A DISTANT train whistle wrestled fourteen-year-old Joshua Ishkoday from an exceptionally sound sleep. It was 5:00 a.m. Getting up this early didn’t matter to Joshua. His radio alarm was usually set for 5:10 a.m., and he almost always beat it. And besides, he had a busy day to prepare for. The bus would be leaving for summer camp at 8:00 a.m., and he didn’t want to show up late. Joshua wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about his first day at camp, but he was hoping to make some friends there. It wasn’t easy being the new kid. Joshua couldn’t wait for the nineties to be over. Adulthood will be so much easier, he thought.
At least he had a bedroom now, though. When he first moved to Rockford, Illinois to live with his mother and aunt, all he had was a couch in the living room to sleep on. That’s all he had on the reservation as well, but for some reason it didn’t bother him there. Thankfully, his aunt finally moved enough of her stuff out of what she described as her office. All Joshua had to sleep on in his new bedroom was an inflatable bed, but he didn’t care. It was the resulting privacy that proved invaluable to him.
Joshua slipped off his boxers and made his way to the shower. The shock from the ice-cold water instantly jolted him to full consciousness. The added awareness made him realize how anxious he was about the day.
He got out of the shower and slowly dressed himself. He heard his clock radio go off in the background. Nirvana was playing, one of his favorite bands. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” seemed particularly appropriate today. Joshua couldn’t help but hum along as he packed his gear. He paused for a second, looking around for his Scout uniform. Where had he put it? Though used, it was very expensive, so, naturally enough, he couldn’t find it. Joshua knew he should have packed the night before.
The song on the radio finished playing and was quickly replaced by a news report. Absorbed with finding his uniform, Joshua barely paid attention.
“The brutal murder of Matthew Shepard continues to captivate the nation. More after this quick announcement.”
Joshua had no idea who Matthew Shepard was, but the murder must have been pretty brutal, he realized, to be making the national news. But he didn’t have time for the news. He had to find his uniform and finish packing.
“There you are,” Joshua mumbled as he spotted his uniform hanging over the bathroom door. It looked clean and pressed, unlike when they bought it from a secondhand store. His mother had obviously hung it there for him. Joshua grabbed his uniform and shoved it carelessly into his backpack. He had camped out many times before, but he wasn’t used to packing anything so formal.
The news story came back on. “Matthew Shepard, the young gay teen who was brutally murdered back in October—”
“Joshua, are you up?” his mother interrupted from outside his room.
Joshua zipped up his backpack.
“Joshua!” she yelled again, this time knocking on his door.
“Yes, Mom, I’m getting ready!” Joshua responded, frustrated by the intrusion. He slammed the off button on his radio and forcefully opened the door.
“Oh, there you are,” she said, stating the obvious. “I have breakfast ready.”
To Joshua it sounded more like a command than an offer, but it was hard to tell with his mother. He picked up his backpack, threw it over his shoulder, and headed off toward breakfast. It would be his only real food for at least a week, so he was determined to enjoy his “last meal.” As he ate, the words he had just heard on the radio emerged from his mental buffer. Young gay teen? Joshua mused, wondering if he had heard that right.
THE BUS ride had been long, but it would soon come to an end. Walls of pine and birch trees had finally replaced the monotonous open country, betraying the fact that camp was close at hand. Finally Joshua had something else to stare at out the window other than country roads and cornfields.
The monotony had taken its toll on the other boys in the bus as well. The first couple of hours went by fine. The boys who didn’t sleep quietly passed the time reading comics or playing handheld video games. But such distractions could only last so long. As the hours passed, their attention spans decreased, and they desperately looked for something—anything—to occupy their minds.
Joshua was overcome with relief as the bus entered a forested area, not only because it signified their imminent arrival at camp, but because this was his territory. Ever since he was a little kid, the forests provided Joshua with a safe retreat from his unbearably rigid mother. His earliest memories were of a particular spot near a lake by his old house back on the reservation in northern Wisconsin. He would lean up against a white birch and gaze at the moving clouds reflected in the lake for hours. The sounds of loons and other birds merged with the scent of pine, alleviating any excess stress brought about by parental confrontations.
Joshua desperately missed the reservation and thought often of his half-Ojibwe heritage. His ancestors were once the sole human occupants of these woods prior to the arrival of the Europeans. He felt at home in the northern forests. His ancestors revered the same kind of spiritual qualities in nature that drew Joshua to the woods on his own.
But while Joshua took great pride in his heritage, his mother discouraged it. Joshua was only part Indian, on his father’s side, but his mother suppressed that part of his birthright—and his father went along with whatever she wanted. Hoping to keep Joshua from being contaminated by Ojibwe culture, his parents had moved with him off the reservation to Eagle River, Wisconsin, a small town about an hour away. Joshua was quite young at the time, but he still retained some mental impressions from those years.
While Joshua was only part Indian, he resembled many of the full-blooded Ojibwe he had known on the reservation. He had straight black, medium-long hair, and his almond-shaped eyes betrayed his ancestry.
