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Can a white girl feel at home on an Indian reservation?
Based on the author’s childhood experience in the early 1960s, this debut novel centers on Kitty, whose father is a government forester at Warm Springs Reservation, Oregon. Kitty is one of only two white kids in her class, and the Indian kids are keeping their distance. With time, Kitty becomes increasingly aware of the tensions and prejudices between Indians and whites, and of the past injustice and pain still very much ...
Can a white girl feel at home on an Indian reservation?
Based on the author’s childhood experience in the early 1960s, this debut novel centers on Kitty, whose father is a government forester at Warm Springs Reservation, Oregon. Kitty is one of only two white kids in her class, and the Indian kids are keeping their distance. With time, Kitty becomes increasingly aware of the tensions and prejudices between Indians and whites, and of the past injustice and pain still very much alive on the reservation. Time also brings friendships and opportunities to make a difference. Map, author’s note, glossary, and pronunciation guide.
station One, this is Sidwalter Lookout. Come in! ” A woman’s voice, strained and urgent, drags me out of sleep.
Seconds later, the siren on the roof of the jail across the alley goes off, so loud it hurts. Something’s wrong.
I know what’s coming next. A door clicks open in the hallway, and suddenly, light seeps through the crack under my door. Then my dad’s bare feet cut a shadow out of the strip of light.
“This is Station One. Go ahead, Sidwalter.” He is talking into the two-way radio, and he is calm, like always.
The woman comes back on.
“We’ve got lightning strikes on the other side of HeHe,” she says. “I can see the glow from here.” I recognize her voice. She checks in every night from the fire lookout tower way out in the woods. August is danger season for forest fires.
“Ten-four,” my dad confirms. “Keep an eye on it. I’m headed down to Fire Control and will call you from there. Station One out.”
Dad doesn’t move. He must be staring at the map
of the Warm Springs Reservation taped to the wall. He’ll be tracing the web of lines anchored by Mount Jefferson at the corner of the reservation and by the rest of the Oregon Cascades. Looking for water sources
and access roads. Getting his mind all the way awake and focused on fire.
Steps echo again in the hall, heavy this time: Dad’s fire boots. The rusty spring on the back door creaks open.
Next, I hear the pickup start, back away from the garage, and turn in a sharp spray of gravel. And then the night is still again.
I wish I could go back to sleep, but my heart is racing and my mind is showing me pictures of fire. I breathe slowly and let my thoughts drift.
Funny, I know the Indian women up on the fire lookouts—Mrs. Wesley on Sidwalter Butte, Mrs. Quempts on Shitike, Mrs. Suppah on Eagle—better than any of the kids who live at Warm Springs. My brothers have already made friends. A guy named Jimmy showed up the day we moved in and asked them to go to baseball practice. Now Jimmy comes around just about every day and they go off somewhere, leaving me a sitting duck when Mom wants chores done, which is almost always.
We’ve been here two weeks, and I haven’t seen even one girl.
In the morning, I follow voices out onto the windowed porch. Mom is bent over the sewing machine, making curtains. She looks perfectly comfortable, as usual, despite the heat.
Bill is standing in the doorway, peeling his damp T-shirt away from his chest.
“How are you going to get there?” Mom asks, like she always does. I wonder where he wants to go.
“We can walk. It’s not that far.”
She sighs, then holds up a hem and cuts the thread with her teeth.
“Mom, we’ll watch out for cars,” Bill says. “We’ll be fine. Please?”
Finally, she nods. “OK, but you have to be extra careful.” She always says that, too.
“Great. Thanks, Mom!”
I follow Bill into the kitchen. “Where are you going?”
Bill reaches into the cereal box and takes a handful of corn flakes, which he crams into his mouth. “Swimming,” he says, chewing. “At the creek.”
I know about the swimming hole in the cold, fast-flowing creek up Shitike Road. We’ve driven to it, but for some reason Mom doesn’t want us to walk up the road. In Virginia, we could walk anywhere.
I’d give anything to splash around in the water. “Can I go?”
“Just Joe and me with Jimmy,” Bill says.
I hate when he makes me beg. “But . . . I want to come.”
Bill shakes his head. “Find your own friends.”
Easy for you to say. All the kids here are boys. I pour the last of the cereal into a bowl.
Mom comes into the kitchen. After a small silence, Bill huffs and says, “C’mon, Mom.”
She is staring him down. “Bill,” she says, “Kitty goes—or nobody goes.”
