Of lye soap and frilly pink dresses

An Apache woman's memoir recalls a brutal year in an Indian orphanage.


Sharon Skolnick
October 15, 1997 8:41PM (UTC)

Introduction by Kate Moses

"The old people were right about photographs," Sharon Skolnick writes in
the introductory notes to her first book, "Where Courage is Like a Wild
Horse." "They do steal a little bit of your soul. I say that because there's
one part of my life that was never photographed, and it's the time that
lives most vividly in my mind."

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That time was the year 9-year-old Skolnick (then named Linda Lakoe)
lived at the Murrow Indian Orphanage in Muskogee, Okla. It was 1953;
Skolnick had washed up on the gloomy, arid shoals of Murrow with her
younger sister Jackie after the breakup of their family and five years at
the mercy of the state Indian child welfare system. Already brutalized by a
parade of foster homes and temporary caregivers, Skolnick and her sister
faced at Murrow the further alienation of being the only Apache children in
an institution populated by the tribes of Northeastern Oklahoma. "Not only
were we friendless and isolated from the moment we stepped through the
massive wooden doors of the three-story red brick dormitory," Skolnick
writes, "we were also the distrusted and despised daughters of a tribe
that inspired fear even in this outpost of Indian country."

Skolnick survived the terror, loneliness and petty humiliations of her childhood and became an artist; her acute perceptions of life at the orphanage are captured, like still photography, in the light and shadow of her visual memory. There is the small, thin girl -- herself -- sitting
with her face to the cafeteria wall, her skin marked by running sores no
worse than the cruelty of the other children; there is a first (covert) trip
to a drive-in movie, where the dark rows of huddled cars look to Skolnick
like the pupae of Monarch butterflies. There are the absurd potential
parents, red-faced farm couples who bring picnics and never come again;
there is the "intricate green net" of the grassy horse pasture, where
Skolnick hides to play with a handful of tiny blue porcelain ponies, her
only legacy from her real mother. In the discreet snapshots of her life at
Murrow, Skolnick assembles a portrait of a tough little girl, a fair and
unsentimental observer who kept a tenacious grip on her soul.

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EXCERPT

The Bacone Clothes Line

To begin at the beginning: Sunrise. A line of girls in a long gray corridor. It may be a trick of the light, but each, dressed only in a slip or frayed undershirt, appears thin. The light streams in, golden, through the high, small window above and behind the vast oak cabinet. Our closet is framed in the fire of sunrise; it seems that the door opens into a brilliant tunnel. A crisp, bracing smell of soaps and cleansers issues from the cabinet, as if the bright passage led into a pine wood in morning.

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I am first in line because I've struggled out of the embrace of sleep with the first crow of cocks this morning. I have an ambition, a hope that animates me. There is a dress I want to wear. It's pink. It arrived only two weeks ago, making it the newest item in the wardrobe of the second-floor girls. It has ruffles and a bow; to me it is Cinderella's ball dress, as wonderful as that. So far, Mrs. Alice B. Joseph, who dispenses our clothes in the morning, our meals three times a day, our discipline and medicine when she deems it necessary, has given the dress only to her special favorites. I am not one of those. Phyllis, who is my enemy, has worn it twice. But today I am first in line. And I have reason to hope that Mrs. Joseph is a fair woman. She's told me more times than I can count, "Linda, just meet me halfway. You'll find that I'm a fair woman." Well, here I am, first in line.

Mrs. Joseph looms above, as wooden as the clothes closet. Sunrise surrounds her in a nimbus of light; it could be that she's a Baptist angel, a cigar-store angel presiding over a lineup of cigar-store Indians, although that thought won't come to me for many years. All I know this day is that Mrs. Joseph does not appreciate fidgeting. And most often that's no problem; at sunrise it takes all our energy simply to maintain the vertical. But today my anticipation of the pink dress has me supercharged. I shift from left foot to right; I clasp my hands in front, behind, in front again. Joseph fixes me with her steel gray eyes. I summon all my self-control to hold myself at attention. But she senses that she can outwait me. The silence in that corridor becomes so intense that it seems you can hear the sun rising high in the clear blue Oklahoma sky. The line of girls scarcely breathes. A rooster crows, and the sheer unexpectedness of it makes me jump half out of my flimsy little shift. Mrs. Joseph's lips turn in just the barest suggestion of a smile. "Linda, you know I won't tolerate that fidgitin'. To the back of the line with you, girl."

