NEWKIRK, Okla. - Papa's got a brand new bag.
Once, life looked bleak for Chilocco Indian School graduate "Papa Joe" Mellon, class of 1969. Mellon, 64, is a member of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe from Idaho, had a rough childhood. Surrounded by poverty and hopelessness, life seemed to have dealt Mellon a busted flush.
But Chilocco became his ace in the hole.
Many of the Indian students were taken away from their families at an early age - around 6 years old - and had only fleeting memories of another home. Some resented being forcibly removed from their homes and shipped far away. Some still carry the inner scars.
But, like many of the students attending Chilocco's 128th annual reunion June 7-9, the school became home for Mellon. And for a special reason.
Mellon was older than most students were when he first came to Chilocco. He was 17. The public school was difficult for him and Mellon was expelled when he was 16. His mother was heartbroken, fearing that he would drift into a useless life like his alcoholic father.
"She made me promise I'd finish high school," Mellon said.
For a year he worked and slowly drifted toward a partying life. Then he decided it was time to keep his promise.
Three months after starting at Chilocco his mother, Irene Antelope, died.
"I didn't have any money. I couldn't go home," Mellon said. "Chilocco became my home then, I had no other place to go."
He threw himself into his studies, determined to keep the final promise he had made to his mother. When he heard other students complaining about being at Chilocco, he would talk with them.
"I'd say 'What would your mom want you to do?'" Mellon said. "They'd say 'You sound just like my papa', and that's when they started calling me Papa Joe!"
And Mellon is still "Papa Joe" for many of the Chilocco alumni. He walks across the lawn on the old campus and people call out to him, "Hey, Papa Joe!"
When he first graduated from Chilocco with a degree in auto body repair, Mellon drifted for three months, unsure what to do next. Still hurting inside from the loss of his mother he enlisted and soon found himself in Vietnam.
"I was hurting and I wanted to hurt the world," Mellon said.
Chilocco opened in 1884 with 123 students. Its first graduating class was comprised of six boys and nine girls. The school finally closed its doors in 1980. The name Chilocco comes from the Choctaw word "chiluki" and the Cherokee word "tsalagi," which means "cave people" in both languages.
A long, hard-used tarred road turns off Route 166 and ends where the abandoned, ivy-covered stone buildings stand in disrepair, haunted by the ghosts from memories past.
Bernice Austin-Begay, a Navajo, recalled the long ride down the road when she was a child returning to school after a rare family visit.
"I'd be sad because I knew it would be long before I would see them again," Austin-Begay, class of 1965, said. "I'd be thinking about my family, thinking about my sheep."
Austin-Begay was 10 when she was first taken to Chilocco. More than 50 years later she still recalls the day the government agents came to Black Mesa, Ariz., and took her away.
"I was captured," she said.
Many Indian families resented how the government swooped in and took the children away from their families and did all they could to thwart the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Austin-Begay's family was one of those. Whenever her mother saw a car coming up the road she would send Bernice running, to hide in the hills until the "biliganas" left. (Biligana is the Navajo word for white man.)
But one day the car arrived unexpectedly and young Bernice never reached the woods.
"I was too slow," Austin-Begay said.
Though many of the students were usually sad and frightened at the prospect of being taken away from their families; there were those who saw education as an opportunity for a better life.
"Papa Joe" was one of those.
Even today, as a substance abuse counselor - who had spent many of his own years "druggin' and drinkin'" - he preaches the importance of learning.
"I tell them 'You don't know what an education can do for you, but an education can set you free," Mellon said.
Reuben D. Begay Sr., class of 1963, was only 6 when he first came to Chilocco. At first he, like many other students, tried to run away from school. Eventually he settled into school life and excelled so much in his studies that several Chilocco officials wanted to help Begay go to medical school. He returned to Arizona to be near his mother and became a chemist.
Today, Mellon is still counseling people. He eventually earned a bachelor's degree in social work and has been a substance abuse counselor at the Colville Reservation in Washington state. But Chilocco is never far from his thoughts.
"It started out bad because my mom had just died," Mellon said. "But it became my home."
John Christian Hopkins is a member of the Narragansett Tribe and author of "Twilight of the Gods" and "The Pirate Prince, Carlomagno."