people say she should have been wearing pucker moccasins. Well, my mom never wore them,” Olaya said, explaining that Mankiller suffered from chronic foot pain after a near-fatal car accident in 1979.
“She either wore flip flops or the kind of shoes the doll is wearing, like diabetics’ shoes.”
Barbie Doll Honoring Cherokee Nation Leader Met With Mixed Emotions
An iconic chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller, inspired countless Native American children as a powerful but humble leader who expanded early education and rural health care.
Her reach is now broadening with a quintessential American honor: a Barbie doll in the late Mankiller's likeness as part of toymaker Mattel's "Inspiring Women" series.
A public ceremony honoring Mankiller's legacy is set for Tuesday in Tahlequah in northeast Oklahoma, where the Cherokee Nation is headquartered.
Mankiller was the nation's first female principal chief, leading the tribe for a decade until 1995. She focused on improving social conditions through consensus and on restoring pride in Native heritage. She met with three U.S. presidents and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.
She also met snide remarks about her surname — a military title — with humor, often delivering a straight-faced response: "Mankiller is actually a well-earned nickname." She died in 2010.
The tribe's current leader, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., applauded Mattel for commemorating Mankiller.
"When Native girls see it, they can achieve it, and Wilma Mankiller has shown countless young women to be fearless and speak up for Indigenous and human rights," Hoskin said in a statement. "Wilma Mankiller is a champion for the Cherokee Nation, for Indian Country, and even my own daughter."
Mankiller, whose likeness is on a U.S. quarter issued in 2021, is the second Native American woman honored with a Barbie doll. Famed aviator Bessie Coleman, who was of Black and Cherokee ancestry, was depicted earlier this year.
Other dolls in the series include Maya Angelou, Ida B. Wells, Jane Goodall and Madam C.J. Walker.
The rollout of the Mankiller Barbie doll, wearing a ribbon skirt, black shoes and carrying a woven basket, has been met with conflicting reactions.
Many say the doll is a fitting tribute for a remarkable leader who faced conflict head-on and helped the tribe triple its enrollment, double its employment and build new health centers and children's programs.
Still, some Cherokee women are critical, saying Mattel overlooked problematic details on the doll and the packaging.
"Mixed emotions shared by me and many other Cherokee women who have now purchased the product revolve around whether a Wilma Barbie captures her legacy, her physical features and the importance of centering Cherokee women in decision making," Stacy Leeds, the law school dean at Arizona State University and a former Cherokee Nation Supreme Court justice, told The Associated Press in an email.
Regina Thompson, a Cherokee basket weaver who grew up near Tahlequah, doesn't think the doll looks like Mankiller. Mattel should have considered traditional pucker toe moccasins, instead of black shoes, and included symbols on the basket that Cherokees use to tell a story, she said.
"Wilma's name is the only thing Cherokee on that box," Thompson said. "Nothing about that doll is Wilma, nothing."
The Cherokee language symbols on the packaging also are wrong, she noted. Two symbols look similar, and the one used translates to "chicken," rather than "Cherokee."
Mattel spokesperson Devin Tucker said the company is aware of the problem with the syllabary and is "discussing options." The company worked with Mankiller's estate, which is led by her husband, Charlie Soap, and her friend Kristina Kiehl, on the creation of the doll. Soap and Kiehl did not respond to messages left by the AP.
Mattel did not consult with the Cherokee Nation on the doll.
"Regrettably, the Mattel company did not work directly with the tribal government's design and communications team to secure the official seal or verify it," the tribe said in a statement. "The printing mistake itself does not diminish what it means for the Cherokee people to see this tribute to Wilma and who she was and what she stood for."
Several Cherokees also criticized Mattel for not consulting with Mankiller's only surviving child, Felicia Olaya, who said she was unaware of the doll until about a week before its public launch.
"I have no issues with the doll. I have no issues with honoring my mom in different ways," said Olaya, who acknowledged she and Soap, her stepfather, are estranged. "The issue is that no one informed me, no one told me. I didn't know it was coming."
Olaya also wonders how her mother would feel about being honored with a Barbie doll.