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"Oh, but Mrs. Joseph, please. I got up so early." I feel I must plead my case, though I know from experience that it can only make things worse.

"Another word from you, and you will get no clothes at all today, little missy." I can hardly credit that; it isn't Mrs. Joseph's style. But there's no doubt that the woman is not pleased.

I can't take any more chances today because today the couple is coming. That's what my sister Jackie and I were told in the dread privacy of Mrs. Joseph's office, where we, trembling miscreants, expected at the very least to taste lye soap for some real or imagined indiscretion whispered behind her back but overheard. Instead we were greeted with, "Well, girls, this is very good. We've found a couple that has a definite interest in two little Indian girls." She paused dramatically. "I even said the dread word, Apache, and that didn't discourage them. If you can make yourselves lovable -- yes, lovable, Linda -- we may be rid of you."

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Well, lovable -- that will be a challenge. But surely a pink dress with bows and ribbons, Cinderella's dress, would go a long way. Even Mrs. Joseph must be able to see that. So why is she torturing me with a prolonged tease this morning? One by one the little Indian girls ahead of me receive their day's ration of clothing, and still the pink dress stays in the closet. Is she putting me through some sort of test to see if I'm worthy? Will the dress, so much desired because so long withheld, be my reward after all?

Phyllis had not received her clothes yet. That would answer the question. My eyes burned into her back until it seemed that the birthmark directly between her shoulder blades must ignite. I would have fused her spine into an iron rod with the heat of my eyes if I could, and watched the jelly of her thin flesh quiver and shake on the immobile column of her back; I hated her that much. She was Kiowa, for one thing, an approved tribe at Murrow and at Bacone College, which surrounded our little orphanage.

I was Apache. People looked scared when they heard that. Even here, at the Murrow Indian Orphanage. I'm talking about the Indian staff at the Indian orphanage. They bought the whole Geronimo story, the crazed terror of the frontier. The thing was, there weren't many Apaches in northeastern Oklahoma. My people come from Anadarko, three hundred miles south and west. So at Murrow all they knew of Apaches was Geronimo, my sister, and me. And I guess my sister and I didn't give them much reason to discount the Geronimo legacy. By that I mean that we met expectations; at least I did.

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With a look deep into my eyes, past my eyes, Mrs. Joseph hands the pink dress to Phyllis. "Take it, honey," I hear her say, "it's the Kiowa dress." I'm quite sure I didn't make a sound, but in my head there was a thunder of rage. I didn't hear what she said when she handed me the well-worn navy blue sailor suit that had once been the prized outfit belonging to the second-floor girls. Later Jackie told me she'd said something like, "We don't want to fool the people, honey. That never works out. You're not a pink, frilly dress kind of girl. You're Apache."

I don't remember the couple who came to visit Jackie and me. I didn't really pay them much attention. I knew with an absolute certainty that it wouldn't work out. And, of course, it didn't. That pink dress was my only chance; without it, the whole exercise was doomed. I withdrew into the deep, brooding funk that was the commonest weather of my soul. The couple made a fuss over little Jackie, who had perfected her "adorable" act, but they shied away from me. They knew my secret; I could see it in their eyes. Without the pink dress to distract them, they could just discern the rash that lurked under my skin ready to erupt into weepy, running sores. They would have adopted Jackie in a minute if I hadn't been part of the package. But who wanted a sullen, sore-faced Apache in a worn-out old sailor suit? Not this couple; that was certain.

I thought about jumping Phyllis in her pink dress. The idea tasted good on my tongue. But I knew from bitter experience that such an indulgence would only earn me a beating from the ruling clique and the further punishment of a lonely night in the infirmary without dinner. So I mastered my anger until dark of night. Then I crept out of my bed, past the lone chair in the cell of solitude and silence where I slept, through the curtain that served as a door, down the damp, shadowy corridor, to the towering oak cabinet, now bathed in the thin silver of moonlight. Mrs. Joseph didn't bother to lock the clothes closet since no useful purpose could ever be served by one of us raiding it. On this night I served a useless purpose. I took the pink dress, the Kiowa dress, and slipped into the enclosed dark of a broom closet. I cut the dress into a tangle of pink ribbons and then left it in a neat pile, scissors placed prominently on top, in front of Phyllis's door. Then I returned to bed to sleep the sleep of the justified.

