Gabriel Horn, teacher of literature and creative writing

By Chris Graef
News From Indian Country

Gabriel Horn, Wampanoag descent, currently teaches Literature and Creative Writing at the St. Petersburg College in west Florida. Writer, teacher and activist, Horn is the author of several books, including Ceremony – in the circle of life; Native Heart and Beyond Words: White Deer Autumn.

“I never considered AIM an organization,” said Gabe Horn. “It was a movement. I think that movement went out on the currents everywhere. People who called themselves AIM after those times, it was sad.

“They adopted what AIM had begun originally but destroyed that aspect of AIM by calling themselves an organization. It was a movement, about language, culture, rights. It was about people who got in pick-up trucks and would head out to reservations because there was a death, or a suicide or the people needed them, where there were no cameras, no televisions. It was the people. It was a fire that cannot go out.” Before there was AIM, there was the United Native Americans, he said.

“I participated in that against stereotypes here in Florida, trying to get Native American courses into schools,” said Horn.

Then there was the takeover at Alcatraz in California. That ignited our fires here, he said.

“I was a senior in college during Wounded Knee,” he said. “When I put on my knapsack to go there, my uncle said, ‘What the people need are teachers. If you go, you may end up a body in a ditch.’ So I stayed and graduated from the University of South Florida.”

After graduating, Horn went to Akwesasne, wanting to write for Akwesasne Notes. They were well established so he kept moving and was hired to teach at the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.

“When I wrote Native Heart, I wrote about it because of the incredible spirit among the people, the moms, dads, grandmothers, grandfathers, kids, struggling to be Indian,” he said.

This was the height of AIM times.

“I was teaching at the Wyoming high school, teaching about culture and earth,” he said. “We began to rub the people in power. We put out the first Indian paper there – called Tribe Talk. We renounced Columbus Day and brought up Indian resources as an issue. We occupied the governor’s office when things were promised and not given. All this happened during a few months.”

Horn sought as Instigator
Then, on the Arapaho side of the reservation, students turned an American flag upside down at the American Legion and Horn was sought as the instigator.

“At the time, there were meetings between the BIA and school board,” he said. “The BIA was going to fund new buildings. One of the conditions was that I left. I wanted to stay, but was advised not to.”

Horn returned to Florida where he connected with people in Minnesota at the time AIM was opening Heart of the Earth, its first survival school. Horn traveled to Minnesota, interviewed with Eddie Benton Banai and was hired as a teacher at the Red School House in St. Paul.

“We went to Rapid City and formed plans for survival schools there,” he said. “We started the We Will Remember School there. There were a lot of things going on then. Annie Mae, a lot of AIM people coming through. They brought a spirit with them, and took spirit with them. A lot of foreign dignitaries and their entourages visited. It was a wonderful time. If you passed through there and did it quietly, you would see it.”

In St. Paul, the Red School House was way ahead of its time, combining language, spirituality and history, he said.

“These kids came in so fragmented,” Horn said. “We tried to teach them that they were whole. They were being told that they had to have blood quantum, or their hair wasn’t black enough. You can’t be in parts. You’re either Indian or you’re not. The ideas that shake people were because there’s been so much perversion in religion.”

Even if you have blood, it doesn’t matter if you’re the same as being American in a fear-based consumer society, he said.

“A lot of those kids weren’t going to school when they first came there,” he said. “Drop-out rates were around 90 percent. And these kids were so bright. It breaks your heart, the drunken driving, the suicides, the drugs. In order to survive, they had to find something else to keep their spirit centered.”

The survival schools were vital, sparked with life, he said.

“When everything else in AIM was falling apart, the spirit of the teachers were just incredible to see,” he said. “There were no AIM leaders, no TV cameras, just an incredible spirit.”

Whenever AIM needed bodies, the school was there, he said.

“When the Red School House got a call, people got into their old cars, drove through snowstorms, up to Canada,” he said. “We were told not to come into reservations when it was dangerous, but there was not a blink of fear, not even in the kids.

