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Fort Marion Prisoners and the Trauma of Native Education by Diane Glancy

September 9, 2014

Fort Marion Prisoners and the Trauma of Native Education, by Diane Glancy.  University of Nebraska Press (2014), Paperback, 136 pages.

A poetic imagining of what it meant for Native American warriors from the American Great Plains to be imprisoned on a stone fort on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and be educated in the culture of their captors.

The factual history of the prisoners at Fort Marion is well established. In 1875, seventy-two of  Native Americans were captured on the Great Plains of the American Midwest. They were considered the most dangerous leaders of various tribes; Comanche, Apache, Kiowa, and Cheyenne and Caddo. One wife and one child accompanied the men. They were taken by train from Fort Sill in what is now Oklahoma to Fort Marion in St. Augustus, Florida. Over the next three years, they were taught to read and write English by Richard Pratt. After three years, twelve of the men had died and about 40 were allowed to return to the West. Others chose to continue their education at Hampton Institute, an institution which Pratt established to educate both Plains Indians and ex-slaves.

Diane Glancy is part Cherokee. She has spent her lifetime teaching in public schools and colleges about the tensions between Native American and European American cultures. She has published numerous books of poetry and prose relating to the topic. In this innovative book, she gives us details and perspectives we could not glean from reading traditional history–“the history that is not in history books.” She dares to explore a new way of understanding the past that is unlike the alleged objective methods of professional history. She does not claim that all history should be approached in this way, but that history is always assembling fragments. In her view, there are many valid stories to be told including many that have never been told.

For this book about the Plains Indians at Fort Marion, Glancy tells of learning all she could about her subjects from traditional historical sources. Using this information as an “anchor “or a “dock,” she has imagined what their inner landscapes could have been like. The result is not history or historical fiction as they are normally understood. Glancy moves fluidly, assembling the fragments of the stories to recreate her characters’ emotions and world view. Not bound by chronology, she often uses the pictorial language the Indians might have used as they encountered what was previously unimaginable for them. The men call the train that carries them east  “a box that walks” and their steamboat “the talking village on the water.” She tells how for them the ocean appeared to be “at war with the land.” The fear that engulfs them on the train “covers them like brush fire.” Her language is not meant to be quaint or demeaning but an example of how foreign everything was to people literally from another world.  Woven into their stories are her own journeys as a child alienated by her schooling and as an adult listening for Native American voices.

At the fort the prisoners were arranged in regimented rows and taught to speak, read and write in English. Some refused to learn the language of their captors, and Glancy explores the gains and losses of any one’s education. When the men were captured the only language they shared was sign language. Learning English could became a means of talking to each other; a tool for their survival. The prisoners were given ledger books and colored drawing pencils with which they created pictures of the events taking place around them and events from their remembered homelands. Remembering the plains through pictures was a means of survival. The pictures were sold to the tourists who came to view the Indians. Examples of their drawings appear on the book’s cover and within its text. In addition, a sculptor came to the fort and made plaster life casts of prisoners’ heads and shoulders. As Glancy writes the process was terrible for them.  Photographs to the casts are also included, adding spooky images for current readers.

The Nebraska University Press, which published this book is to be praised for promoting history written in a variety of innovative ways. Glancy’s book is the fifth such book that I have read and reviewed in the past year and the one furthest from traditional histories that scholars have long written primarily for each other. Some of the new books contain traditionally-documented description and analysis alongside more personal accounts of the author’s interaction with material and people being studied. Others focus on an individual as a prism for understanding larger historical phenomena. Not all are written by people who are professional historians. All focus away from what leaders do and onto those invisible to traditional historians. Such books are important in sharing what we know of the past with a wide, non-academic audience.

I strongly recommend this book to everyone, not simply those curious about its subject. Also check out my reviews of other innovative histories that the University of Nebraska Press has recently published

Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman’s Life on Oyster Bay, by Llyn De Dannon.

A Lenape among the Quakers: The Life of Hannah Freeman, by Dawn Marsh.

Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West, Sarah Alisabeth Fox.

A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indian Children in the Post-War World, by Margaret Jacobs. (Review coming soon.)




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