I know Mrs. Joseph never believed that Phyllis had done the deed, not even for a minute. I'm quite sure that she did suspect me. For many days afterward she looked at me with a new expression in her eyes. She never questioned me about it; indeed, she never so much as mentioned the pink Kiowa dress to any of the girls on the second floor. Of course, it's true that we didn't get any new dresses for a long time. But I like to think that the chief motive for her silence was this: she knew in her heart that I'd had the right to do what I had done.

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WILLING CO-CONSPIRATORS

Seen through the small rectangle of my window: the distant, three-story brick façade of the boys' dormitory. I don't see it very well now; my window is filled by the fair face and figure of Ruthie Tenkiller. Ruthie's one of the big girls -- sixteen, I think -- and she's the one I want to grow up looking like. Ruthie is a beauty. Her hair is long and black and lustrous. It reminds me of the magnificent tail of the black mare in our horse pasture, but Ruthie's is ever so much softer and finer. She has big black eyes and the kind of fine, slim nose you don't see much around here. She's not really allowed to wear lipstick, but she does sometimes. She's wearing lipstick tonight, though I know it's too far and too dark for her boyfriend to see. It's bright red, a color they would call sinful in church, but I think it looks wonderful. She stands in the window, fingers on my light switch, sending some sort of pattern of long and short flashes. Her teeth and eyes gleam in my darkened room. Across the way, on the third floor, second room from the left, her boyfriend sends a return message in Morse code.

You may have wondered why I've mentioned only one adult in this narrative. Surely, even someone as enormously competent as Mrs. Joseph could not have run the Murrow Indian Orphanage on her own. Yes and no. I mean, it never occurred to me to wonder about administrators and boards of governors. So, yes, as far as the day in, day out life went, and barring any medical emergencies, Mrs. Joseph was the adult in charge on the Murrow Orphanage grounds. But, no, she didn't do it alone. She had the help of our cook, Mrs. Treat, for one thing. And the big girls, the teenage girls who were wards of the state until their eighteenth birthday, did much of the real work. They made those awful Sunday meals, for one thing. They watched over us while we did our chores -- making our beds, dusting the big staircase, watering the plants on the sun porch, washing the linoleum on the floor of that long second-floor corridor, taking the dry clothes off the line on hot afternoons. They hauled the dirty clothes to the laundromat on Saturdays and hung them out on the line. They planted and weeded our garden patch. They washed the dishes in our kitchen and at the college cafeteria. When we had visitors, they did the serving. They ironed all those clothes of ours and did the hard cleaning -- toilets, stoves, sinks.

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As I run down their chores, I feel like I'm writing up the list of Cinderella's housework. And, indeed, Cinderella was an orphan, just like Ruthie and her friends. The state could be every bit as unfeeling and cruel as any wicked stepmother. When I first heard that story, and it might have been Ruthie who read it to me, I thought of her as a Cinderella. Beautiful as she was, and worn down with work, yet so bright and bubbly with hope. There was one big difference: Ruthie didn't have any Prince Charming living in the neighborhood castle. All she had was Elmer Catches over in the dark brick boys' dormitory. Elmer was okay, I guess, but even Ruthie would admit that he was no Prince Charming. She thought he was the best available. I never heard her say any more about him than that, but I believe that she thought he was her ticket out.

The reason I know that much about secret, grown-up things between the big girls and boys has to do with the one job that the teenagers like the least at Murrow. Each girl was appointed big sister to two of us little girls. Which meant they were supposed to look out for us -- to keep us from falling if they could and bandage our scrapes if they couldn't. They were supposed to wipe our noses when we were sick, keep the strong from tormenting the weak, and hug us when the lonelies got hold of us so hard that we thought we'd dissolve in tears. Of course, Mrs. Joseph was too busy to check on how well they were doing all that. And they were teenage girls, all alone in the world, with troubles enough of their own to keep them more than occupied. So, for the most part, they didn't pay their "little sisters" as much mind as they were supposed to.

We did have one thing going for us, which explains why Ruthie was in my room that night. Our little girls' rooms were on the wing that faced the boys' dorm. So if our big sisters wanted to arrange secret meetings with Indian boyfriends they had to sneak into our rooms after hours to do it. After one time or another, most of the big girls used their little sisters' rooms for just that purpose. They'd worked out a kind of Morse code with the boys, and our light switches were their telegraph keys. On some Friday and Saturday nights, rooms would be flashing light and dark all up and down the second-floor corridor. It was a sight to see. We little girls felt flattered, in a way, to be included in these very grown-up goings-on. Even if we didn't get along with our big sister, we never withheld our permission. And, believe me, we never ratted on anyone for their late-night indiscretions.

