Author Kelli Donley on the Arizona Indian Schools

Recently, I read a suspenseful and engaging novel that gives context to a controversial piece of Arizona history: Counting Coup by Kelli Donley. I had met Kelli at the Phoenix MEET YOUR LITERARY COMMUNITY event in early October. I wrote about it here. My booth was right next to Kelli’s, and as we sat and chatted, I looked over her three novels. They all appealed to me, but Counting Coup is her most recent–and the first sentence grabbed my attention, as did the subject of the “Indian schools” in Arizona.

I asked Kelli to write a guest post about the Indian schools. If you are intrigued by the subject, you will want to rush to purchase a copy of Counting Coup. (If you like contemporary romance, you’ll love it, too!)


I grew up in a suburban ranch-style home in the middle of Mesa, Arizona, just off of Alma School Road. The neighborhood was like so many others. We had a basketball hoop in the front yard, a swimming pool in the backyard, and a series of colorful goldfish in a bowl on the kitchen counter. My bookshelves were marigold, lined with precious Nancy Drews my mother had collected before I was born. My brother and I would fight over the remote on hot summer days, arguing over “I love Lucy” or “Brady Bunch” episodes. When my mother was at the point of putting us on the curb in a box marked “free,” the calendar would switch to September and we would be shuffled down the street to school.

We were Astros, attending Alma Elementary. It never occurred to me to ask any questions about Alma School Road, even though our school had a different address. But when we’d go to Phoenix to visit my grandmother in her tiny, smoky apartment, we’d drive down Indian School Road. Indian School? I saw neither Indians nor schools from the backseat of my mother’s Chevy Citation.

I remember asking my mother and receiving a brief, vague answer that brought forth images of the trailer park-ridden, dry desert reservation we’d see from the highway when traveling to Tucson to visit our other grandparents.

Indian schools were where Indian children went to school.

“But, Mom,” I persisted, smelling a mystery, “Mom, we have Indian kids at our school. Wayne is in my class. His brothers are older. You know them!”

“Oh, well those kids live in our neighborhood. Of course they attend your school.” And then she did that little toss of her hand that meant, “Don’t bother me. We’re done with this topic.”

Was the Indian school like the one I attended, with chalkboards and globes and a music room where the recorders always reeked of Pine Sol? My questions went unanswered.

Some 25 years passed. I went to college, traveled, joined the Peace Corps, wrote a couple novels, and to everyone’s surprise, married a man in my hometown. I’d found my professional passion working in public health, and loved being a wife and stepmom in Mesa.

One cold December day, I was invited by two colleagues to visit their recent project at the Phoenix Indian Steele Park in central Phoenix. They’d been awarded a grant to restore one of the remaining buildings at what was once the Phoenix Indian School. They explained the school was opened in the 1890s, and at its biggest, was hundreds of acres of farmland that students were expected to tend. The school closed in the 1990s, and the land was purchased by the City of Phoenix from the federal government. Too quickly, city officials bulldozed buildings, dug lakes, and created the modern-day park—all with very little input from the local American Indian community. Three buildings were saved from destruction.

We stood in front of one of them.

I followed the women into an adobe building so old the window panes were wavy from time. Cobwebs kept aging beams above woven together. Missing floor planks made navigating the long narrow walkway a game of hopscotch. Two steps into the doorway, taking in one long look of the now empty rooms, goosebumps rose on my arms and my stomach began to ache. I turned on my heel, retreating outside.

They followed, confused.

“What happened in there,” I asked rubbing my arms and trying to calm my breath.

“What do you mean?” one of the women asked.

“Something terrible happened in that room,” I blurted, feeling my cheeks turn red from unexpected emotion. I felt crazy, but only momentarily.

The women’s heads nodded. We sat together in a clump on the concrete stairs leading into the adobe music room. It was here, sitting next to them, I would learn that for more than 100 years, American Indian children were placed at boarding schools, and not just in Arizona, but across the United States, Canada, and Australia. The initial motivation was to break Indian culture and create new Christians. “Kill the Indian, and save the man,” was a commonly repeated refrain.

It is a complicated history, but eventually, children were no longer taken against their will to attend the schools. Instead, many attended in later years because there was no other option on their tribal lands.

One of the women shared a story about how her grandmother, from a northern Arizona tribe, had been kidnapped at age 5 by federal employees and brought to the school. She hadn’t been able to return until she graduated at age 18. By then, she no longer spoke the language of her parents. This would forever impair her ability to connect with family, tradition, and culture.

The same colleague went on to then tell me how her parents divorced when she was in junior high. Her mother struggled. She sent her two older daughters to the Phoenix Indian School until she could care for them herself. They spent two years together at the school.

