Conversation with Indian author Warren Petoskey on ‘Dancing My Dream’

THIS WEEK, we are celebrating the launch of a book by an important Native American voice, Warren Petoskey.


DAVID: Warren, I remember that I first met you four years ago when the city of Petoskey, along Lake Michigan, was honoring your great-great grandfather, Ignatius Petoskey. He was a brilliant Indian leader who tried to adapt to European ways in order to preserve his people’s culture. A statue of him was commissioned for the shoreline area. It shows him dressed partly in European clothes, but also with traditional moccasins on his feet. He’s holding three feathers to honor elders, veterans and ancestors. He’s also carrying tobacco in a pipe as a sacred symbol of reliance on God.

I’d say in many ways those symbols reflect your own life, as well. More than a century later, you’re also trying to bridge the challenges of modern American life along with your Native American culture.

WARREN: I try to live in several different nations at the same time. I am Odawa and Lakotah and I’m an American citizen, too. I want to live peacefully in these nations. I present programs to people about our history and, when I do, I’m not there to castigate people or try to bring guilt or shame into the audience.

My purpose is to educate and bring sensitivity so that people recognize we are all human beings together on this earth and we can begin working on building a better future.

DAVID: That may be your ultimate goal, but you do talk about some very troubling chapters of American history. You talk about boarding schools—this terrible system of military-style regimentation to which Indian children were subjected. In particular, members of your own family passed through the Carlisle Indian Industrial School—probably the single most infamous of these institutions.

WARREN: That’s right. Both my father and my grandfather.

DAVID: And your aunt, who you write about as such a huge influence in your life. She was there for a while, as well.


DAVID: But you weren’t in a boarding school yourself, right? You’re writing about the impact these schools had on your whole family?

WARREN: Yes, we still have family members who are struggling with the residual effects of it. (Photo below shows Warren as a baby with his father, left, and his grandfather, right.)

DAVID: You write in your new memoir about how your father—an angry alcoholic with a furiously violent streak when he was drinking—came close to killing you as a child. You write, “His pain, it seemed, was so deep-seated that he did not know how to expel it, and I became his target. … I remember eating meals with him glaring across the table with rage, gritting his teeth and breathing hard.

At one moment, he might be a loving father, encouraging you in sports or taking you fishing—but in a moment of drunken rage, he might nearly kill you or abuse you for hours by calling you “stupid” and making you stand motionless in the room.

This cycle, which began with the abuse of these people as children in boarding schools, shaped your family’s whole history in the 20th century.

WARREN: The purpose of the boarding schools was to “kill the Indian and save the child.” Native children were forbidden to speak their native language, to practice their worship, to do anything related to their native culture. They wore uniforms. They were taught to walk in lock step.

By the time the boarding schools were at their height, there were over 500 of them in existence. For years, it was mandatory that all native children attend the boarding schools. It gave law-enforcement officials and also church officials the right to actually go onto the reservations, take the children from their families and lock them away.

DAVID: For Americans who’ve never heard about this chapter of our history, this sounds monstrous, shocking. It’s hard to believe our nation once did this routinely to families and to children. Today, most parents would barricade their homes and fight it out with authorities to protect their children.

But it’s part of our history. And it’s part of history in a number of countries around the world. Australians actually observe, now, a National Sorry Day each year to continue the enormous effort at reconciliation taking place in that country over its boarding-school policies toward native people.

In Australia, they call this century of official child abductions by the government, The Stolen Generations.

They’ve also got a very inspiring process that the whole country undertook in recent years to officially recognize this history and begin to reconcile from its effects. Do you think that anything like that could happen here in the U.S.?

WARREN: Yes. We’re hoping President Obama may call for doing as they did in Australia. He has made certain overtures about this to native people. He made a speech in 2008, making promises to native people concerning their nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government and their right to their sovereignty.

I think the greatest damage that was done was spiritual. As we lost our traditional languages, our elders will tell you that we lost something in the way that we pray. And there is an even larger spiritual wound here. This was more than a century of organized attempts by our government to destroy our spiritual validation as human beings.

DAVID: And as a child of a boarding-school survivor, you bore those wounds yourself. In your book, you write about the spiritual dislocation you felt living mostly disconnected from your Indian culture. You had this one aunt, who you write about, who was different. She survived the boarding schools and it drove her into a kind of spiritual isolation where she was seeking—well, how would you describe it.

