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Desert Companion

Tragic History

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Amanda Skenandore
Photography by Aaron Mayes

Local novelist Amanda Skenandore explores the devastating consequences of a little-known aspect of America’s past

While author Amanda Skenandore has lived in Las Vegas for a decade, her debut novel, Between Earth and Sky, is quite remote from Sin City in time, setting, and subject. It unfolds before and just after the turn of the 20th century, amid the Native American boarding schools that most of us aren’t aware existed — institutions that stripped indigenous people of their cultures and supposedly prepared them for integration into the white world, often with horrific results. In the book, Alma Mitchell, a white woman whose father ran one of these schools, is drawn into the murder trial of Asku, a Native American student she’d known as a child.

We recently talked to Skenandore about her novel, achieving historical accuracy, cultural appropriation, and the story’s contemporary relevance.

 

So, what was the germ of the novel?

I was with my mother-in-law in Wisconsin, and we were on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation, in their casino, and they have these pictures on the wall of these Native American children in military garb. I asked her, What is this? Why are these kids dressed this way? And she told me about the Native American boarding schools. That was something I had never heard about in school. 

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How did this story develop from there? 

The idea of forbidden friendship and love was always in my mind. I was sort of formulating this story with an eye toward that. As I was researching, I watched a PBS special about the boarding schools, and they talked about (a Native American man) named Plenty Horses who had attended Carlisle, probably the most well-known of all of these government-run boarding schools. He had come back to the reservation and lived there during the Wounded Knee massacre. A couple of days after the massacre, he shot one of the Army officers and killed him. In the trial he was able to share with the courtroom that he had been at Carlisle and kind of robbed of his culture. So that when he came back home to the reservation he didn’t fit in, and he didn’t fit in the white world, either — which was the promise of the schools: Come here and you’ll just assimilate seamlessly into white culture. And that wasn’t the case.

His struggle really struck me, and I very loosely modeled one of my characters after his struggle. But the story, the teacher at the school, the characters — are all my imagining. They’re all kids as they could have been.

 

How difficult was it to achieve historical accuracy?

I was lucky there. These schools were set up in the late 1870s, and they operated in very much the same manner — with military-like drilling and marching — all the way to the 1930s. And so while there wasn’t a lot of primary source material from the early days, there were memoirs and things from those later periods. There have been a couple of good nonfiction books written about these schools, so when you start to scratch the surface, I found there to be a fair amount of research available. Of course, there are always going to be holes where you just can’t quite fill in all of the historical pieces. That’s sort of where the fiction aspect of it takes over.

 

What draws you to historical fiction as opposed to more contemporary work?

When I was in high school we read The Killer Angels, a historical fiction about the Civil War. And I just love that it was able to bring that period out in a way that a textbook or an autobiography just never could for me. That’s a great power of historical fiction.

And I think our history absolutely informs the present. It’s terribly relevant today. You can see the effects of what happened with the Native American boarding schools, for example, with the loss of so many Native American languages — they weren’t allowed to speak their languages at these schools. And so you have this generation of Americans who can’t speak their language, and now so many of them are dead and dying.

 

You must have had a sense of the modern relevance of this topic; how much did that inform the way you wrote it?

Probably a great deal. I’m not Native American, but my mother-in-law, she’s Ojibwe, my husband is Oneida. So in that way I have a close connection to their experiences. And she talks a lot about this idea of the historical trauma and how that continues to affect Native Americans today; my husband was up at Standing Rock last year. So it’s very present in my life. And I wanted to make sure that that did come through in the novel.

One of the interesting things about this period is that there were definitely people who had just terrible, terrible ulterior motives, but, for example, the character of Alma’s father, who runs the boarding school, his motives were quite altruistic. As wrong as he was, he really believed that what he was doing was the right thing for the Native American children and for the future of Native Americans. I was just drawn to that paradox of having altruistic intentions that ended having devastating consequences.

 

There’s a lot of talk these days about whether it’s permissible for people from one cultural background to write about people of another. Did that concern you? Did having Native American relatives mitigate that a little?

My connections with my relatives definitely helped make sure I was getting the perspective as close to realistic as possible, that I was getting some of those details right that we can miss if we come from one particular cultural or ethnic or gendered kind of life. That’s helped me navigate the novel and kept in my mind that I really wanted to do justice to these characters and their experiences. But that’s the great power of art — it allows me, as the author, and hopefully the reader, to step into someone else’s shoes, in the closest way that perhaps I, as a white woman, ever can, and see the world from their point of view. That’s an important function that art has for society.

Correction: This interview has been updated to correct a transcription error: the Native American man mentioned in the PBS documentary was named Plenty Horses, not 20 Horses. Desert Companion regrets the error.

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