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Michael Taylor

Returning Home: Diné Creative Works from the Intermountain Indian School

Returning Home: Diné Creative Works from the Intermountain Indian School

The University of Arizona Press, 2021

Returning Home features and contextualizes the creative works of Diné (Navajo) boarding school students at the Intermountain Indian School, which was the largest federal Indian boarding school between 1950 and 1984. Diné student art and poetry reveal ways that boarding school students sustained and contributed to Indigenous cultures and communities despite assimilationist agendas and pressures.

This book works to recover the lived experiences of Native American boarding school students through creative works, student interviews, and scholarly collaboration. It shows the complex agency and ability of Indigenous youth to maintain their Diné culture within the colonial spaces that were designed to alienate them from their communities and customs. Returning Home provides a view into the students’ experiences and their connections to Diné community and land. Despite the initial Intermountain Indian School agenda to send Diné students away and permanently relocate them elsewhere, Diné student artists and writers returned home through their creative works by evoking senses of Diné Bikéyah and the kinship that defined home for them.

Returning Home uses archival materials housed at Utah State University, as well as material donated by surviving Intermountain Indian School students and teachers throughout Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Artwork, poems, and other creative materials show a longing for cultural connection and demonstrate cultural resilience. This work was shared with surviving Intermountain Indian School students and their communities in and around the Navajo Nation in the form of a traveling museum exhibit, and now it is available in this thoughtfully crafted volume. By bringing together the archived student arts and writings with the voices of living communities, Returning Home traces, recontextualizes, reconnects, and returns the embodiment and perpetuation of Intermountain Indian School students’ everyday acts of resurgence.

Faculty Book Lunch Review by Makayla Steiner

The structure of Returning Home: Diné Creative Works from the Intermountain Indian School, a collaborative project spearheaded by Mike Taylor, Farina King, and James R. Swensen, initially appears typical of the scholarly monograph – an introduction, six chapters that cover themes and topics pertinent to the area of study, a conclusion, an appendix, notes, bibliography, index – but the content and organization within that structure prove more ambitious and more compelling than one might anticipate. In addition to providing a brief history of the Intermountain Indian School, the introduction introduces readers to two of Intermountain’s most gifted students: the artist, Jesse Holiday, and the poet, Henry Tinhorn. In the first two chapters, readers are presented with the histories of Intermountain’s creative arts programs, and each of the following four chapters are primarily composed of poems, stories, drawings, paintings, and other artistic endeavors produced by the students who attended the school. Mike’s contributions to this project are substantial; in addition to writing the first chapter, titled, “Writing in Beauty”: A History of Intermountain’s Language Arts Program”, Mike was responsible for contributing half of the section headings, coordinating translation, and finding and curating the poetry collection – which was clearly a significant project all on its own.

The artwork discussed in chapter two, the vignettes in chapter four, the photographs and sketches that pepper the pages of the book are lovely, inspiring, and emotional, but it is the poetry that I think really sets this book apart. For it is in the poetry that we hear the voices of those who not only, as Terence Wride writes in the appendix, “speak to the harsh realities of the boarding school experience . . . convey profound homesickness, [express] yearning for parents and relatives . . . reservation homes and desert landscapes, and intense grief from the inability to participate in cultural ceremonies and traditions”, but who also “expressed hope for their futures, teenage love, joy in friendships . . . [and who] directly condemned and rejected Intermountain’s assimilatory objectives by celebrating their Indigenous identities and expressing commitment to cultural traditions” (392-393).

Not all of the poems are equally sophisticated, but I was surprised at how many of them engaged topics and produced rhythms similar to something we might read in a collection by Joy Harjo or Simon Ortiz. Consider, for example, Anna Mae Nalgot’s poem, written in 1971:

Medicine Man’s Prayer

Standing on the hill, looking toward

the setting sun, with the wind slowly blowing

Spread the corn pollen in all four directions

He slowly began his prayer, hands reaching

up. . . .

“Oh Father whose voice I hear in the wind

And whose breath gives life to all the world

Hear me!

