Sunday, October 07, 2007


[This review used with permission of its author, Beverly Slapin, and may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]


Tohe, Laura (Diné), No Parole Today. Albuquerque: West End Press (1999). 47 pages; grades 7-up

The first words in Laura Tohe’s book are those of Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the Indian boarding school system that devastated Indian lives throughout North America. Addressing the World Baptist Convention in 1883, Pratt said:

In Indian civilization I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization, and when we get them under holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.

Tohe’s great-grandfather was one of the first Diné students to attend Pratt’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School, and she likens her own Indian school experience to serving a prison sentence. No Parole Today is Tohe’s poetry and personal narrative about this time in her life and the challenges of maintaining her identity in a system whose aim is to destroy it.

In an opening piece, a response to Pratt, Tohe writes,

A hundred years after you made your statement to the Baptists, we are still here. We have not vanished, gone away quietly into the sunset, or assimilated into the mainstream culture the way you envisioned….[W]e continue to survive with the strength of the spirit of our ancestors. Our grandmothers and grandfathers taught us to hold to our beliefs, religions, and languages. That is the way of survival for us….I voice this letter to you now because I speak for me, no longer invisible, and no longer relegated to the quiet margins of American culture, my tongue silenced….To write is powerful and even dangerous. To have no stories is to be an empty person. Writing is a way for me to claim my voice, my heritage, my stories, my culture, my people, and my history.

In first grade, the children received their first “Dick and Jane” books, in which they were introduced to white society in the form of Father, Mother, Dick and Jane and Sally, who drove around in cars and said “oh, oh, oh” a lot. In “Dick and Jane Subdue the Diné,” Tohe describes how the schools made the taking away of language a priority:

See Father.

See Mother.

See Dick run.

See Jane and Sally laugh.

oh, oh, oh

See Spot jump.

oh, oh, oh

See Eugene speak Diné.

See Juanita answer him.

oh, oh, oh

See teacher frown.

uh oh, uh oh

See Eugene with red hands, shape of ruler.

oh, oh, oh

See Eugene cry.

oh, oh, oh

See Juanita stand in corner, see tears fall down face.

oh, oh, oh

Oh see us draw pictures

of brown horses under blue clouds.

We color eyes black, hair black.

We draw ears and leave out mouth.

Oh see, see, see.

While most of Tohe’s writing focuses on her coming of age in this hostile alien environment, her later pieces are written from her perspective as an adult, and her final poem, “At Mexican Springs,” is a thing of beauty and hope:

It is here among the sunset in

every plant

every rock

every shadow

every movement

every thing

I relive visions of ancient stories

First Woman and First Man

their children stretched across

these eternal sandstones

a deep breath

she brings me sustenance


and I will live to tell my children these things.

For everyone who has survived the Indian boarding schools, and for everyone who never knew of their existence, No Parole Today is a gift. Laura Tohe’s writing is spare and honest, with no polemic; proof of the government’s utter failure to take away Indian voice.

—Beverly Slapin

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I spent some time in Australia last year and heard still passionate arguments about their experiences with their own boarding school history. Arguments from both sides - some white people are still upset about the failure of aboriginal people to assimilate better. Sounded like old southerners talking about lazy blacks.