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Wild Blackberry Books
Labeled a half breed, Joaquin, half Hopi and half white, has a long journey ahead when he is orphaned shortly after his mother dies in child birth with his stillborn sister.
In the 1880s the United States Government expanded their idea of civilizing the Indians through forcefully removing Indian children and placing them in Indian boarding schools throughout the west, where they intended to educate the children in Christianity and the white man’s way. In 1887 the government built a boarding school in Keams Canyon Arizona and they began removing Hopi and Navajo children from their homes, sending them away from their families and placing them in the newly built boarding school. In 1938 Joaquin Neilsen, a young half breed orphaned Hopi boy that his Hopi grandmother affectionately called Pakwa, was taken and placed in Keams Canyon Boarding School, a school that by then was deteriorating, where conditions were less than ideal. When Joaquin was sent home to his grandmother in the middle of the school year to heal from serious injuries sustained during an episode of one of the Headmaster’s harsh disciplinary actions, his grandmother decided that in order to save her grandson’s life she would have to send him away from the reservation to live with his great Uncle Jake on the white man’s ranch near Winslow. This is Joaquin’s story as he attempts to live in two worlds, the world of the Hopi and the world of the white man.
That night at least there was wood for the dormitory heating stove. The parents of one of the boys had arrived at the school that afternoon with a truck load of firewood, following a request they’d received in their son’s last letter that the parents had the postmaster read to them because they hadn’t learned to read.
One of the older boys fed and stoked the fire until the stove’s belly turned a cherry red hue before they all climbed beneath their blankets and drifted off into a comfortable sleep that night.
Sometime during the night Joaquin awoke with a cough. His head felt as though it was filled with cotton and his chest ached as though a mountain were sitting on it. When he pulled in a deep breath he realized the room was filled with smoke!
“Eiiieeeee!” he yelled, throwing his blanket back and leaping to his feet in a single bound. The stove pipe where it exited the roof was glowing red hot and flames were lapping out from the ceiling around it.
“Get up! Fire!” he yelled, reaching out and shaking the nearest boy. Soon the commotion had awakened all of the boys and they were coughing and running frantically around the room, trying to open the locked door.
“It’s locked!” the first boy to the door yelled. “We can’t get out! It’s locked!”
Hysteria overtook the group.
Joaquin’s bed was the one nearest the window. Thinking quickly, he took a chair and slung it through the panes and then draped a blanket over the shards of broken glass. “Come on! Climb out! Go out the window!” he yelled.
The smoke was getting so thick that he could barely breathe much less see. A stampede of boys moved past him and they quickly climbed out through the shattered window’s opening.
When Joaquin turned toward the window to follow, somewhere in the veil of smoke he heard the small voice of Sikyatavo, the smallest of the boys, as the child cried out for him.
“Joaquin! Joaquin! I cannot see you! I cannot see the window!” The boy coughed and whimpered.
Joaquin made his way through the thick smoke toward the choking sounds the boy made.
“I’m here,” Joaquin said, reaching out into the smoke toward the child’s coughing sounds. “I’m here!” His fingers came into contact with the small boy’s head and he grasped the child’s hair, pulling him toward him. When he realized Sikyatavo was within his grasp, Joaquin reached out in front of him, feeling his way toward their escape, pulling the boy along with him toward where he knew the window would be.
“Come on, Sikyatavo! Come with me and don’t cry! We’re almost to the window!” He could sense the coolness of the air as he reached out toward the opening where the window had once been. Picking Sikyatavo up by the waist, he thrust him through the window. The room was full of flames by now, licking at his exposed skin like a blow torch. He was beginning to feel dizzy, light headed.
“Is everyone out?” he shouted, gasping for breath. The noise of the flames was deafening. If anyone had answered he couldn’t have heard them.
“Is everyone out?” he repeated, louder. Timbers from the roof began to fall as he thrust his body through the window’s opening and out into the cold night air. He landed on his chest on the hard ground. Gathering himself up quickly to his feet, he scampered toward the building beyond the dormitory where he could see the boys huddled, illuminated by the flames that shot up into the night sky.
It wasn’t long before the staff appeared in their night clothes, frantic as to whether all of the boys had made it out of the dormitory. When the headmaster counted heads and verified that all of the boys were present and accounted for, Joaquin breathed a sigh of relief. The night air was growing colder and caused him to shiver as he stood staring at the flames that were consuming the entire building now.