Stealing Indians, by John Smelcer, (Leapfrog Press), 200 pages, release date 2 August, 2016, recommended by the publisher for grades six an up
John Smelcer has published over fifty books, both fiction and nonfiction—but finding a publisher for Stealing Indians was a challenge. Why? Because the topic precludes a happy ending, something generally expected in young adult fiction.
His topic is the forced removal of Native American children from their homes and their placement in residential schools. Indians are stolen in two different ways in this novel, first by their displacement, then again as the federally run schools attempt to eradicate every trace of their Indian heritage. These schools operated from the late 1800s well into the 20th Century. Many were still functioning into the 1950s; a few were still in place in the 1970s.
At the center of this novel are four friends, each from a different region and tribe. Their school, as was typical of these schools, forbids the speaking of native languages, forbids the celebration of native ceremonies, forbids all traditional practices. The punishments for breaking these rules are brutal. Students are at risk of violence and sexual assault from those running the schools and from older children. Yet the friends manage to support one another.
Stealing Indians makes for heart-breaking, but necessary, reading. Smecler’s characters are vivid and complex creations. Thanks to Smecler’s articulate, finely-tuned prose, they retain their dignity throughout the novel, as their lives narrow and grow increasingly bleak.
Smecler, son of an Alaskan Native father, has served as executive director of his tribe’s Heritage Foundation. He has worked compiling and editing Native language dictionaries and pronunciation guides. He has also conducted extensive interviews with survivors of the Indian residential school system. He knows his topic—and knows tidy, happy endings wouldn’t be appropriate. As publicity materials for Stealing Indians say, “This is a work of fiction. Every word is true.”
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