As he grew up in Eagle River, Joshua’s reservation days became a dim memory. But after his parents separated, he had been reintroduced to life on the Rez when his mother dropped him off to live with his grandfather at the start of the summer. Apparently she needed some alone time to “find herself.”
Joshua felt abandoned at first, but he soon flourished on the reservation, as though being restored to his natural habitat. His grandfather immersed him in the language and culture of his people. Joshua felt particularly drawn to powwow dancing and had quickly become a rather proficient Fancy Dancer. And most importantly, he made friends that became like family to him.
He even earned a name from Mokwa, his best friend and first crush. Pukawiss, Mokwa had called him, evoking the legendary contrarian manitou who had introduced powwow dancing to the Ojibwe people. Joshua was captivated by the legend of the enigmatic manitou, and it motivated him to participate in a competition powwow. He almost won too, or so he told himself.
But Joshua also earned another more mystifying name while on the reservation. His grandfather called him Onwaachige, which meant “He Whose Dreams Come True.” Joshua wasn’t quite comfortable with that name yet, as his dreams often disturbed him. Mostly, he just tried to forget them.
Joshua’s carefree life on the reservation ended a few weeks ago, however, when his mother discovered his grandfather was introducing him to the old ways. She tore him from a world with which he had intimately connected, and soon after that, he found himself living with his mother and equally conservative aunt in Rockford, forbidden to have any further contact with his grandfather or with any of his reservation friends.
While Joshua’s passion for his own heritage was awakened during his recent stay on the reservation, he had developed his love for nature all on his own. Magnificent forests were prevalent in Eagle River where he had grown up. His hometown may have been dull and boring, but Joshua always came to life whenever he jogged through the forests surrounding his house. They offered him a convenient escape from the unjust constraints of his upbringing, a place where he could discard the tension and anxiety he often felt around his mother. An exhilarating sense of freedom blossomed during such moments.
Joshua couldn’t discuss these feelings with his parents. They did not understand. His father was a strict Protestant now, having succumbed to the preachings of invasive reservation missionaries, one of whom was Joshua’s mother. His father had also succumbed to alcohol, a fact Joshua increasingly attributed to his father’s conversion to Christianity. Joshua decided that his father had given up a part of himself and filled the void with poison. Such was all too common on the reservation.
There was a time when Ojibwe spirituality was relentlessly suppressed. At some point it simply became easier for the Ojibwe people to give in to the urgings of missionaries and convert. Joshua had run into one such missionary on the reservation named Pastor Martin and had seen firsthand what such preachers of “true religion” thought of the old ways. Pastor Martin had insulted his beliefs, ruined his naming ceremony, and helped his mother tear him from the reservation—for a second time. Joshua’s grandfather had encouraged him to find his own path, and that’s what people like Pastor Martin and his mother ultimately couldn’t stand. Joshua wanted nothing more to do with true religion.
Joshua grew more withdrawn from his mother after moving to Rockford. The city was small by most standards, but it was certainly large enough to contrast dramatically with his exposure to small-town life in rural Wisconsin—whether on the reservation or in Eagle River. Now Joshua had neither friends nor forests. His mother did not want him hanging around the house all the time, and she became discouraged by his increasingly rebellious tendency to challenge her authority. Joshua wasn’t exactly a problem child. A simple sarcastic remark directed against his mother every now and then typically satisfied him. On rare occasions, when really pushed, he might even swear at her, just to release some steam. But this was too much for his mother, who attempted to instill strict Protestant values in Joshua—especially ones that stressed unquestioned obedience toward authority.
Joshua’s mother usually reacted disproportionately to any of Joshua’s “sinful” infractions. Mouthing off, no matter how innocuous, had to be dealt with. Most often his mother would deliver a diatribe about the moral obligation to respect one’s parents. That was her favorite ethical directive. The obligatory biblical quotes always followed. Joshua would then be grounded, but he usually didn’t care. Any time alone, away from his mother, was a reward, not a punishment.
In Eagle River, whenever things got out of hand, he’d simply slip out his window and run to the nearby forests. But Joshua could no longer engage in such episodic freedoms now that he was in Illinois. With his only outlet gone, his patience with his mother’s authority lessened, something she quickly noted. She became concerned that he was not developing into a proper Christian boy. She would have been even more disturbed had she known that Joshua no longer considered himself a Christian.
Joshua’s mother hit upon the perfect solution to her son’s increasingly insufferable nature. He needed a good influence in his life. She learned from the pastor at their new church in Rockford about a local Boy Scout troop that the congregation sponsored. She figured the Boy Scouts would be the perfect way to instill proper Christian behavior and beliefs in her son, especially since the pastor of the church was also the scoutmaster for the troop. Joshua’s mother trusted that Pastor Robert Johnson, or simply Pastor Bob, as he preferred to be called, was just the right man to instill these values in Joshua. Joshua’s mother had grown up in Pastor Bob’s church, prior to her moving to the reservation as a young missionary. She knew him to be stern with the kids and someone who was especially skilled at how to properly discipline them. That was exactly what Joshua needed, according to her. The other kids in the troop would likewise exemplify proper Christian morality, something to which she wanted him exposed.
