It is a very different place today, but as a child going over to Riverside with my grandmother, I was afraid of the high walls and gates and big grass lawns and “barrack” type buildings of the Sherman Indian Institute. Today, there is a museum there, and a boarding school that offers free education and does not destroy the culture of the students.
I was told by my grandmother about the Institute, which of course had been there her whole life. She was born in Riverside in 1901. Her memories were influenced by the fact that the children who attended the boarding school at the Institute were not allowed to “mix” with the town children. It really looked like a jail to me, even when I was a small child.
In 1995, I wrote “Jonny Punkinhead,” the story of Writers of the Future fame – or at least modest interest. The Sherman Institute featured in this story – only native children were not at the school, children who were born “different” due to the Human Mutational Virus were sent there by their families or caretakers, who could not handle having a child who looked so strange in their homes.
This was pure instinct on my part. These early stories of mine, which also include “Chromosome Circus” and IMAGO, were almost wholly-based in place upon the places and people I knew while growing up. The children that Dr. Arlen tried to care for at the Institute, that essentially broke up his marriage, because he cared in a way that his wife could not – they were not based on native children. They, and the whole idea of all of the outcast, mutated “freaks” of these stories, were based in what I had seen in seven years of work at Family Service. I saw how few people really saw the homeless or the very poor – often those of darker skins, and those who did not speak English – as fully-human people. It was so very easy to overlook them: who they were, what was important to them, their families, beliefs and cultures. It was just something in my heart at the time, and it came out in these stories. That is what these stories are about.
This evening I sat in awe and wonder, watching a PBS television show that was produced by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and that has been airing on KVCR Channel 24. Among many other important parts of the history of native peoples in California, the show presented the different boarding schools that native children were taken to in order to “assimilate” into white American culture. The Sherman Institute was the main school that was presented. It was in many ways a prison, just as it “felt” to me as a small child driving by. My heart hurt thinking of the children who had to stay there and could not leave. It was founded by a man with a background as a military prison warden, and that was how he treated the native children. They were taken far away from their homes, and the first thing that happened to them after arrival, was that their long hair was cut short, both boys and girls, and they were forced to wear military-style uniforms. Children were punished physically for speaking their native languages, and many lost their languages while there. Many of the elders of today’s tribes have parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents, who lost the ability to speak their native languages during this time. One lady, returning for a visit after many years, was able to smile and laugh, saying she still had good memories, as she was there with her 7 other brothers and sisters and – they fed them every day. The poverty of her family, that she would feel so grateful for meals, is something that I am no stranger to: it is real. It is what our society does to people it does not value. This is the web site for the series, which has been produced by the San Manuel people to preserve their heritage and to educate others.
So, I have no idea whether stories that deal with this sort of human subject matter are of any value. I do know that I feel glad that my heart “got it right” and I am also very grateful that the San Manuel people of today are now thriving and can preserve their heritage in strength and pride. Yes, it’s the casino and more power to them. They deserve all their success and prosperity and moreso. If you want to read “Jonny Punkinhead,” it is available at Anthology Builder and via various eBook sites. For what it’s worth, the very tough and beautiful Gyla, I think was a member of the San Manuel people.