Faking It in the School for Tricksters

School for Tricksters: A Novel in Stories
By Chris Gavaler
(SMU Press, $23.95)

Amazon Link: http://amzn.to/fjgemh

Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School remains a controversial chapter in U.S. history, more than 90 years after the school was shut down and converted to a military hospital. Later, it became the site of the U.S. Army’s War College.

The Carlisle campus is the central location in author and playwright Chris Gavaler’s engaging new novel, School for Tricksters, set in the early 1900s. The book was published recently by Dallas-based Southern Methodist University (SMU) Press.

Between 1879 and 1918, nearly 12,000 Native American children from more than a hundred tribes were sent to Carlisle for “education.” The campus followed strict military rules, and its administrators and teachers were supposed to try to strip away Native American cultures, customs, languages and religions. Students took Caucasian names and followed customs and religions of white Americans. They wore contemporary clothing when not wearing Carlisle uniforms.

Carlisle soon became the model for other Indian boarding schools sponsored by the U.S. government. The schools also became places where orphanages and parents sometimes dumped children who, in reality, had little or no tribal blood. This is the circumstance for several characters in School for Tricksters.

“You know how much white trash we got in here?” the school’s head disciplinarian, Mr. Henderson, asks Sylvester Long, a new arrival from North Carolina, just after Sylvester gives him a fake Cherokee name instead of his real name. “Kids with barely any Indian blood. Trying to steal an education from the government.”

Henderson, in Gavaler’s tale, is unaware that Sylvester has white and African-American relatives, as well as Native American blood, and is the son of a black janitor. In the early 1900s, having any black heritage at all is grounds for immediate expulsion from Carlisle.

Another new student, Iva Miller, arrives from the Oklahoma Territory believing she is part Cherokee or possibly Shawnee, whatever her father told the orphanage when he abandoned her. In truth, she has no Indian roots.

School for Tricksters becomes an engrossing coming-of-age story as Sylvester and Iva forge new identities built on falsehoods, while others around them also try to build new lives or maintain careers, sometimes with help from lies, deceptions or corruption. One of the book’s underlying themes is that we are all tricksters to some degree, at some point in our lives.

Significantly, the book’s main characters are real people used fictionally. Along with Sylvester and Iva, they include: Jim Thorpe, Carlisle’s stellar Sac and Fox football player who won gold medals at the 1912 Olympics; William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, a Carlisle athlete of questioned heritage who achieved college and professional gridiron coaching greatness; Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, Carlisle’s athletic coach who became a national sports icon; and Marianne Moore, a Carlisle typing teacher who became one of America’s leading poets.

Chris Gavaler’s fiction is drawn from extensive factual research and interviews. Also, each chapter is a separate short story that provides different perspectives of key characters as they adjust to Carlisle and Caucasian-dominated culture.

The real Iva Miller became Jim Thorpe’s first wife while he was a major-league baseball player. The real Sylvester Long achieved fame as a journalist, author and actor known as “Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance.” His tribal claims, however, eventually were disproved, and his 1932 death was ruled suicide.

Despite its underlying grimness, School for Tricksters is refreshingly unusual fiction. It also is another stark reminder of how Native Americans have been treated, feted, mistreated and exploited.

Si Dunn

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