I had a thousand questions. First, how could I have spent more than 30 years in Phoenix and never known about the school? This history wasn’t included in our education, or field trips. It wasn’t on any test. There was no day of honor or remembrance. In the shade of a date palm, I looked up at the haunted adobe music room, and realized the park was sacred earth. Children died here, their bones buried under the grassy lawn of today.

This chance meeting planted the seed for my latest novel, Counting Coup. This is the story of Avery Wainwright, a professor who uncovers a stack of 60-year-old letters. Written in the 1950s,

the letters tell of a year Avery’s grandmother, Alma Jean, spent teaching in the Indian school system. The ghostly yet familiar voices in the letters tell of a dark time in her grandmother’s life, a time no one had ever spoken of.

Today, the American Indian boarding school system remains, albeit voluntary. Health outcomes for American Indian children in the United States remain among the worse. These boarding schools allow children to graduate, but still keep student at a fragile age away from their families and home.

I have a thousand more questions to ask, and many more stories to write about my homeland. Thank you for reading!

For more information about Counting Coup and my other novels, visit:

Kelli Donley is a native Arizonan. She is the author of three novels, Under the Same MoonBasket Baby and Counting Coup. Inspiration for this novel was found hearing colleagues’ stories about childhoods spent at the Phoenix Indian School. Kelli lives with her husband Jason, children and small ark of animals in Mesa, Arizona. She works in public health, and blogs at

Thank you for visiting, Kelli!



Filed under Arizona, Book Review, Fiction, History, Reading

20 responses to “Author Kelli Donley on the Arizona Indian Schools

  1. Wonderful guest post, Luanne. I’ve added Kelli Donley’s books to my reading wish list. Many parallels between Arizona Indian Schools and Santa Fe Indian School (where, a decade ago, I taught 8th graders and juniors).
    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

    • Elaine, I kept thinking about your novel All the Wrong Places because of the Indian school connection! There is so much history in the southwest that so rarely gets taught to kids in public (or probably private either) school. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too. Considering the subject of Indian schools, the thought of the history of Thanksgiving is a little weird, too!

  2. Such a moving story, Luanne – yet more confirmation of man’s inhumanity to man. Sometimes the guilt is overwhelming…lynching African Americans…destroying native American life…

    • Yes, it’s truly amazing how low humans can sink. I have been driving past Indian School Road for ten years and it never occurred to me to wonder why it was named that! Kelli does a wonderful job with her book. The name character, Avery, is a white woman, as is the “other” main character, her grandmother (the book has two time settings), so as a white writer I think Kelli’s taken the right perspective to write about the subject.

  3. This is fascinating, Luanne. Thank you for introducing us to Kelli and her books.

  4. A marvelous slice of the southwest. Thanks Luanne and Kelli. Thanksgiving hugs!

  5. Fascinating and well-written guest post. Thank you for sharing Kelli, Luanne. 🙂 It’s true the system went beyond the western part of the country. I’ve been sort of following recent information at the Carlyle, PA school. They’ve been trying to identify the remains of some children buried there.

  6. Thank you, Luanne and Kelli! It’s interesting how as kids we’ll pick up on things that seem odd but then gloss over them when we’re adults, perhaps too busy to think the incongruities (Indian School Road, a road without Indians or schools). Kelli, your novel sounds fascinating and like a story that needs to be told.

    • Marie, I know you would love her book! So true how our adult brains just plow forward and “accept” things as we just think about what we need to do, etc. I think after people read Kelli’s book they should plan a trip to Phoenix and go to see the Heard Museum! It’s an American Indian Art museum and you learn history as well as art!

  7. This sounds like a fascinating book about an important subject.

  8. In the last 15 years or so, Canada has undergone a national process (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) of examining the terrible results of its residential school policy by engaging survivors of the system. It is essentially the same thing described in this post – where children were forcibly removed from their families and taken to schools far away to be “educated and assimilated.” The result has been multigenerational trauma and loss of culture. Our prisons are full of indigenous people and they make up a disproportionate number of homeless people in cities. The situation is terrible. The only good thing that has come as a result of the self-examination by the federal government and Canadians of this now defunct policy, is that it has heightened awareness of these issues and has started important conversations around colonization. It isn’t easy. It frequently makes me very uncomfortable because it challenges many assumptions made about “Indians”. Anyway. Clearly this post touched a chord. May it awaken others, too.

  9. So interesting, Luanne. That topic is a mine to be explored more and more, and it offers a lot to readers now who are concerned about the current plight of American Indians, just at a time when one would think things had improved for them. Thanks for this highlight of Kelli’s work!

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