Babies born on the Blackfeet reservation just before, during and after World War II, more or less “Boomers,” became a cohort that produced a particular kind of Indian, not so much defined by blood quantum as by aspiration. Maybe it was because of their fathers being soldiers (though not all of them were) or because for economic reasons they moved around off the reservation, but mostly it was because they had the idea that if they got “educations,” they would have good lives. And society agreed with them, supported that, egged them on until they had Doctor of Education degrees and found jobs for them as curriculum specialists or counselors or even as writers. They tended not to be classroom teachers nor principals.
This observation leads me to a self-published book by Murton McCluskey: “The McCluskey Boys’ Adventures in an Indian Boarding School.” You can order it on Amazon. It’s the most straightforward account that I’ve read: warts, laughs and lumps on heads. Now I finally know what happened to Terry Whitwright’s eye in boyhood. It didn’t hold him back much -- he went to Harvard and raised some formidably intelligent daughters. This cohort has begun to “go on ahead,” so it’s a good thing for McCluskey to tell us how it was.
The McCluskey boys were orphans in a loose network of relatives spread over several tribes and the boarding school is the one I have known, Blackfeet Boarding School just outside Browning a few miles. Technically it was only a dorm since the kids attended classes in Browning. For high school the boys finagled themselves into Fort Totten Indian School in North Dakota, Sioux country, but they were enrolled with the Blackfeet. I’m three years younger than Murt, but I remember much of what he tells about from when I came in 1961, one of those totally unprepared outsider school teachers.
Besides Terry Whitwright, I would name Darrell Kipp, James Kipp, Bill Kennedy, Mary Lynn Lukin, Mary McKay Johnson, Robey Clark. JR Clark and JoAnn Johnson and others . Quiet, self-contained, not political, protective, bookish. Roughly the generation of James Welch, Jr. (my generation as well) but not James Welch Sr. (who was Bob Scriver’s classmate). They were a sort of Peace Corps in their homeland, quietly doing things for the common good. Easy to misunderstand or even not notice, but thoroughly Indian in a down-home, familiar, family-network way.
Murt tells about using Fitch hair oil to achieve a slicked down ducktail. He explains how to use a copper wire loop to snag trout out of Cut Bank Creek. Or maybe bending the wire into a little rodeo cowboy that could ride the side of a hand. There is the constant search for food that is natural to every boy when he grows an inch a day. He hints at the despair over a certain unmanageable appendage common to all boys. I mean pride.
Where he is most eloquent is in explaining the pecking order in such a place. Worse than roosters, the boys were preoccupied with who was toughest and enforced their opinions in a way we would all consider bullying today. That is, fist-fighting, nicknames, control over the food supply (a “head boy” sat at each table at meals to keep order), and a constant trafficking in marbles -- all with an eye peeled to see what the girls thought about it. The constant invention of new exploits like sledding on the upside-down hoods off old cars (there went Terry’s eye) or walking a 2” wide ledge around one of the old brick Victorian buildings -- a ledge that was only two feet off the ground on one side, but got higher as the ground fell away on the other sides until it was four or five feet up. Most of the boys could squiggle along the low side, but only one could make it around all four sides.
Pratt and his slogans (“Kill the Indian, save the man”) fall by the wayside as it becomes clear that boys are everywhere the same and it’s a wonder that any of them survive at all. Family is of enormous survival value, both if they manage to drop off goodies now and then or can provide a slightly better grade of clothing, and if they have strong reputations that will cause enemies to think twice before doing real damage.
Some versions of boarding school days either demonize the teachers or make them into saints with the power to inspire. But Murt makes it clear (and I think this is quite true) that the adults barely mattered to the boys, which is one of the reasons it was so hard to discipline them. The one strong exception is the cook. A cook at a boarding school must be obeyed even while one is sitting at the table eating. Too much disorder and out she comes brandishing a ladle. I’ve seen it myself!
Today’s top Indian students are very different than they were in the Fifties and Sixties and it is partly due to these transitional people who have made it their business to pull the next generation along. Many of these graduating kids are brilliant and bold, not so much political, very technological. The writers among them are quiet, watching, but any videographers who can get to some money are on YouTube if you look.
Murt McCluskey’s cohort is nothing like the kind of Indian education “expert” who is NOT Indian and has all sorts of theories about how they should be taught, usually arcane notions about some minor ability. Murt just is what he is. I’ve never met him, but he’s always quietly been there. His military service was as a Hospital Corpsman and Operating Room Technician, so the GI Bill must have helped put him through college to the Doctor of Education degree from the North Dakota Center of Teaching and Learning. His age group served in the Korean War, but I don’t know whether he went overseas.
One of the major differences between traditional white and traditional Indian standards is that the latter considers what is best for the tribe rather than the individual. This is also one of the differences between civilian and military thinking -- the latter is aiming to do what is best for the group. Murt’s life, a good and honorable one, makes a major contribution to the small group of people his age who dedicated their lives to their people and to the many Native American individuals who followed the trail they made in order to become effectively self-determined high achievers. When the two goals merge, everyone everywhere benefits.
Murt says that at boarding school the criticism by kids included “He’s trying to act too good.” But they sometimes made an offer: “I’ll take up for you.” Good thing he only heard the second one.