Now, don't get me wrong: for all the flirting and teasing and midnight message passing, Ruthie was a very proper young lady, as I remember it. She once told me that she believed in love enough not to confuse it with sex. Of course, she whispered that in the strictest confidence; sex was not a word we said out loud at Murrow.

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When the time came that Ruthie wanted to use our room, she was especially good to us. An hour after dinner she gave us each half a Mounds bar. We didn't get candy very often, and the coconut and dark chocolate tasted wonderful. I hated to swallow, and I guess Jackie felt the same way, because a few minutes later Ruthie said, "Now, I'm not supposed to be bringin' you girls candy. Look at the mess you're makin'. You'll get me in trouble." And indeed Jackie had held all the candy in her mouth; dribbles of chocolate were running down her nightgown. Ruthie spent a good five minutes rubbing on the white nightie until all the stain was gone. She seemed very severe, but I heard her laughing about it with her friends later. After she got Jackie cleaned up, she sat each of us on her lap in turn, unbound our hair, and brushed and brushed. That felt wonderful; living in the country as we did, our hair often got dirty and tangled. Getting our hair brushed was a real treat.

"Now, girls," Ruthie said when she finished with us, "I'm going to ask a very big favor. Elmer and me, we got to make some plans. And it's hard now they know we're stuck on each other. They make it tough for us to get together. So I've got to use your room; it's the only way I know. I'll be real grateful. You girls know I like you. You're like the little sisters I never had."

At the time I didn't have any qualms about
helping her. Whatever Ruthie may have felt about us, I knew I loved her like a sister. I mean, I admired her. I thought she was beautiful. I knew she was strong and brave. I bet that when she was my age, she was holy hell out on the grounds. She took grief from no one; Ruthie may be the only person I've ever known I can honestly say that about. So when she asked, I didn't think twice about my "sure."

Jackie snuck into my room fifteen minutes after lights out. We weren't used to staying up late, and it wasn't easy in the dark, quiet room. We didn't dare talk to each other or do any of the other things that might have kept us awake. We whispered about one thing and another, especially the day Jackie spent in school without me, and all the brave things Phyllis did to keep those town kids in line. That Phyllis, she was getting almost as high in my eyes as Ruthie.

About midnight a slim shadow slipped soundlessly past our curtain. Ruthie was wearing her white terry cloth robe, but her face was all made up with mascara and rouge and lipstick. I think she wanted Elmer to see her looking pretty from all that distance, and at night. Otherwise, I can't explain the Toulouse-Lautrec getup on a girl who usually had such excellent taste.

Ruthie seemed nervous. She brought in a bottle of coke and some paper cups and put them on the floor. I wasn't sure if she wanted us to pour ourselves a drink, but I didn't dare do it without some sort of permission. She rushed right to the window; by happy coincidence, our light switch was in easy reach. She flipped the switch to flash a series of light and dark dots and dashes; it was a weird and disorienting feeling to sit in our room while the lights flickered on and off, off and on. Apparently, Elmer understood the code, because he signed back to her. The earnest conversation with talking lights lasted a few minutes. When it was over, Ruthie looked happier than I'd seen her in a long time.

We sat down together, co-conspirators, and each savored a glass of cold coke. Now, please understand just what a cold pop was for us. The only place you could get it was at the general store, a half-mile down the road. That place was strictly off-limits to us; and when we could talk someone older into bringing us back a store-bought drink, it was invariably warm. How Ruthie kept this cold remains a mystery to me to this day.

As she poured our cups of pop, Ruthie touched each of ours with hers. It was a gesture I didn't understand. "To a happy future for all of us," she whispered. "To love. To love. Oh, wish me luck, girls. I'm going to need it." I had no idea what she was talking about, but I whispered back, "Good luck, Ruthie." And Jackie echoed, "Good luck."

Ruthie shut off the room light. We drank our cokes in dark silence. When she stood up to go, Ruthie gave each of us a hug and a kiss on the forehead. A strange light shined in her eyes, though it was so dark in the room that neither Jackie nor I saw the red lipstick on our foreheads until we stood in the clothes line the next morning.


Sharon Skolnick

Sharon Skolnick (Okee-Chee), an enrolled member of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, is an artist and gallery owner. Manny Skolnick is the author of "Alford Waters: The Story of an American Indian" and "Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light." They live in Chicago.

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