Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

“Yes, I killed ‘em. They beat me. I was their slave.”

 

And so Dan Tso-Se, 16-year-old Navajo is to go to Fort Leavenworth with the brand of Cain upon him, because, goaded to desperation by the ill-treatment he had received from five members of his tribe, he fired bullets into them as they slept in their tepee. Dan Tso-Se will be taken to the federal penitentiary to serve a ten-year sentence some time Friday.

The Salt Lake City Tribune, June 18, 1909

At 5 feet ¼ inch tall and 91 pounds, Dan Tso-Se, brand of Cain or not, would require protection when he entered USP Leavenworth on June 21, 1909, to serve a ten-year sentence for manslaughter. A Navajo boy of uncertain age — perhaps as young as 13 — Dan would be housed with hardened adult criminals, many of whom were twice his size. To make matters even worse, Dan was unable to communicate with his captors because he didn’t speak English.

A news report stated that Dan lived with his uncle on the Navajo reservation near Aneth, Utah, and it was this uncle, along with an aunt and an unidentified woman, who were the people Dan shot and killed with a 22-caliber rifle, along with wounding a third woman. After the murders Dan fled on horseback with his younger brother Tony. The pair weren’t located for a month.

According to prison documents, one of the people Dan shot and killed was his sister. Other documents state that he killed four men who had systematically mistreated him. Dan spoke no English; he spoke only the Navajo language, so there were undoubtedly facts that were lost in translation, resulting in confusion about what led up to the murders and who was killed.

Dan trusty

With long, disheveled hair and clad in ragged overalls and a dirty shirt, Dan appeared in the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, Utah, in April 1909.

It was the first time that the Indian boy had ever been off the reservation. Streetcars, automobiles and other things of the paleface civilization filled him with terror. It was with difficulty that he was persuaded to walk along the street to the courtroom to enter his plea of guilty.

The Salt Lake City Tribune, June 18, 1909

Informed of Dan’s maltreatment at the hands of the people he shot (whoever they were), the judge reduced the charges against him from murder to manslaughter, giving him four concurrent ten-year sentences. Absurdly, he was also fined $400. The sheriff then handcuffed him and escorted him to the federal prison in Kansas. There his hair was cut and he was given clean clothing before his mugshots were taken.

Dan sent a letter, written in Navajo, to his brother Tony while he was incarcerated. All letters to and from prisoners were read and officials were suspicious of the contents of the letter. “I guess we will have to take his word for it as I have no one who can talk to him,” wrote the deputy warden to the prison warden. There were other Native American prisoners at Leavenworth, but none of them spoke Navajo.

Credited with good conduct time, Dan was paroled on March 7, 1916. Prison officials had been informed that he was not welcome at his home reservation, so he was sent to the Wind River Indian Reservation near Fort Washakie, Wyoming. In an effort to find out how the young man had fared years after his release, the Leavenworth warden tried to locate Dan in 1928, but found no trace of him.

Featured photo: Dan Tsose, Leavenworth Penitentiary inmate photograph, 1909. Collection of NARA-Kansas City, Missouri.

 

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