The kids in Troop 24 had perfect credentials. They were Boy Scouts after all, Joshua’s mother reasoned. She recalled Pastor Bob’s list of Scout qualities. He had stressed to her that all Scouts were taught to be “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Pastor Bob was a good salesman, but Joshua’s mother only had to hear the “obedient” part before she was won over. This was just what her son needed at an age when peer pressure was everything. The Boy Scouts of America would give her son a good Christian education.
THE CHARTERED bus pulled into the camp parking lot. The three kids sitting behind Joshua slammed their Playboy magazines shut and quickly tried to shove them into their packs as Pastor Bob walked down the aisle to wake everyone up. One of the boys, Ken Fenton, immediately dropped his magazine on the floor in a rush to hide it from their fast approaching scoutmaster.
“Fuck!” Ken whispered as he frantically grabbed for the magazine and slipped it into his backpack before Pastor Bob had a chance to see the kind of quality literature the kids used to pass their time.
Joshua didn’t know any of these people. He had only moved to Illinois near the beginning of August, and this was his first scouting event. His mother enrolled him just in time for the last session of summer camp. Another kid in the troop had recently taken ill, opening up a spot for him. “God’s will,” his mother told him.
Joshua was actually kind of excited about camp at first. He knew very little about scouting, but he was happy to hear that the camp was only about an hour away from his reservation. He was also happy to be getting away from his new home in Illinois.
But now he wasn’t so sure about the camping trip. These kids weren’t like his old friends on the reservation. They seemed unfriendly and cliquish. The boys made no attempt to befriend him during the six-hour bus ride. Even amongst themselves, they spent most of their time insulting each other. “Fag” or “queer” were always the insults of choice and seemed to be particularly offensive. The boys shrugged off any other insult, but a challenge to one’s sexuality always demanded an immediate response.
Joshua had not yet given up on making friends. The other boys ranged in age from eleven to fourteen, and it was the older boys that seemed to be near him in the back. Perhaps he just sat by the wrong crowd. After all, the kids sitting up front seemed much less threatening. Then again, they were also sitting closer to Pastor Bob, who kept a stern eye on everyone around him in a relentless attempt at control. Joshua noticed that one boy in particular seemed to get a lot of Pastor Bob’s attention. This boy sat right next to Pastor Bob. He had been rather quiet throughout the entire trip, no doubt afraid to do or say anything that Pastor Bob might consider inappropriate. Joshua felt sorry for this boy. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere else in the world right now.
There were other reasons that Joshua felt uncomfortable sitting near the back of the bus. The boys around him seemed rather obsessed with sex. They spent hours childishly drooling over their porn magazines. His friends on the reservation never acted like that. Sex was a subject they never discussed. Joshua wondered if his friends avoided sex talk when he was around because they knew he was different. Joshua never actually told anyone he was gay, but his reservation friends had to know. They just didn’t care, as it wasn’t a big deal to them.
But things were different now, he sensed. These guys didn’t seem the type to accept “faggots” and “queers,” as they called them. Joshua knew he would have to hide the fact that he was gay.
Pastor Bob made his way past Joshua as he arrived to rouse the back of the bus. “Come on,” he yelled, “wake up, we’re here!” He grabbed one of the sleeping kids by the ear and pinched it hard.
“Now!” he yelled. “We don’t have all day!”
The boy jumped out of his seat and grabbed his backpack. Joshua could tell his ear hurt badly, but he was struggling not to show it in front of the other kids.
Joshua stood up and reached for his own backpack. He had been reading an old edition of the Boy Scout Handbook to familiarize himself with scouting and had noticed a section on Native Americans. As Pastor Bob roamed up and down the aisle announcing their arrival at camp, Joshua started to put the book into his pack. One of the boys behind him saw the section he was reading and quickly questioned Joshua’s taste in literature.
“What the hell are you reading, Indian Boy?”
Joshua was taken aback by the interest the boys suddenly showed in him. They had virtually ignored him for the entire trip. And besides, what was the big deal in reading a section about Indians? Everyone in the Boy Scout troop was supposed to have read the handbook. Joshua didn’t know how to respond.
He didn’t have to. Before he had the chance, another boy joined in on the conversation.
“Don’t worry,” he said with a wicked grin. “We’ll show him some real reading material later,” he added, no doubt referring to the Playboy that he had just shoved into his backpack. The other boys laughed.
Just great, Joshua thought. What the hell have I gotten myself into? These Boy Scouts are a bunch of perverts. He got up from his seat and made his way to the exit. Finally, Troop 24 had arrived at Camp Nishkendan. It was going to be an interesting week.