"I heard her once on the phone saying, 'I'm not Princess Diana, nor am I Barbie,'" Olaya recalled. "I think she probably would have been a little conflicted on that, because my mom was very humble. She wasn't the type of person who had her honorary degrees or awards plastered all over the wall. They were in tubs in her pole barn."
"I'm not sure how she would feel about this," Olaya said.
Still, Olaya said she hopes to buy some of the dolls for her grandchildren and is always grateful for people to learn about her mother's legacy.
"I have a warm feeling about the thought of my granddaughters playing with a Wilma Mankiller Barbie," she said.
Native American News Roundup Nov. 26 - Dec. 2, 2023
Calculating the wage gap for Native American and Native Hawaiian women
The last day of Native American Heritage Month in the United States was also Native Women’s Equal Pay Day, set aside to highlight that Native American and Alaska Native (NA/AN) women working full time, year-round, earn only about 55 cents for every dollar paid to non-Hispanic white men. Those who work part-time or part-year earn an average of 59 cents on the dollar.
These numbers vary by region. The National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF) reports that on average, a Yup’ik woman in Alaska earns only 42 cents on the dollar. Considering that nearly two-thirds of Indigenous women are the sole breadwinners in their households and that more than four out of five Indigenous women experience violence, stalking or sexual assault in their lifetimes, these numbers are particularly alarming.
NPWF calculates that if these wage gaps were to close for a single year, the average Native woman could save enough money to buy another 32 months of food for her family, pay 19 more months in rent, and pay nearly three years of public university tuition and fees.
Controversial hockey helmet fetches high bid at auction
On the National Hockey League’s Native American Heritage Day last Friday, Minnesota Wild hockey goalie Marc-Andre Fleury took to the ice in warmups wearing a mask he commissioned to honor his wife, who is said to be of Indigenous Canadian heritage.
He wore the mask despite threats of an NHL fine. Last summer, the NHL banned so-called “pride jerseys” that visibly recognize LGBTQ+ communities.
Fleury’s mask was designed by Mdewakanton Dakota artist Cole Redhorse Taylor, a member of the Prairie Island Indian Community or PIIC in Minnesota and a descendant of Chief Little Crow.
The helmet includes images of plants and flowers indigenous to Minnesota, the names of Fleury’s children, a quote from his father and the Dakota phrase Mni Sota Makoce, “land where the waters reflect the clouds,” from which the state took its name.
The team put the mask up for auction in support of the Minnesota Wild Foundation and the American Indian Family Center in the city of St. Paul. It sold for a whopping $75,100.
Call-in show highlights traditional Indigenous winter homebuilding
This week’s Native America Calling featured a discussion about traditional Indigenous winter housing, built from local resources including wood, snow, mud and straw.
The daily live call-in program available on U.S. and Canadian public radio stations and online included Jesse Jackson, an educator from the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians in Oregon, explaining to host Shawn Spruce (Laguna Pueblo) that because of its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, Oregon winters were wet, and people needed homes which would not only keep them warm but also dry. The answer was to use rot-resistant cedar planks on sites with good drainage.
Solomon Awa (Inupiat) is the Mayor of Iqaluit, the only city in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. He described the challenges of building igloos, domed houses built from blocks of packed snow.
While few Arctic peoples live in igloos anymore, some still construct them while out on hunting trips or when snowmobiles break down and leave them stranded.
“You don't have a blueprint, but make it for the size of your people,” Awa said. “There was the big one that we did not long ago…[it] was about 50 feet diameter probably, almost two-story high.”
To hear more guests talk about their winter building traditions, listen to the full broadcast here: https://www.nativeamericacalling.com/tuesday-november-28-2023-igloos-and-traditional-winter-homes/
The video (below), produced in 2012 by the Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq/Kitikmeot Heritage Society in Nunavut, Canada, shows a group of Inuinnait from the Central Canadian Arctic building an igloo.
Busting Myths About the First Thanksgiving
All About America explores American culture, politics, trends, history, ideals and places of interest.
Every year, on the fourth Thursday in November, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. It's a commemoration of the 1621 harvest feast when the colonists, who came from England, shared a friendly meal with the land's Indigenous people.
In Plymouth, Massachusetts, site of the first Thanksgiving, historians and others try to separate fact from fiction surrounding the legend that grew out of that initial celebratory feast that took place more than 400 years ago.