I am a man before you, one of your many children

I am small and weak

I need your strength and wisdom.

Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes behold

The purple and red sunset

My ears sharp to hear your voice

Make me wise so that I may know the things

You taught my people, though you have

Hidden in every leaf and

I seek strength, Father—not to be superior

To my brother, but to be able to fight my

Greatest enemy—myself.

Make me ever ready to come to you with

Clean hands and a straight eye so that when

Life ends, my spirit

May come to you without shame. . . .

These lines, written by a teenager in 1971 to these lines, demonstrate the same wisdom – if not quite the same expert technique—we see in this poem, written by the current poet laureate of the United States (Joy Harjo):

Eagle Poem

To pray you open your whole self

To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon

To one whole voice that is you.

And know there is more

That you can’t see, can’t hear;

Can’t know except in moments

Steadily growing, and in languages

That aren’t always sound but other

Circles of motion.

Like eagle that Sunday morning

Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky

In wind, swept our hearts clean

With sacred wings.

We see you, see ourselves and know

That we must take the utmost care

And kindness in all things.

Breathe in, knowing we are made of

All this, and breathe, knowing

We are truly blessed because we

Were born, and die soon within a

True circle of motion,

Like eagle rounding out the morning

Inside us.

We pray that it will be done

In beauty.

In beauty.

Part of the creative talent in poems like Anna Mae Nalgot’s are intrinsic to the student-writer’s personal experience. But, as Mike explains in his chapter, that talent was encouraged and developed with the help of exceptional teachers. “With [Terry] Allen’s support,” Mike writes, “creative writing instructors . . . mentored students in writing within specific, well-known creative forms, including haikus, tankas, color poems, sijos, dada poems, and life stories, often paired with examples of student artists’ drawings, paintings, and other visual and textual art forms. Within these forms, teachers also allowed increased thematic freedom of student thought and expression. As a result, Naatsiilid [one of the school publications] began to publish poetry that depicted student experiences with and reflections on everything from their longing to be home with family, the death of loved ones, and celebrations of Diné cultural traditions and knowledge, to experiences of racism at Intermountain and surrounding communities, falling in love for the first time, civil rights, and Vietnam” (32).

Though the excellent poems and creative work are the core strength of the book, its emphasis on collaborative writing and its effort to present a nuanced view of the Intermountain Indian School are its pillars. Though the book’s cover lists three primary collaborators, the conclusion demonstrates that the methodology and processes that research for a project of this scope requires the cooperation of a number of other people and institutions. Indeed, the collaboration among Mike, his colleagues, their contacts, various university personnel, and student researchers is the heart and soul of this project. Such collaboration mirrors the emphasis on community and connection that is intrinsic to Navajo belief and practice.

Likewise, the effort to present a nuanced view of the Intermountain Indian School demonstrates a commitment to what might be called “restorative justice” – an effort to acknowledge both the trauma and the triumph, the loneliness and the love, the racism and the relationships experienced by those who attended. Again, Mike explains, “our goal with Returning Home has been to allow the students’ creativity to speak for itself so that . . . readers might remember Intermountain students and survivors not only because of their sometimes forced and sometimes selected participation in the broader boarding school experience, or only through contemporary models of academic interpretation, but rather because of and through the creative resilience with which Diné students at Intermountain expressed their complicated experiences and identities” (46).

Returning Home: Diné Creative Works from the Intermountain Indian School is one of the most impressive works of creative scholarship I have ever read. This book represents what I think is an impressive feat: in a cultural moment where promises of respecting diversity, aiming for greater equality, and seeking to be inclusive sometimes ring hollow or feel like mere virtue signaling, and where the impulse to shame and punish is sometimes cloaked in the lexicon of justice and accountability, Mike and his colleagues have produced something of substance; a book that enacts justice and accountability by inviting readers to listen—to hear and experience the strength, the intelligence, the courage, and the creativity of a people whose histories are all-too-often reduced to narrow narratives of victimization. This is fine book, and an excellent read. Truly, it’s something to be proud of. Congratulations, Mike.