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Coach Tommy Thompson & the Boys of Sequoyah

From Sean Kicumman Teuton, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Native American Studies; author of Red Land, Red Power: Grounding Knowledge in the American Indian Novel:

"From a tenuous beginning, Dickinson traces Thompson's life through school and on to local athletic stardom at Northeastern State College in Tahlequah. She covers Thompson's family life and employment with the BIA, Bureau of Indian Affairs, as he traveled to work with other Indian boarding schools; his service to impoverished Native American families and to enable children to attend Sequoyah and his eventual return there in 1947.

Along the way, the author skillfully locates us in the historical moment, as she covers the war years, or returns to the music and movies of the times.

Though Thompson spent only about a decade at Sequoyah, these years are brilliantly relived in Dickinson's text, as we experience daily life at the school. One recalls the adopted dog, the boys' pranks, dances and dating, and even the tragic early losses of young men at war and in accidents. There is an epic football game in the rain and mud that readers will not forget.

In her sophisticated interweaving of lucid historical narrative, biographical detail, and exciting "character" dialogue, Dickinson brings this story alive for her readers. Even the best biographers or historians struggle to strike the right balance between presenting the
facts and doing so in a way that invests readers in following a story about an actual event.

This author does so with wonderful success; one feels as if one were reading the history of a gripping event with monumental outcomes, or even a novel with high stakes. The book thus educates readers unfamiliar with Cherokee (and Native American) history through the complex life of an orphaned Native American man. And yet the book will appeal to all on a very human level. It is indeed a story of mythic proportions, with heroism and even tragic flaws. Coach Thompson is an everyday hero.

Throughout Oklahoma and surrounding states, particularly among the baby-boomer generation, Tommy Thompson is well remembered and talked about as a mode1 of human (and Indian) virtue. And yet his story has never been told in a book, at least not that I know of. As regards Oklahoma history, Native American history, or Cherokee history, the early to mid-twentieth century is a period often ignored, and for troubling reasons. It seems that for many historians, Native American history in Indian Territory ends in 1907 with Oklahoma statehood.

But as Dickinson shows, though the Cherokee Nation was allotted and absorbed into the state, it still functioned as a coherent entity culturally, spiritually, even politically–right up to its present more prosperous condition.

So this (book) is also a piece of Oklahoma, Native American, and general history that has not been engaged, at least in this manner, as the tale of a humble man in a small community in the midst of a greater American history.

Last, Ah-sky-uh is told as the shared story of a community. The narrative thus operates in an oral tradition that Oklahoma citizens, Native people, and Talequah denizens alike will find accessible and engaging.

Except among the likes of the eminent Studs Terkel, that kind of populist history is rarely told."

From the University of Oklahoma Press:

"When eleven-year-old Tommy Thompson, arrived at Sequoyah, a government-run Indian boarding school in 1915, it seemed a last resort for the youngster. Instead, it turned out to be the first step toward a life dedicated to helping others. Thompson went on to become a star athlete and football coach--a Cherokee legend whose story is remembered by many.

Thirty-two years later he returns to the same school, this time as Coach and Boys Advisor. Through football, Thompson is determined to teach his boys the skills and values they need to succeed in life; he twice led his team to the state finals.

To his boys, Thompson was Ah-sky-uh, "the man," a Cherokee term of respect. Half a century after his death, this book helps preserve his place in history as it opens a new window on the boarding school experience."