New Book Takes Fictional Approach to Controversial Time in American Indian History
July 6, 2007
A murder, scandal and history serve as a back drop for a new novel set in a fictional
American Indian pueblo.
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DATE: July 6, 2007
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The 1920s-era controversy over the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs longstanding -- and
since discarded -- policy to "Christianize and civilize" American Indian children
serves as a backdrop for a new novel by Harold Burton Meyers.
"The Death at Awahi," published by Texas Tech University Press, takes the reader to
the fictional New Mexico pueblo of Awahi in 1923. At the heart of the story is a scandal.
The pueblo’s school principal has been caught passing government property meant for
the Awahi to a missionary.
To try to smooth over a Congressional uproar, the Indian Service, the education arm
of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, replaces the principal with Quill Thompson,
a critic of the Christianize and civilize policy. Quill faces opposition from a teacher
who might have had his job had she not been a woman and two entrepreneurial proselytizers
who share only contempt for the "savages" they seek to convert.
The situation turns even more dangerous when a white man is found dead. Now Quill
faces the question of whether to let the Awahi deliver their own type of justice or
call in outside forces that could destroy an ancient society trying to hold on to
its rich culture despite the encroachment of the missionaries and the government.
Meyers, a former Time magazine correspondent and Fortune magazine editor, grew up
on the Pima-Maricopa, Zuni, Navajo and Hopi reservations in Arizona and New Mexico
during the 1920s and 1930s. His mother was an Indian Service teacher, his father a
teacher and school administrator.
His childhood experiences give Meyers a feeling for the land and the people that comes
through in the pages of his novel. "We lived in beautiful canyon-cut places 50 miles
or more from any town," he recalls, "among culturally rich but desperately poor people,
who struggled to survive without medical care or hope of anything better. It was a
One of the family tales he grew up hearing was about a missionary who proposed that
his father divert government clothing and supplies to the missionary’s school and
collect a commission on the deal. That isolated incident, Meyers said, grew into "Awahi."
"What I write about," Meyers said, "is not just the past in a historic sense, it is
very much my past and it colors my choice of topics, the settings I choose to describe
and the characters I try to bring alive in my stories."
"The Death at Awahi" is the third novel by Meyers set in the Southwest. For more information
on "The Death at Awahi" or Texas Tech University Press visit its Web page at www.ttup.ttu.edu.