Local author Kelli Donley has released a new book, “Counting Coup,” which describes the history of the Phoenix Indian School system through a fictional story and characters.
The term “counting coup” is a concept from the Plains Indians of the U.S., Donley says. In these cultures, if one could sneak up on their enemy while they slept and touch them, especially during a time of war, it was considered an act of bravery and prestige. Depending on the tribal group, Donley says, they would count coup in a variety of ways, including marking sticks.
“[I thought of the idea during] one of the first times I visited one of the three remaining building at the Phoenix Indian School,” Donley says. “The memorial hall is made of red brick and on the eastern edge… the children who attended school there began carving their names, and some of them have their tribes and the years they were at the school etched into the bricks. It felt like they were counting their own coup by leaving their mark on this building.”
The Phoenix Indian School opened in 1891, before Arizona became a state. It was part of a federal program designed to assimilate Native children under the guise of educating them. They were often taken against their will, and were not allowed to speak their native language.
“One of the first things they would typically do when children were taken to the school… they would have their head shaved,” Donley says. “A lot of tribes thought that your power was in your hair, so that was devastating.”
The school wasn’t closed until 1990, a fact that startled Donley. She says even today there are still federal boarding schools for children in tribes in Northern Arizona who don’t have sufficient populations for a high school on tribal lands.
In order to cover this history, Donley went about it in a fictional way. She says she thought it would be interesting to look at this story through the eyes of teachers who were at the Phoenix Indian School. The teachers in the novel get hired without any expectations of what it would be like.
“It was important to me as a Caucasian woman not to tell this story from a Native perspective,” Donley says. “I wanted to tell this story from a Caucasian woman’s perspective.”
Donley hopes that people who read the book will get an eye-opening view of the Indian School system. The United States wasn’t the only country to have such a system. Canada and Australia implemented very similar programs for the indigenous populations there. Donley says she hopes people will want to know more about this type of history in their own community after reading “Counting Coup.”
For more information on Donley and her book visit kellidonley.com.
TED SIMONS: IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR A BOOK TO READ ON THIS LONG HOLIDAY WEEK-END, YOU MIGHT WANT TO CHECK OUT "COUNTING COUP," A NEW NOVEL BY NATIVE ARIZONAN KELLI DONLEY, WHO BASED HER WORK OF FICTION ON STORIES SHE HEARD FROM COLLEAGUES ABOUT CHILDHOODS SPENT AT GOVERNMENT INDIAN SCHOOLS. THE BOOK TELLS THE STORY OF A WOMAN WHO DISCOVERS THE ROLES THAT HER AUNT AND GRANDMOTHER HAD WHILE TEACHING AT INDIAN SCHOOLS IN PHOENIX AND WINSLOW. JOINING US NOW IS, KELLI DONLEY. ONLY A FEW DAYS LEFT TO CATCH IT. IT'S NEAT TO HAVE THE BOOK OUT, ISN'T IT?
KELLI DONLEY: IT'S FANTASTIC.
TED SIMONS: JUST TO SEE THE COVER PROBABLY IS GOOD. EXPLAIN THE TITLE.
KELLI DONLEY: COUNTING COUP IS A CONCEPT OF THE PLAINS INDIANS, THEY BELIEVED IF YOU COULD SNEAK UP ON YOUR ENEMY WHEN YOUR ENEMY WAS SLEEPING ESPECIALLY WHILE IN BATTLE WITH THE ENEMY, AND YOU COULD TOUCH YOUR ENEMY, YOU COULD COUNT COUPE. THEY REPRESENTED IT IN DIFFERENT WAYS. SOME TRIBES CARRIED STICKS. IT VARIED DEPENDING ON THE GROUP. I HEARD THAT AND THOUGHT IT WAS SO INTERESTING. THE MEMORIAL HALL IS MADE OF RED BRICKS. THE BRICKS ARE ACTUALLY, THE CHILDREN THAT ATTENDED SCHOOL THERE CARVED THEIR NAMES AND THEIR TRIBE AND YEARS THEY WERE AT THE SCHOOLS ETCHED IN BRICK. I STARTED THINKING ABOUT COUTING COUP AND THEIR RELATION TO THE SCHOOL SYSTEM AND IT FELT LIKE THEY WERE COUNTING THEIR OWN COUPE BY LEAVING THEIR MARK.