"The problem with it is that there are so many stereotypes and so much misinformation that's bundled into that story," says Paula Peters, a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe whose ancestors are believed to have been at the first Thanksgiving. "It's a story that really marginalizes the Wampanoag history."
The pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. By their second winter, they were struggling, until the Indigenous people taught them how to plant crops and live off the land.
"When we think about the pilgrims coming over, we forget about the aspect of the Wampanoag people helping them survive that winter, or even navigate this land, or navigate the waters, which is very important," says Wampanoag Tribe member Malissa Costa, who oversees the Native American-themed exhibit at the Plimoth Patuxet Museums.
The living history museum, located a few kilometers from the site of the first Thanksgiving, also features a 17th-century English village. Actors dress up as pilgrims to depict the colonists' way of life, while Thanksgiving traditions are recreated for visitors.
"What the pilgrims are celebrating is literally that they are going to have food. They are not going to starve in the coming year," says Malka Benjamin, director for colonial interpretation and training at the Plimoth Patuxet Museums. "And so, guests are going to be able to help with cooking preparations for the celebration. They might get pulled into a game, a sport ... there's going to be musket firing demonstrations."
It was the sounds of guns going off that prompted Native Americans to investigate, which is how her Wampanoag ancestors came to be at the first Thanksgiving, according to Peters.
"At some point, they decided, 'Oh, this isn't a threat. They're just celebrating their harvest.' And guess what? We're all here now, so, we're all going to eat," says Peters, who used to work at the Plimouth Patuxet Museums.
That part of the story is disputed by Peters' former colleague, Richard Pickering, chief historian at the living history museum, who says that theory was discussed, but then discarded, by the museum.
The conflicting viewpoints underscore the reality that no one really knows exactly what happened at the first Thanksgiving. There are almost no firsthand accounts of the event, but there are references to a "special celebration" of the successful harvest, which included Wampanoag leader Massasoit and about 90 of his people, which included women, according to Pickering.
"For three days, we entertained and feasted," pilgrim Edward Winslow wrote in a letter to a friend in 1621. Winslow attended the harvest celebration.
"Ultimately, what happens in Plymouth in the fall of 1621 is the highest level of diplomacy," says Pickering, adding that the shared meal was a product of the alliance between the newcomers and the Native people.
"It is their willingness to show them their ways that saves the English that second year. So, we should not be projecting any kind of distrust, animus, on that event. But we should recognize that their children and their grandchildren could not sustain it," he said.
About 90% of the Native population was eventually wiped out by diseases that came with the Europeans. And the respect the pilgrims initially showed the Native people eventually gave way to disdain and dehumanization.
"As the English population grows from those 52 English men, women and children that survived the first winter to the 25,000 or more that are here 20 years later, Native people are seen as being in the way of the commodities that the English want," Pickering says. "They want their land. They want them off that land. And so, you see a changing attitude from one of admiration to one of stereotyping and derision. And it's that kind of thought that enables them to want to push them off the land with no sense of guilt."
The pilgrims originally came to America in search of religious freedom but apparently not for all, says Peters.
"They sacrificed so much for religious freedom, but they didn't offer that same grace to the Indigenous people who lived here to begin with," she says.
Today, Americans often eat traditional Thanksgiving foods that include turkey, stuffing, sweet and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. As to what was at the original three-day feast, the museum has a display of the foods that were probably eaten at the 1621 meal.
"You have roast turkey, roast goose, and you'll see all of the classic corn, beans and squash. There's maize, beans and squash," says Pickering, pointing out the foods in a display case. "And also, the standing dish of New England, stewed pumpkin, mussels, to represent all the shellfish that was eaten."
It's believed the Wampanoag brought deer they'd hunted.
"And there probably would be some cranberries, because that was the fruit of the season," Peters says.
Into the future
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has begun initial proceedings to establish their own living history museum.
The town of Mashpee, located about 43 kilometers from Plymouth, is negotiating the potential transfer of three parcels of land to the tribe for a traditional Wampanoag village and living history museum.
Costa, who oversees the similar effort at the Plimoth Patuxet Museums, is keen for visitors to know that Native Americans shouldn't be relegated to the past.
