Byline: Kaylea Berry/Reporter
The Chilocco National Alumni Association and Oklahoma State University Library’s Oral History Research Program began working on a project about veterans who attended Chilocco Indian School. The project started in 2016 and ultimately led to creation of a graphic novel based on Chilocco.
Sarah Milligan, Department Head for the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at the Oklahoma State University Library, recruited Jerry Bennett, Johnnie Diacon, and Julie Pearson Little Thunder to create the storyline and graphics for the novel.
Julie Pearson Little Thunder, script and story writer for Chilocco Indian School: A Generational Story, shared, “The desire to let more people know about it [Chilocco Indian School] came from the Chilocco alumni themselves.”
Chilocco Indian School opened in 1884 and was the first off-reservation, federally funded Native American boarding school in Oklahoma and the largest intertribal Native boarding school in the United States. The school operated from 1884 to 1980 and was located near the Oklahoma-Kansas border in Newkirk, OK.
The school intended to assimilate Native Americans through a curriculum consisting of academics and vocational disciplines. Natives that were not from nearby tribes were targeted first to come to the school. This was because it was harder for them to escape back home.
According to Little Thunder, the novel’s goal is “Actually just one of a series of efforts to raise more awareness about Chilocco Indian Agricultural School and how unique it was. It was the only Indian agricultural school in the country.”
Because Chilocco was the only agricultural school available to Native Americans, it brought Natives from various tribes to the school. Students from more than 127 tribes attended the school. The boarding school’s operating style closely resembled that of the military: government-issued uniforms, marching, details, etc. Chilocco also held the status of a National Guard center.
“Chilocco Indian School: A Generational Story” is a graphic novel set in the present-day at a family reunion through the eyes of a young girl, Jaya. Her mom is in the United States Navy and deployed abroad. While her mom is deployed, her aunt takes care of her and her brother, Malcolm. They go to a family reunion, and her aunt and grandma tell Jaya about their experiences at Chilocco Indian School and its history.
“It [Chilocco Indian School: A Generational Story] tells us we are ALL learning. There is so much history to Chilocco, and many untold stories and perspectives that aren’t found in archives,” artist Jerry Bennett shared.
The intent is for the book to be in school libraries and the curriculum taught at a middle school level. However, the book is not restricted only to middle school. Curriculum design specialists Dr. Samantha Benn-Duke (Cherokee/Muscogee Creek) and Dr. Lisa Lynn Brooks (Choctaw) developed two curriculum units for K-5 and 6-12.
The K-5 unit breaks down into lesson plans, one for kindergarten through second grades and one for third through fifth grades. The 6-12 unit breaks into sixth through eighth grades and ninth through twelfth grades. The curriculum can be found on the Chilocco History Project website.
“I’m hoping that it will help inform people about what the early institutions of boarding schools were like, at Chilocco specifically,” Little Thunder said. “I’m hoping it will educate them about how those impacts still play out among families. Even with Muscogee (Creek) families, there’s a kind of strictness to the way that women approach things from boarding school. Things must be done just so, and they don’t always express their emotions. So, these women … they’ve been impacted too even though they chose to go to Chilocco, and they enjoyed it when they were there.”
The graphic novel style was chosen because of its appeal to a broader audience. Bennett and Diacon worked together to create the art and layout for this project.
Bennett said, “With graphic storytelling, we get visual cues from facial expressions, camera angles, color, pacing, and much more that can help tell a very emotional story. It’s not far off from how we watch movies, but even better, in my opinion, because we also get textual elements you don’t get from movies and TV, and the reader sets the pace for taking in the story.”
The story of Chilocco is such an important story that needs to be told, and being able to use a graphic novel to spark the interest of readers is a great tool. There are still many other stories that need to be told.
“A lot of families have people that have gone to school there [Chilocco]; there’s a big connection there with a lot of Indian families in Oklahoma and outside of the state. This is before the discovery of the graves in Canada. It’s not just media stories, it’s family stories, we knew about these things, but it wasn’t in the forefront,” said Diacon.
Indigenous peoples’ stories are starting to emerge now, and people are listening. Not only that, but our people are telling stories about our people.
“Chilocco Indian School: A Generational Story” is available for free download on the Chilocco History Project website under ‘Educator Resources. Under the ‘The Archive’ tab on the website, you or anyone you know that attended Chilocco can ‘Contribute an Item’ such as photographs or a story. There is also an option to purchase a hard copy for five dollars.