TED SIMONS: THE BOOK DEALS WITH INDIAN SCHOOLS VERY MUCH SO. TALK TO THOSE OF US HERE FOR A WHILE REMEMBER THE INDIAN SCHOOL THERE. WHAT WAS THE PROGRAM ALL ABOUT?
KELLI DONLEY: THE INDIAN SCHOOL PROGRAM BEGAN IN ARIZONA BEFORE WE WERE A STATE. IT OPENED IN 1891, A FEDERAL PROGRAM TO EDUCATE AMERICAN INDIAN CHILDREN. IT WAS ABOUT ASSIMILATION. ONE OF THE THINGS THEY WOULD DO WHEN CHILDREN WERE TAKEN TO THE SCHOOL, AND OFTEN AGAINST THEIR WILL AND AGAINST THEIR FAMILY'S WILL, THEY WOULD HAVE THEIR HEAD SHAVED. A LOT OF THE TRIBES BELIEVE THE POWER IS IN THE HAIR, SO THAT WAS DEVASTATING. THEY WERE TAUGHT ENGLISH AND IN THE EARLY YEARS, CHRISTIANITY WAS VERY IMPORTANT. THE SCHOOL DIDN'T CLOSE UNTIL 1990. THAT WAS STARTLING TO ME. I GREW UP IN MESA NOT FAR FROM INDIAN SCHOOL ROAD. IT NEVER DAWNED ON ME THAT THERE WAS ACTUALLY A SCHOOL AND THAT'S WHY IT WAS INDIAN SCHOOL ROAD. IT WAS STARTLING TO ME THAT STUDENTS FROM MY OWN STATE WERE TAKEN AGAINST THEIR WILL OR SENT THERE BY THEIR FAMILIES. EVEN TODAY, THERE ARE FEDERAL BOARDING SCHOOLS. FOR CHILDREN IN NUMBERS OF TRIBES IN NORTHERN ARIZONA WHERE THERE IS NOT SUFFICIENT POPULATION TO HAVE A HIGH SCHOOL ON TRIBAL LANDS, THERE IS ANOTHER BOARDING SCHOOL ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE LOWELL OBSERVATORY IN FLAGSTAFF. THERE IS A NUMBER OF CHILDREN THAT GO THERE AND WALK TO FLAGSTAFF HIGH SCHOOL.
TED SIMONS: YOU APPROACHED THIS IN FICTIONAL FORM. YOU HAVE A PROFESSOR, AUNT BIRDIE AND ALMA JEAN. WHY DID YOU TELL THIS STORY THROUGH THEM?
KELLI DONLEY: I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE INTERESTING TO LOOK AT THIS STORY FROM TEACHERS WHO HAPPEN TO COME INTO THE SYSTEM WITH THEIR EYES CLOSED, AND WITHOUT GIVING AWAY TOO MUCH ABOUT THE STORY, BIRDIE AND ALMA JEAN TAKE THEIR JOB TO THE INDIAN SCHOOL I FICTIONALIZED WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING THE INDIAN SCHOOL SYSTEM. IT WAS IMPORTANT TO ME AS A CAUCASIAN WOMAN NOT TO TELL THE STORY FROM A NATIVE PERSPECTIVE. I WANTED TO TELL THE STORY FROM A CAUCASIAN WOMAN PERSPECTIVE. IN RETROSPECT, AVERY LOOKS BACK ON HER GRANDMOTHER'S LIFE AND TRIES TO PIECE TOGETHER HER TIME IN THE SCHOOL.
