Diane Glancy is an emerita professor of English at Macalester College and is currently a professor at Azusa Pacific University in California. Her new book Fort Marion Prisoners and the Trauma of Native Education is now available.
Fort Marion Prisoners and the Trauma of Native Education is a continuing exploration of the past through Indigenous voices. I have written several, similar books, for example, about The Cherokee on the Trail of Tears in Pushing the Bear; and Sacajawea in Stone Heart; and Kateri Tekakwitha in The Reason for Crows.
I lived in Oklahoma for many years. I worked for the State Arts Council, traveling to schools, many of them in Lawton, Oklahoma, where federal authorities imprisoned the last of the Plains Indian warriors at Fort Sill before they were sent to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida from 1875-1878, in order to remove leaders from their tribes.
I always begin my literary explorations with a basic questioning of the supposed “truth” found in historical documentation. What did the Native prisoners experience as attempts were made to educate and evangelize them? The officials gave ledger books to the prisoners in which to draw.
I am interested in the facts of their imprisonment, and more so the spirit or the heart of their experiences which find no documentation in records of the federal government.
I also searched for central ideas. I am interested in the mental and physical correspondences the Indians found as they looked for the familiar in an unfamiliar environment. It could be as simple as the sameness in the shapes of sails on the water and teepees on the prairie. Those evidences are visible in Bear Heart‘s ledger book drawing, which Richard Henry Pratt put in his typewriter and wrote the caption, Camp on Anastasia Island 1876.
In some ways, Pratt ruined the ledger book drawing, but in another way, he gave me the idea that I could reimagine another type of story of the Fort Marion prisoners. Pratt’s identification of the ledger book art made possible the inclusion of the process of writing the book within the narrative of the book. I also included some of my own education with the approval of my editor, or maybe it was his suggestion.
There are correspondences in the word itself. Correspondences as in likeness, and correspondences as in communication. Hello from Florida. Wish you were here. The natives missed their families. They actually sent occasional letters and money from the sale of their artwork and the sea beans they polished. I also see the book itself as “correspondence.” The Natives’ voices are imagined messages that could have been sent.
Another ledger book drawing in which correspondence plays a part is Etahdleuh Doanmoe’s An Omaha Dance Given by the Prisoners, 1877, which depicts a pow wow at Fort Marion that the Indians held for tourists. The Indians were used to the natural walls of ravines and rises in the land. The man-made wall of stone at Fort Marion corresponded to the artificial world in which they were placed.
While the dances may have provided momentary regeneration for their spirits, while serving as fund-raisers for the fort, they also brought to the surface the other side of the correspondences— somewhat friendly on the surface— but underneath, the currents pull you farther from shore until you are in over your head, which is where a trip to Native American history sometimes leads. I like to give voice to historical characters who did not have a chance to speak— who recorded some of their experiences in ledger book drawings, but not the summations— the close knit of oppositional and generative forces— and the stonewall effect of the government in Indian affairs.
Notice the formidable two or three story brick building and the striped lighthouse in Bear Heart’s drawing. Florida was an impossible land full of ocean air and the removal from everything they knew.
Fort Marion was a prison. I’ve been there several times for research, which in my case is reading books, then standing on the terreplein listening for the prisoners’ distant voices that sometimes seemed to speak in the plaintive call of gulls. My own history abounded there also as I circled the walkway around the wall of the fort from which the ocean is visible. What must it have been like? Actually there was no circling. Squaring the walkway around the top of the wall is a more correct term. How thin language becomes when made to explain something. But circling a square sometimes is what the writing process is.
I write during travel. Maybe I travel to write. I don’t know which is true, maybe both. I find the past in the movement over the land. The land carries memories. I’ve stated this in the past. I’ve probably stated it in several places. Fort Marion Prisoners and the Trauma of Native Education is a continuation of my work. I have been drawn to the voiceless ones who lost their way of life. As writers, we go where the voices call.