Indian Orphanage: The Journey Out

Where Courage is Like a Wild Horse

By Sharon Skolnick (Okee-Chee) and Manny Skolnick

U. of Nebraska Press, 148 pp., $25

When Sharon Skolnick, an Apache Indian, was shunted off to the Murrow Indian Orphanage in Oklahoma with her little sister in l953, she writes, "I was the toughest fighter, pound for pound, in the orphanage. I was silent and brooding and mean."

Only nine years old, Skolnick had been abused and neglected by her parents, passed around to alternately abusive and caring foster homes, and then sent to Murrow located on the campus of Bacone College in Muskogee. She and her sister, Jackie, were a twosome, legally joined so that if adoption came, they stayed together.

At Murrow, like so many native American orphanages and boarding houses run by whites at the time, the point was to terminate Indian ways. Cut their hair. Forbid their native language. Dress them alike. Break them down and rebuild them for passage into a superior culture. Yet in this short autobiography of a hard year of conflict and growth, Skolnick fought back and remained an Apache at heart.

She is now known as Okee-Chee and is a successful artist in Chicago. Her story, "Where Courage is Like a Wild Horse: The World of an Indian Orphanage," is episodic rather than a full exploration of the horrors of her orphanage experience as the result of a fundamentally flawed policy. Clearly, Skolnick's work adds to the growing list of Indian writers who tell their stories with great pride, and too much intelligence to sour their memories with bitterness.

Most important, despite her two-fisted reputation, Skolnick seems to have survived the ordeal in a state of encrusted tenderness. Beneath the daily treachery and fights, she managed to stay a young girl who loved animals, had secret places, and a beloved friend, Phyllis.

She remembers Murrow's matronly woman-in-charge, Mrs. Joseph, as stern and occasionally fair. Yet when Skolnick breaks out in sores, she is kind and tries to ease the pain.

At one point, the cruelty of the place overwhelms Skolnick, and she climbs out on the ledge of the window of her room in a hot daze, and steps off into space. Amazingly a hook catches her belt and bangs her against the brick building 20 feet above the ground. Somehow she climbs back, and tumbles into bed, shaken and wiser.

Sunday nights Liberace captivates all the girls crowded in front of the TV set. Says Skolnick, "[H]e was all I knew of the world of art and culture, and some instinct told me that art, music, elegant clothes, lovely manners - all the things I lacked at Murrow - would prove to be the way out."

Eventually Skolnick turns to drawing, and captures praise from a local Indian artist. Then along comes Lynette Reeve, part Delaware Indian and a solid farmer's wife. She's looking for Indian girls with special talents. She and her taciturn husband adopt the sisters. Skolnick's drawing talent blooms, and after high school she heads for the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M.

In the book's dedication, Skolnick blends past and present, and declares a happy ending. "To Lynette, the mother who lifted two scared little Apache girls out of the orphanage by the strength of her love. I love you, Mom."

* David Holmstrom is a Monitor staff writer.

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