WARREN: She was seeking some peace in her life. She survived Carlisle. She was born in 1880 and she saw so much of our history unfold in this country.

She eventually went to live alone in a cabin. She never had a driver’s license.

At first, when I was very young, she would come up beside me and I was afraid of her. She dressed differently than other people I knew. A lot of times she was dressed in black. She had her Indian regalia. She had an accent that sounded strange to me. It was an accent of someone who was fluent in Odawa and spoke it frequently.

She carried herself in a different way.

DAVID: But she was a huge influence on you—a bridge figure who you say called you back toward your Indian roots.

WARREN: She would elbow me in the ribs when I was young and my middle name is Donald. She would say, “Donnie, you’re the one.” I didn’t understand this.

In my late teenage years, I finally had the courage to ask about this. I had siblings. What did it mean that she was calling me “the one.” And I’ve been finding out ever since.

DAVID: Among other things, she insisted on passing on a nickname of your great-great grandfather to you. I don’t want to spoil the book for people, but she’s a very intriguing figure in your story.

WARREN: She taught me a lot about walking the Red Road. One of the things she taught me was that, back before foreign influences, native peoples went out at sunrise and sunset and made their requests and thanks known to the Creator. She told me about naming ceremonies. She told me about so many traditions.

There is a spiritual knowledge that connects all of us with each other—and connects all of us with our Creator. We need to maintain that. My auntie was an important part of that connection for me.

DAVID: Again, I don’t want to give away everything that happens in your book, but the story of you and your father—who appears as this out-of-control beast at some points in your life—well, let’s just say that there was a reconciliation eventually.

WARREN: There was. I remember him saying to me, “I’m going to beat this thing.”
And, eventually, that was true. He did beat it. One of the things that I did, when I began writing about my life, was ask him a lot of questions. He shared a lot of information with me.

DAVID: Your book is really a memoir of a family trying to find its home again. There are famous spiritual writers, like Frederick Buechner, who write about faith as a longing for home. In fact, that’s the title of one of his most powerful books, “The Longing for Home.” He was also a survivor of great trauma. His father committed suicide while he was a boy.
That phrase, “Longing for Home,” really could describe your memoir as well.

WARREN: For many years, there was no place for native people to go for therapy or for help or for some kind of spiritual antidote for all of the trauma in our families due to boarding schools and all of the abuse and alcoholism that came from that.

Many of us hope that President Obama may more fully address these issues. There is some help now, but we need more. I hope before my life is done to see more help for our people.

DAVID: I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that your memoir is a downer, because it’s not. The best parts of your book are things like your hymn of affirmation to Indians as a people. It’s this chapter that’s written a bit in the style of Carl Sandburg—a litany of ways you love your people.

Your book is quite humbling in the way you describe your own life—and really is an inspiring affirmation about the hopes of your people to restore their lives from whatever tough spot they might find themselves right now.

WARREN: In the history of the world, we’ve seen the worst that Caligulas, Hitlers and Stalins can do to people. We know that there always will be those who choose violence in their greed and thirst for power. But I think we are called to stand together with people whose stories shine above this trauma and violence.

As a part of the Odawa and Lakotah nations, I feel connected to men and women around the world who understand this vision. I feel connected with people like Stephen Biko, whose story was told in the movie ‘Cry Freedom.’ He stood against Apartheid and all the historical trauma in South Africa. He was killed, but his spirit still speaks to the whole world.

I am Odawa and Lakotah, but I stand with the Navaho, the Chocktaw, the Cree and all the other nations still living among us in America.

We live in a world now that is so loud and angry that we can no longer hear the call of our Creator. We have suppressed our spirituality and creativity. But, these gifts of the Creator still are there—waiting for us to reclaim them.

I teach that we are all connected. We need each other. Those of us who have survived trauma must help others still hoping to survive. We must share our dreams from one generation to the next.

And sometimes to clear our minds and our hearts, we also need to go off alone. This is our Indian way. Sometimes we need to stop and return to nature.

Where can we find peace? When I am alone in the woods, walking carefully among the trees, I find peace as I become quiet enough—as I am, once again, listening closely enough—so that I can hear the mouse playing in the leaves around my feet. Then I know I am reconnected with our Creator.

(Originally published at

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