I can’t believe she’s taking my side! I spoon up my cereal fast, in case she changes her mind.
Jimmy is waiting on the back steps. The four of us scuff up the alley and then leave the shade of the big trees for the open and dusty trail that winds down the hill to Shitike Road. It’s scorching out, but the crushing heat feels bearable now that I’m headed for cold water.
The road is quiet, just a cluster of houses and a couple of dogs panting in thin shade behind a fence. I don’t know any of the Indian families that live down here.
The pavement ends, and the rest of Shitike Road stretches out in front, a dry graveled ribbon all the way to the mountains. Bill and Jimmy walk ahead, talking baseball. Boring stuff, like how 1962 is a great year because some guy named Jackie Robinson got elected to the Hall of Fame.
Jimmy’s the catcher for the VFW Little League team. Any boy at Warm Springs can join, even Joe, though he hasn’t played yet. Bill’s on third base, but his heart is set on pitching. Yesterday he came home all happy because the regular pitcher got benched. Maybe he’ll get his chance tonight. It’s the last game of the season.
I drop back, keeping out of the dust that they kick up. Joe trails behind, flinging gravel into the ditch. Walking to the swimming hole takes much longer than going by car. Finally, we come to a straight stretch where I can hear the creek tumbling off to the left through the thick brush.
Bill and Jimmy stop and look back.
“Remember where the trail is?” Bill calls.
Trees and bushes press close on both sides, coated with dust. I don’t see any trail. “I don’t think this is the right place.”
And then something blasts past my legs, skitters through the gravel, and plunks Jimmy right in the ankle. A rock the size of my fist.
“Ow!” he yells, and crumples into the dirt.
Bill whirls around to look back at Joe. “What the heck are you doing?”
But Joe didn’t throw that rock. He’s way behind us, standing in the ditch to one side of the road. A wedge of Indian kids in cutoffs and shorts comes up behind him, a tall girl in the lead. And she looks really mad. “Hey, Báshtan! ” she shouts.
“What’s that?” I ask Bill. He shakes his head.
Jimmy straightens up, brushes the gravel from his legs. “What do you want, Jewel?” he calls.
“You know her?” Bill asks, surprise in his voice.
“Oh yeah.” Jimmy nods. “Everybody knows her.”
Now a boy pushes through the group and steps out in front of the girl named Jewel. On his feet are ragged tennis shoes. He holds a rock in his fist.
“Uh-oh,” Jimmy says quietly. “Raymond.”
“Who’s that?” I ask.
Bill sighs. “Trouble.”
The boy named Raymond is as tall as Jewel and looks just as angry. He flips the rock up and down in his hand and says something I can’t hear. Joe’s head jerks away, his arm comes up. Raymond raises his fist.
Joe’s only eight. Raymond towers over him. “Hey! ” I yell.
“Kitty!” Bill says through his teeth. “Shut up.”
Raymond turns and stares at us. Then he lets the rock fly. I duck behind Bill and cover my head as the rock skips through the gravel and lands in the ditch.
Raymond waves his hand off toward the creek. “This is our spot,” he says. His voice is hard and angry. “You don’t belong here.” He points up the road. “Go on that way.”
The Indian kids disappear through the brush.
I’m so angry — or maybe scared — I’m shaking.
None of us wants to stay and argue. We take off and get a good hundred yards farther before I can make myself stop and turn around. The road behind us is empty.
“Who is that kid?” I ask.
“The pitcher who swore at the coach yesterday,” says Jimmy. “Again.”
He bends down and touches his ankle — a big old goose egg, swollen and purple.
“So, you get to pitch tonight?” I ask Bill.
“Yeah,” he says. “That rock was probably meant for me.”
I want to get off this stretch of open road and away from those angry kids. “I don’t want to go swimming anymore.”
“C’mon,” Bill says. “They’re gone. We’ll find the path up here and forget about it.” But he just stands there, not going any farther.
Finally, Jimmy says, “Aw, let’s go home.” He turns away from the sun and limps down the road.
Bill shakes his head at me and Joe. “Not a word to Mom,” he says. No worry about that — she’d never let us go anywhere again if she knew.
I’m sweaty and dusty and scared. I don’t see any of the Indian kids, but I can hear them shrieking and laughing in the water. We start the long walk back toward Warm Springs.
At the curve at the end of the straight stretch, Bill calls, “Car!” and waves us off into the ditch. For once I’m glad he’s here to order us around. I didn’t even hear the engine.