"The main thing I want them to learn is that Wampanoag people are still here," Costa says. "I want them to think of Wampanoag people as not just in the past — or even Indigenous people as in the past — but as in the present still making their way, still teaching the public."
Native Americans Regard Thanksgiving With Mixed Emotions
Each year on the last Thursday of November, families in the United States gather to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was originally intended as a day of prayer and gratitude — not just for good harvests but for a leader's good health or success in battle.
Today, the holiday revolves around a sentimentalized retelling of the 1620 landing of Puritan refugees at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the harvest feast they shared with local Wampanoags.
That version omits the fact that 17 years later, Puritans would set fire to a fortified Pequot village, burning men, women and children alive.
Today, Native Americans regard Thanksgiving with mixed emotions.
"Native Americans eat and watch football just like other Americans," said Shawna Shale, a Quinault woman living in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. "But for some, it is a reminder of a dark past that is hard to celebrate."
She admits that she often wonders how differently life would have turned out if the Wampanoag tribe decided not to ally itself with the Plymouth pilgrims.
Many Native Americans never heard of Thanksgiving until they were sent to boarding school.
"[I am] a second-generation turkey eater, after my parents," said artist Roberta Begay, a Diné (Navajo) citizen living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "It's a boarding school tradition. I never understood it as anything other than a time for a family gathering, eating and helping my grandparents by hauling water or going out for firewood."
Phoenix, Arizona, resident Reva Stewart, also Diné, experienced her first Thanksgiving in a Christian boarding school. She was 4 years old.
"We were given Thanksgiving dinner with the idea that we should be grateful that we were saved," she said. "Today, my family celebrates being together as a family, and we teach our children the traditional ways and not the colonizers' [version] of what happened in the past."
A sad anniversary
Amanda Takes War Bonnet is an Oglala Lakota journalist working as a public education specialist with a South Dakota nonprofit group devoted to ending violence against Indigenous women.
"My mother would always have a nice meal on Thanksgiving, with pies and everything homemade," she recalls. "It also meant hunting season had started, so the meal was held after the guys [came back from] hunting."
Thanksgiving now holds little meaning for her.
"Some years back, my son brought this huge turkey from his work to share with family. I didn't estimate the cooking time right, so we had to start the meal without it," she said.
"My son died in front of us from a heart attack," she said. "That big bird dried up in the oven, forgotten."
She never roasted another turkey after that.
"Maybe someday, we will heal, but for now, 'Turkey Day' is just a great holiday to not work and relax with a prime rib roast."
'A golden opportunity'
Oglala Lakota journalist James Giago Davies grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota, where churches and charity groups gave out free turkeys and all the "fixings."
"We were a poor Native family, struggling to survive," he said. "Thanksgiving was a golden opportunity to get extra food and have a good meal. We never thought of it beyond that immediate pressing reality, and I don't know of any families from my 'rez' who did. Maybe it is different now."
David Cornsilk, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, grew up in a traditional household where Thanksgiving was never celebrated.
"My dad opposed it, saying there was nothing Indian people had to celebrate in America," Cornsilk said. "But he never talked about history. It was not until high school that I learned the truth about Indigenous history and then only because I had become a voracious reader of history."
Years later, Cornsilk married into a Cherokee family he describes as the "polar opposite."
"Where we were traditional, they were Christian. Where we rejected Thanksgiving, they embraced it and had a huge feast with a large family gathering," he said.
It is a tradition he has passed on to his children and grandchildren.
"The difference will be that my children and grandchildren know their history," he said. "We give thanks for our blessings and share our bounty in a land we love with the people we love."
Lynn Eagle Feather, a Sicangu Lakota living in Denver, Colorado, says she lost her son to police violence in July 2015 and has been seeking justice ever since.
"Thanksgiving?" she asks. "You mean 'Takesgiving.'"
She plans to spend the holiday demonstrating outside of a Denver hospital where staff cut off the waist-length hair of 65-year-old Oglala Lakota elder Arthur Janis, without his or his family's permission, while he was undergoing medical treatment.
"This is Native American Heritage Month," Eagle Feather said, "and our people are still suffering."