“We taught in apartments where it was cold, and that was our school, straight back metal chairs and a book and an upside down U.S. flag hanging outside. We went to prisons, to Stillwater prison, and conducted ceremonies when we were told we’d never be allowed to. We went to reservations where suicide rates were high and did ceremony. We were told we couldn’t. It was a different time.”

The AIM pow wows at both schools never were about money or prizes, he said.

“We danced to honor the earth,” said Horn. “We danced to bring unity. The spirit of the times was about being thankful. Being Indian and expressing it. Survival schools supported that.”

Director of Culture
Horn was also a director of culture at the American Indian Center in Minneapolis, “doing the same thing there. We allowed the youth to use their creativity and revitalize the Center on Franklin Avenue, which badly needed it at the time.”

Banai organized the Walk for Survival and Indians came from all over the country.

“I can only look at this as incredible,” he said. “All walking together. It was hard, but maybe that’s what helped us be strong.”

This generation is responsible for that now, he said.

“I saw a picture of one of our students about 10 years ago,” he said. “I had worked at the Pointer Institute in St. Petersburg one summer and met a young woman from when I had taught. I asked her about a kid that I knew, Charley. He had beautiful brown face, long braids. I asked how he was doing. They found him frozen, killed, face down on a highway . He was in his early 20’s. I remember him as a boy.”

I remember, in Minnesota there was always something happening, he said.

“I was getting tired of our own people, out of jealousy or over money, like if the school was given something, competing over it,” he said. “What I remember of the AIM leadership – I remember their children, teaching them. I remember how hard it was in the survival schools because of threats and lack of money

“We depended on ourselves. I think greed snuck into a lot of places. And paranoia. OK, let’s be aware, but not paranoid. I thought it was more about jealousy and ego when you got higher up in AIM. But the grassroots people, teachers, parents, kids, that was the spirit.”

A lot of times the enemy was our own people, he said. That’s the hardest to deal with of all the issues.

“Annie Mae was not an informant, but probably she knew who was informing,” he said.

How do you separate that mess from the true movement?

“Look at history, at the repetition of history,” he said. “You see how betrayal, fear, ego effects an effort, how it all goes down. What we tried to do in the survival schools was to have the kids read this, look at this, learn from history so they didn’t repeat its mistakes. It went into their minds, the importance of that. Today’s leaders may come from those kinds of schools. Today, maybe they learned the lesson of what happened.”

Horn remembers a family at the Red School House - Holly the oldest child, Peter, the next oldest, Mary Anne and Earl.

“Their mother had been hit by a car,” he said. “Holly found her at home in bed, unconscious. The kids from the Heart of the Earth and the Red School House, got together and brought the pipe to the family. We passed the pipe and shared peace with the family. The doctor said she was brain dead, she’s just a body and was like that for a few days.”

The adults, who were Catholic, didn’t want the responsibility for pulling the plug, he said. They left it “in God’s hands.”

“The school, all of us, we sat in a big circle in a room in the hospital,” he said. “We got out the pipe. Peter took the responsibility in saying ‘we need to release her.’ He and I took the pipe out to a frozen lake. He was 13-years-old, praying for strength to release his mother. We came back. The kids all were still there. Everyone smoked the pipe. She was released. That’s what the AIM school was about.”

Annie Mae was Whole
People like Annie Mae, people who were teachers, like George, Sherry, Laverne, Cathy, were whole, he said.

“They couldn’t tear us apart,” Horn said. “It was a powerful time. A powerful place.”

Every semester, Horn brings a carving of the circle with four directions into class.

“I hold it up and tell the students that when we look at this symbol, each has an equal place in the circle,” he said. “Not the same, but equal. I can never look at you other than as an equal. You can choose to be a jerk or disrespectful regardless of what color you are. That’s the idea grounded in the circle. We have to, no matter what, remain true to our beliefs, to the earth, to the sky, to the great mystery. Never surrender that. We have a responsibility to continue to be good people.”

Horn is both cynical and hopeful about the future of Indian country.

We continue to evolve, he said.