As an inveterate reader I tell people I do not read books—I devour them. For the book I am currently writing, about the Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, I am devouring about two books a week. In addition, I read about two a week for fun. I have written a total of 27 books, and will soon finish the 28th, The American Indian Dropout.
I just read three essays for students. All three scored below a 20 on the ACT, or below the 50th percentile. They had good GPAs of 3.5 to 3.8. So they should have scored at the 75th percentile or higher.
Why did they score so low? None of them are readers. Our students have to learn that education does not come in schools. All schools do is teach you some tools. Then you have to use these tools to learn yourself. You learn by reading. The schools do not teach Indian kids to read. To most Indian kids, having to read a book is like having to take castor oil. It should be like eating ice cream.
But the Indian reservation schools they are attending are cheating them out of a fulfilling life. These schools do not encourage or require students to read.
I feel so strongly about the importance of reading that I wrote a book about it called Reading for College. It is an annotated bibliography of books on literature, biology, biography, aviation, crime—41 chapters in all. We wanted that book in all the Indian high schools and colleges. But it is a slow seller. We have not yet sold 100 of them—to order, visit CatchingtheDream.org. The people who have used it have really improved their reading and ACT scores. One of our students, Amber Baca, is carrying a 4.0 GPA at the University of New Mexico.
Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is the story of conquering Indians in the Dakota Territory in the last half of the 19th century. Brown, who also wrote the best-seller about the railroads, is a wonderful writer. He told the story of the massacres, lies, and destruction of the Plains Indians from their point of view, which few books have ever done.
The Unquiet Grave by Steve Hendricks is the story of the struggle between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the American Indian Movement in the 1970s. He tells of the death of Anna Mae Aquash, a young woman who came to Wounded Knee from New England and was murdered. Two AIM members are serving life sentences for her killing; they were sentenced three decades after her death.
Laura Hillenbrand’s, Unbroken is the story of the World War II hero Luis Zamparini. He was an Olympic runner in 1936, was shot down in the Pacific in 1942, and spent three years in a Japanese POW camp. Angelina Jolie is now making the movie. Luis is still alive, 95 years old, and still working with kids in Los Angeles.
Hap Arnold, the founder of the U.S. Air Force, was one of the original old boys. Guess who taught him to fly? Wilbur Wright, in a cow pasture in Ohio. Hap was the second-last five star general in the U.S.; Dwight Eisenhower was the last one. Thomas M. Coffey did a great job on Hap in his book Hap: The Story of the U. S. Air Force and the Man Who Built It. After the U.S. Army Air Corps played a major role in winning World War II, Congress and President Truman finally made the U.S. Air Force the fourth arm of the military.
Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way is a lively history of English, including misuses, crosswords, and a lot more. I have read it three times and will read it again soon.
Edward Spicer’s, Cycles of Conquest is a history of the Spanish, the Mexicans, and the U.S. and the conquering of Indians in the Southwest. Spicer was an Indian, a historian, and a wonderful writer. This book is a good read for people who are interested in Indians, the Southwest, or history.
Stan Steiner’s The New Indians was our Bible in the 1960s. It related stories of the founders of the National Indian Youth Council and the White Roots of Peace. He wrote about how Indian people were coming out of 100 years of oppression and liberated themselves to regain tribal sovereignty.
Vine Deloria Jr’s, Custer Died for Your Sins was our other Bible in the 1960s. Vine did a job on anthropologists and other people who made a living on Indians. He lambasted the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Congress for deliberately messing up Indian lives.
The Godfather by Mario Puzo is the story of a fictional Mafia leader. I saw the movie a few times before I read the book. Lo and behold, the movie was almost exactly the same as the book, which was a surprise. Movie-makers often take liberties with books, changing as much as 50 percent of the story. But Francis Ford Coppola, the producer and director, was only 27 years old when he made the movie.
I had gotten hooked on the Mafia when my aunt’s husband Edward Rakeman loaned me a book in 1964 called The Green Felt Jungle. It was about how the Jewish mobster Bugsy Siegel started Las Vegas. I was amazed at how Bugsy, his partners Meyer Lansky (Jewish) and Lucky Luciano (Sicilian) had started the Strip right after World War II. In the next 20 years I must have read 30 Mafia books, finally reaching my limit around 1985.
What they got away with is amazing. And I am still mad that John Hoover did not put the FBI on them. He was bought off.
I had sworn off the Mafia books and movies until Goodfellas came along. This is both a fascinating book and a movie. My daughter, Monica Einaudi, went crazy about this movie the way I had with The Godfather. She had seen the movie more than 20 times.
I should warn you that I am a fickle reader. What I think is wonderful today will not hold forever. This list would have been completely different in 1966, when I would have included the autobiography of King Hussein of Jordan and the biographies of my hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The last book is an annotated bibliography of the books a Western writer read. He was a self-taught writer who started life as a seaman. His Education of a Wandering Man is a wonderful book by a man who sold millions of Western books. His name was Louis L’Amour.
Dr. Dean Chavers has read more than 5,000 books in his lifetime. Please contact him in Albuquerque at CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com. He runs Catching the Dream, a scholarship program for Native American college students.