It seems that for a little while anyway, I am destined to read stories that have to do with racism, discrimination, and bigotry. While this isn’t the entire thrust of this first novel by Theresa Nichols Schuster, it does weave its way through the story as Blake Newman tries to find his place and his future in his first year living on Sandstone Bluffs Reservation in eastern Montana. I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.
Blake Newman lives in Bozeman, Montana where he is a serious contender in snowboarding competitions and attends high school with friends he has known since kindergarten. He loves the freedom of flying through the air, hitting the white powder on the slopes, and working at Taco Bell. He is good at sports and has a talent and eye for art. The last thing he wants is for his dad to take a job as principal at rez high school on the “hot, dry, brown, and flat” landscape surrounding the tiny town of Powder River. From the very beginning, we see Blake struggling to understand why his parents would want this move; he can only see his own side of things. It is even more complicated by the facts he learns about the battle of the Little Bighorn — how the soldiers shot down women and children, and how the Lakota and Cheyenne took scalps, and then the women punctured the eardrums of the dead — and the way “the dark brown skin of the other patrons [in Pete’s Pizza] pressed in on him in a physically tangible way.” Moving here is the last thing in the world he wants! Until he meets Nicki!
I was caught up in the story right from the beginning. Blake and his family are at the Little Bighorn Memorial site, having arrived a day early for the interviews both his parents have — his father for the principalship of the high school (PRHS) and his mother with Indian Health Services (IHS). I hadn’t read very far before I got on the Internet to learn more about the site and to see photos of the “outlines of Indian warriors stretching up into the sky . . . in a large circular area made of stones”. They are stunning. I found it interesting that Blake is a diabetic, and though he had some trouble coming to grips with it in the past, he is quite competent at determining his sugar levels, how much insulin to take, and giving himself shots. The snake with syringe tattooed on his hip, helped him accept his situation.
Blake goes out for the football team and right away makes a friend and an enemy. One of the coaches, Coach Walks Alone, is also the art teacher, and Blake likes him right from the start. The title of the book comes from the huge painting on the lobby wall — “a large orange-and-black drawing of the head of an Indian warrior. Beneath it was “We Are the Warriors”. He soon recognizes some of the classic problems among reservation young people — drugs, and alcohol. He also quickly realizes that some natives don’t want him there, and some of the whites are totally intolerant of natives. He found it strange the way there was tribal law and city, state, and federal laws which were different and applied according to whether or not you are registered on the reservation. At first, he just wants to be back in Bozeman, but then he wonders if he and Nicki can overcome cultural differences and have a future together. He’s confused. His friend Jordan gets him thinking about a “vision quest” to help him get a balanced outlook on who he is and what he should do.
This is a great story to help young people learn more about different cultures and about learning to accept others. The snowboarding, football, and track and field sequences are all exciting and authentic. The various concepts of culture are presented in a meaningful way, along with all the angst of being a teenager anywhere, white or native, coping with the pressures that entails. I loved the art trip to the big city and then to the Pictograph Caves; it’s great when you read about teachers (even fictional ones) who put themselves out to enrich the lives of their students.
Theresa Nichols Schuster lives in Bozeman, Montana and spent 30 years living, working, and playing on the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Reservation in remote northeast Montana in Wolf Point. I had some questions niggling around in the back of my head when I finished reading the story and so I emailed Theresa and asked her about them. Here are some of them along with her answers.
1. Your bio mentions you living and working on a reserve but doesn’t mention whether you are native or not.
A: I am not American Indian/Native American although for years growing up I wondered if I had some American Indian blood. My father graduated from the St. Labre Indian School on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in the 1930s and my grandmother lived in Lodge Grass on the Crow Reservation for forty years until her 80s. Six of my aunts and uncles graduated from Lodge Grass High School. I mention a bit about this on my blog bridgingthejourney.blogspot.com in the “Pain and Prejudice” posting.
2. I was wondering also if you have personal experiences of racism on the reserve where you lived.
A: Racism is prejudice that becomes entrenched and is based the color of ones skin or ethnic background. Power of one group over another, plus pain and suffering, are ripe fields for racism to flourish. By and large my relationships with American Indians on the reservation was one of care, love and respect. I did encounter harsh words at times, judgment, and being grouped and classified in a certain negative way because I was white or non-tribal as they would say on the reservation.
3. How did you become familiar with the vision quest? Do you know people who went through the ritual? Did you interview people who had done it? Did you ever do something similar?
A: Mostly personal experiences, although I did take a Religious Studies course at the Fort Peck Tribal College with Robert Fourstar (elder and chief), where we discussed and read about vision quests. I had many experiences of spending nights by myself on top the Pryor Mountains, in the deserts of the south Pryors, and in the Gallatin Mountains, often on spiritual quests. I also have walked the circle without food or water to seek guidance. Many stories there.
4. Many of the reserves in North America have a problem with drugs, alcohol, and suicide. I felt it was left just on the fringes of your story. Was that intentional?
A: I intentionally wanted my novel to be acceptable for the younger half of the young adult genre, hence not getting too “edgy” or intense, while acknowledging the presence of these situations. I also wanted to use the space to develop other aspects of characters and place.
As you can see by Theresa’s responses, she brings authenticity to her writing. I will publish the interview in its entirety in the next few days. In the meantime, check out her novel at Amazon and other fine booksellers. A great “coming of age” book, especially for boys. * * * * *