I turn to see a roiling cloud of dust and gravel and then a battered black pickup bearing down on us. It skids to a stop just ahead and slowly backs up.
“Now what?” says Jimmy.
The pickup pulls alongside us and stops. The driver leans out the open window — an older Indian woman about my grandma’s age. “What’re you kids doing out here?” she asks. She has a deep blue scarf tied over her hair, and her face is creased deep, stern. I can’t see her eyes behind her dark glasses.
There is a pause. Bill points back up the road. “We were going swimming.”
“Your folks know?”
Jimmy nods quickly and so does Bill.
Then she peers down at Jimmy’s ankle. “Looks like trouble.”
Jimmy and Bill nod again.
“Back there,” the lady tilts her head, “is the swinging bridge. That’s the Indian kids’ swimming hole. Yours is about a half mile farther on.”
“Yeah,” says Bill. “We found out.”
She kind of chuckles, then says, “Long walk on a hot day. I’ll give you kids a ride home.”
I don’t want to walk anymore. Mom will have a fit if we take a ride with a stranger, but this lady is nice.
“No, thank you,” Bill says. “We’re fine.”
I’m disappointed. We’re never allowed to ride in the back of Dad’s truck, since it’s for official use only. And way too dangerous, Mom says. I notice Jimmy’s ankle. It’s purple and huge, and blood is dribbling down into his tennis shoe. We need to do something.
“A ride would be great,” I say quickly. “Thank you.”
Bill shakes his head at me, but I ignore him. “We live on the upper campus, right by the office,” I tell the lady.
She nods. “Your dad’s the new forest manager.”
How does she know? I wonder as we scramble up into the bed of the truck, and she takes off down the long road.
When we pull into the driveway, Mom is out in the yard watering the zinnias. She frowns when she sees us in the back of the pickup. We spill out of the truck bed as fast as we can.
As the lady comes around the front of the pickup, Mom sets down the hose and walks over. “Oh, hello,” she says, smiling and extending her hand. “I’m Mary Schlick.”
The lady takes it and smiles up at her. “My name is Bessie,” she says. “I found your children out on Shitike Road.”
She’s wearing a cotton dress that goes down to the tops of the moccasins on her feet. The dress is navy blue and tied at her waist with a woven belt. An underdress in pink calico, tight at her wrists, shows under the wide sleeves draping over her shoulders. Mom told me it’s called a wing dress. When we first got here, I noticed that most of the older Indian women who go into the tribal offices next to our house wear them.
Jimmy hustles around the side of the house, forcing himself not to limp. I know better than to catch Mom’s eye, but Joe looks up.
“Honey?” she asks. “How was the swim?”
“Great, Mom, good time, gotta go to the bathroom.” And he jumps for the steps and slams the back door.
Bill and I hang back. I wonder if the lady is going to tell Mom the whole story about how we met.
“Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?” Mom asks.
The lady smiles and shakes her head. “Gotta get to McKenzie’s for the mail.” She climbs back into the pickup.
“Thank you for the ride,” I say, relieved that she didn’t tell Mom anything else.
I hurry through the house to my bedroom, sniffing for the hint of smoke that clings to Dad’s clothes after a fire. There’s nothing in the air. He hasn’t come home yet.
My bedroom window is open, shaded by the big locust tree. As I change back into shorts and a T-shirt, I hear Mom talking in the yard.
“You promised me.” She does not sound happy.
“We stuck together,” Bill says, his voice calm.
“How come you didn’t swim?” she asks.
The toilet flushes, and Joe opens the bathroom door. I wave him into my room. “Listen to this.”
Mom says, “. . . and nobody’s hair was wet.”
“It was a long walk. Before she picked us up.”
“And what happened to Jimmy’s ankle?” she asks.
Bill stalls. “We didn’t want to tell you this, Mom . . .” he begins.
Gee—don’t just give it to her!
“. . . but Joe was throwing rocks.”
Joe sucks in a big breath. I clamp my hand onto his arm and glare at him. Keep quiet. He looks like he is about to pop.
I can hear Mom’s sigh all the way in here. “Did he apologize?”
“Oh, sure. Jimmy wasn’t sore . . . well, he was sore, but it’s not going to hurt his catching or anything.”
Joe gets the whole What were you thinking? lecture. I’m surprised that he takes it. But he scowls at Bill: You owe me.