Speaking With Amanda Skenandore About the Scars of Forced Assimilation




IN 1880s WISCONSIN, Native American children were required to attend boarding schools. They were taken from their homes, given haircuts, stripped naked (their clothes thrown into a bonfire), bathed, handed unfamiliar tools for eating, and forced to sleep in a dormitory. In the morning they were lined up and marched to school, where they were forced to choose new names. Forbidden to speak their own language, they were expected to understand and speak the language of their captors without instruction.

Amanda Skenandore captures this terrifying reality in her debut novel, Between Earth and Sky, which won the American Library Association 2019 Reading List Award for Best Historical Fiction. She says she is drawn to historical fiction because “it brings the past to life in a way that textbooks and classroom lectures cannot.” In Between Earth and Sky, the world of the late 1800s and early 1900s comes alive through believable language, a detailed setting, and a protagonist whose struggles are relatable to anyone who has ever felt left out and compelled to rebel against a powerful social norm. 

Like Skenandore, I learned nothing as a student about the forced assimilation of Native Americans or mandatory boarding schools. Only when I became a teacher did I become aware of this by taking my students on a field trip to the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City, Nevada. I taught at a Douglas County school attended by students from the nearby Washoe reservation, and one of my fourth graders, Michelle, lived there. When I used the term Native American, she sternly contradicted me: “Not Native American, Indian!” I stood corrected, yet still unsure.

More recently, when I told a friend that I was interviewing the author of a novel about these topics, my friend immediately asked if Skenandore was Native American. I told my friend that Skenandore was not but that her husband and her mother-in-law were Oneida and Ojibwe, respectively, and this seemed to satisfy her concerns about cultural appropriation, something she is sensitive to as a travel writer. I recounted these two conversations for Skenandore during our email interview, which touches on her approach to research, learned prejudice, and the neglected scars of American history.

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KRISTA LUKAS: Do you know your husband’s and mother-in-law’s positions on the terms “Native American” and Indian”? And what is your position? 

AMANDA SKENANDORE: I’m not Native American, but the question about my being Native American is one I get a lot. People will often say, “Skenandore, that’s not an Indian last name,” which is always funny to me because every other person on my husband’s reservation has that last name and you can find it (with slight variations in spelling such as “Skenadore” or “Shenandore” or “Shenandoah”) on treaties and histories going back centuries. I just politely let them know that, yes, it is a Native American name, but it’s my married name and I’m not Native American myself.

My husband prefers the term Native American, as does my mother-in-law. I do too. My husband likens “Indian” to the term “Negro,” a word once commonplace that has fallen out of use and social acceptance. Indian is perhaps on the same linguistic trajectory but not as far along. Certainly, he cannot speak for the entire Native American community. As your story attests, there are differences of opinion even among those who identify as Native American (or Indian).

What draws you to writing historical fiction?

For me, history doesn’t stick, doesn’t feel as immediate or relevant, without the human element. I want to know what the people of that time thought, feared, desired. Under the spell of a good historical novel, I’m at the Battle of Gettysburg, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, or the coronation of Anne Boleyn, not just reading about it. When I can see the actors of history as people, not just names in a textbook, their experiences are more relatable to my 21st-century life, and I can learn from them.

The setting of Between Earth and Sky is detailed with the objects and language of the times. What can you tell us about your research?

Research is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. I spend several months at the outset reading about the people and timeframe I’m exploring. I also try to read fiction of the era. So in writing Between Earth and Sky, I read a lot of Edith Wharton to get a sense of the language and cultural norms. When I’m able, I like to visit the location I’m writing about, too. Studying maps and old photographs can’t give me the same sense of place as actually walking a city’s streets, touring its historic buildings, or tasting its cuisine.

But the research process doesn’t stop once I begin writing. Inevitably, details will come up that I hadn’t foreseen. How does one operate a wood-burning stove? What are the steps when dancing the schottische? Then it’s back to the library or down the Google rabbit hole.

During the revision process, I’ll fact-check all the major details of the story. I know I can’t get everything right, but I’d hate to lose a reader’s trust over a silly error or incorrect date.

Has anyone criticized you for getting things wrong?

Surprisingly, not yet. But I’m sure that will come. Recently, I heard a speech by Colson Whitehead where he said, “I won’t stick to the facts, but I’ll stick to the truth.” Above all, it was the truth I was trying to get at in Between Earth and Sky. So long as I got that right, I can live with criticism about the rest.

I admit that I feel conflicted about the cover image. It appears to be the cover for two different books: a romance and a historical novel about Native Americans. Taken together, the images seem to perpetuate the idea of white superiority while the novel calls into question that very notion.