TED SIMONS: YOU HAVE LETTERS WHICH FLOW AND OUT OF ALL OF THIS AS WELL. HOW MUCH RESEARCH DID YOU DO ON INDIAN SCHOOLS AND THE PEOPLE THAT SPENT TIME THERE IN ORDER TO GET THIS VISION, THIS LANDSCAPE?
KELLI DONLEY: IT WAS IMPORTANT TO ME TO HAVE IT BE AUTHENTIC AS POSSIBLE. I INTERVIEWED INDIVIDUALS THAT WENT TO INDIAN SCHOOLS. I SPOKE TO PEOPLE THAT WENT TO THE PHOENIX SCHOOL. I DID RESEARCH ONLINE. THERE IS A MOVEMENT ONLINE BY INDIGENOUS PEOPLE INTERNATIONALLY. IT WAS PROMINENT IN CANADA AND AUSTRALIA AS WELL. LOTS OF INDIVIDUALS HAD THE EXPERIENCE OF ATTENDING THE SCHOOLS NOW WANT TO LEAVE THEIR TESTIMONY. THEY WANT SOMEONE TO KNOW ABOUT THEIR TIME. THERE ARE INCREDIBLE VIDEOS ON YOUTUBE. THERE ARE BOOKS WRITTEN BY PEOPLE THAT WENT THROUGH THE SCHOOL SYSTEMS. I TRIED TO UNDERSTAND THEIR PERSPECTIVE WHEN WRITING THIS.
TED SIMONS: WHEN YOU WROTE THIS AND HAD THE CHARACTER, DISTINCT CHARACTERS, COLORFUL IF YOU WILL, DID THEY GO IN THEIR OWN DIRECTION? DID YOU HAVE TO REIN THEM IN A BIT?
KELLI DONLEY: YES, ALMA JEAN AND BIRDIE, THEIR FRIENDSHIP IS BASED ON MY GRANDMOTHER AND HER SISTER AND THE WAY I LOOKED AT THEM AS A CHILD, AND THE WAY THEY PLAYED WITH EACH OTHER, KNEW EACH OTHER'S INSECURITIES AND STRENGTHS AND LEANED ON EACH OTHER. THEY WERE GREAT WOMEN IN MANY WAYS BECAUSE OF THEIR FRIENDSHIP. AVERY, A MAIN CHARACTER WAS A LOT OF FUN TO WRITE BECAUSE SHE'S BEEN SO SHELTERED. SHE UNCOVERS AN UGLY SIDE OF HER OWN FAMILY HISTORY SHE WAS UNAWARE OF.
TED SIMONS: WITH THAT IN MIND, WHAT DO YOU WANT READERS TO TAKE FROM YOUR BOOK?
KELLI DONLEY: WHAT I WOULD LIKE IS TO OPEN PEOPLE'S EYES TO THE INDIAN SCHOOL SYSTEM, NOT JUST IN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN, BUT WHAT GOVERNMENTS DECIDED TO DO TO NATIVE FAMILIES. A LOT OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLE, THEIR FAMILIES WERE DESTROYED BY THE CHOICE THE GOVERNMENTS MADE. WE ARE STILL FEELING THE RAMIFICATIONS OF THAT TODAY. AS A NATIVE OF THE VALLEY, I WANT TO KNOW MY COMMUNITY WELL. I THINK IT'S IMPORTANT THAT WE UNDERSTAND THAT THE THREE BUILDINGS THAT REMAIN AT THE INDIAN SCHOOL PARK TODAY ARE CRITICALLY IMPORTANT AND THEY ARE A MEMORIAL AND SHOULD BE TREATED WITH RESPECT.
TED SIMONS: THE BOOK IS COUNTS COUPE. KELLY DONNELLY, THANKS FOR BEING HERE.
KELLI DONLEY THANK YOU
Kelli Donley: Author, "Counting Coup"