What I’m Reading: Indian No More

Indian No More is a middle grade novel credited to two authors–Charlene Willing McManus, who conceived and wrote early drafts of the book, and Traci Sorell, her friend, who finished the book after McManus died in 2018. McManus was an Umpqua Indian from Oregon, and the events in the book are loosely based on her own childhood, while Sorell is Cherokee.

The book follows Regina Petit, who’s probably around ten years old in 1954 when the government “terminates” her tribe, the Umpqua, on the Grand Ronde Reservation in Oregon, meaning they no longer recognize them as Indian and will no longer provide health care or education. Tribe members can buy the property they live on, but Regina’s family can’t afford that, so she, her parents, her grandmother Chich, and her little sister Peewee pack up and move to Los Angeles, where her dad hopes to find a job.

In the working-class neighborhood in LA they move to, no one has ever seen real Indians before, and neighborhood kids wonder why Regina’s family doesn’t resemble the Indians they see on TV. Her father, who had served in the US Navy, finds work at an electronics firm and after a few months even becomes a supervisor, and soon the family can afford a car and new clothes.

But this success may be at the cost of their Indian heritage. Away from her cousins and tribe and their way of doing things, Regina gradually loses touch with what it means to be Umpqua. Los Angelenos celebrate holidays she’s never celebrated before (Halloween and Thanksgiving), eat strange cuisines (Chinese), and definitely don’t perform the Umpqua songs and dances Regina is used to seeing at gatherings. Only the stories Chich tells her keep her connected to her Indian identity.

When some teenagers in a car shout out racial epithets at the Petits and their African-American neighbors, and soon after a restaurant refuses the Petit family service because the waitress thinks they’re Mexican, Regina starts to wonder if they’ll ever be accepted as real Americans. Not only as she losing her Indianness, it seems she may not even ever get to be American, either. And now her grandmother, her last link to the Umpqua ways, isn’t feeling well, and has been taking more of her heart pills lately….

This is a really beautifully written little book, about a historical phenomenon–tribal termination–in the 1950s and 60s I didn’t know about. (Apparently the Umpqua regained their tribal designation in 1983.) Regina is a completely believable child observer of events–she notices a lot, but filters it through a ten-year-old’s perspective. I would recommend this to any child in middle school or late elementary school who likes to read, and there’s enough interesting historical narrative I think it would be of interest to adults who want to know more about the topic, as well.

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