I was initially conflicted, too. I worried the cover would be off-putting to the non-romance audience. Although the book has a romantic subplot, it’s certainly not a category romance. But from a marketing perspective, it makes sense to highlight that aspect of the story.

I shared your second concern, too — that the cover could unintentionally convey a sense of white superiority — and I mentioned this to the publisher. They assuaged my concerns. Though the images are not meant to be taken together, one literally on top of the other, that hint of racial conflict is true to the book. Most whites in the late 19th and early 20th centuries believed themselves superior to other races, and it is against this belief that Alma and her friends struggle.

How did you settle on the structure of alternating between Alma’s adult and childhood points of view?

I’m more of an outliner than a discovery writer, so I tend to write from beginning to end. I first wrote the novel chronologically, with part one spanning Alma’s childhood and teenage years and part two her adulthood. An agent I queried early on suggested I interweave the timelines. In doing so, I realized the two parts were unbalanced — too much of Alma’s youth and not enough of the murder trial she’s investigating as an adult. I cut several chapters and added others until the plot lines had more or less even weight and built in unison to the climax.

When I set out to rearrange the structure, I used colored note cards for each chapter of the book — green for Alma’s childhood, pink for her adult years — and laid them out on my dining room table. That way I could figure out which chapters fit where without losing sight of the narrative’s overall balance. Once I had an arrangement I liked, I went back and edited the chapters, making sure they flowed naturally from one to the next.

Alma’s parents both see Native Americans as savages” in need of taming and salvation, her mother being more strongly against them. Alma begins to doubt her mother from the moment she demands that Alma burn the students’ clothes. They look “frayed” and only show a few stains, but her mother describes the clothes as “[f]ilthy. Fleas, lice, who knows what else.” Alma doesn’t like to think of “bugs crawling up her arms,” but she reveals her rebellious nature when she saves a doll from the flames.

So much of prejudice is learned behavior. Children emulate their parents and peers. In the beginning, Alma is torn between what her parents say and what she sees for herself. She wants to be a good daughter but also desperately wants friends and sees that in many ways the Native American children are just like her. Moreover, they’re different in ways she comes to admire. It’s hard for her to completely jettison her parents’ influence, however. Obedience and conformity were paramount at the time, especially for girls.

Yes, Alma is excited about having classmates and making new friends, and she is disappointed when the Native Americans ignore her. Did you learn about any real-life accounts of white children attending the boarding schools?

Sometimes staff’s families lived with them on-site. I didn’t read about any white children who actually attended school with the Native Americans, but it seemed a plausible stretch. From a story perspective, I needed a way for Alma to come into close contact with the other children at the boarding school, to witness and, in some ways, be part of their struggle.

Alma’s parents require her not only to attend school with the Native Americans but also to share sleeping quarters with them. Inevitably, she is going to develop close relationships. Although her parents set this up, they are shocked and furious when it happens.

Certainly her father is in favor of her intimacy with the other children, but with the belief that she will influence them, not the other way around. Both her parents are naïve in this regard. Her mother does worry that the other children’s “vile habits” will rub off on Alma. But a world where Alma would want to emulate the Native Americans, keep their confidences, and even fall in love with one of them is unfathomable. Their imagination and their tolerance have sharp bounds.

Alma’s ambivalence about her parents’ opinions and her own feelings still haunts her as an adult: she feels guilty about her teenage fiancé and a former female friend. During Alma’s adulthood visit to the reservation, not only are her eyes opened to the conditions and corruption there, but she and her former friend also get into a fight. 

As a child, Alma comes to learn that her parents are wrong in their perceptions about the Native Americans, but she doesn’t have a sense of the damage and heartbreak the boarding school inflicts on her friends. She carries this naïveté with her to adulthood. Not until she ventures to the reservation and sees what’s become of her former classmates’ lives does she comprehend not only the school’s disastrous legacy but also her own part in it.

What do you think would have been a better alternative to the forced boarding schools? 

The easy answer is that whites should have let the Native Americans live autonomously, not crowded on reservations but free to inhabit the entirety of their ancestral lands. They should have found a way to live peacefully and harmoniously with the Native Americans or sailed back to Europe. But by the 1880s, when boarding schools like the one depicted in my novel came into being, westward expansion and Manifest Destiny had already made that alternative a near impossibility. In that context, there is no easy answer. Any alternative where the children were allowed to practice and honor their cultural traditions would have been better, though.

Is there anything you’d like to add about your novel?

Growing up, I didn’t learn anything about the Native American boarding schools and their place in the government’s broader policy of forced assimilation. It’s too important a part of our history to be overlooked and forgotten. That was a significant impetus for me in writing the novel, and it kept me going through the years of editing and revision.

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Krista Lukas is the author of a poetry collection, Fans of My Unconscious.


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