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Native American writer and electronic technician, Peter Razor (b. circa 1928- 2022), was in an orphanage during his childhood.  

Peter Razor was born James Peter Razor in St. Paul, Minnesota. His mother, Mary, suffered from depression. She was sent to an asylum along with her hydrocephalic son, Leonard. Another son, Arnold, went to live with relatives. Razor remained with his father, Wilburt, who was an alcoholic and abandoned him as a baby. 

When he was ten months old, Razor was made a ward of the state and placed with a Christian Charity Organization. Seven months later, he was committed” to the State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children in Owatonna.

The school’s stated philosophy was “labor, no matter how dreary the task, or how paltry the remuneration, is good for the children” (Hast). Once one of the largest institutions of its kind in the United States, it housed over 10,000 children between 1886 and 1945.

The State Public School occupied hundreds of acres on the west side of Owatonna. Farm buildings, gardens, and croplands were west, and the campus east – next to the city. Most cottages, facilities, and the Main Building were on a central mound that created an impressive, almost medieval, skyline. The Main Building, a large T-shaped,castle-like structure, faced a street bordered by trimmed shrubs, imposing flower beds and large, well-kept lawns. Visitors were greeted inside ornate offices with a posh visitors’ lounge and teams of smiling civil servants (Razor, p. 7).  

Children lived in cottages governed by “house mothers” who varied in their degree of harshness. Razor experienced kindness from some staff members, but racism and brutality from others.  

Miss Monson loathed me. She hated my sullen silence, my quiet disrespect. To punish me, when I was barely ten years old, she made me sit for hours in a cramped mop closet… I have no memory of why, but I sat entire evenings there, beginning soon after supper (Razor, p. 153).  

Three years later, Mr Beaty called Razor a “Dirty Injun bastard” and then kicked him in the lower back until he was unable to move. On other occasions, he was hospitalised after a matron swung him around by his leg until he was unconscious, and when another attacked him with a hammer one night while he was in bed. 

Razor and his friends ran away on a few occasions. But after the second time, he had “learned important lessons: adults outside the State School were just as miserable, kind, or indifferent as State School employees” (Razor, p. 161). Years later, he would learn that his grandmother wrote to the school expressing an interest in raising him. But the authorities prohibited her from doing so. 

Razor was sent to live with a farming family as an indentured worker at the age of fifteen. Razor was supposed to be paid, housed and fed, and sent to school in exchange for farm work. But Razor’s foster father barely fed him, frequently kept him home from school to do chores, withheld his pay, and eventually beat him until he was unconscious. 

It seemed only seconds that I slept. I felt first a dull throb, then a blinding headache and creeping awareness. I tried to move but nothing worked. This paralysis caused a deep sense of hopelessness; I was afraid I was dying (Razor, p. 168).  

When Razor was able to move sufficiently, he escaped the property and hailed a passing car on the road. The driver took him to a doctor. After social services were called he was placed with a kind, retired nurse.  

Next, he was placed with another couple who cared for him until he finished high school.  He remembered the Klug Family in Caledonia, Minnesota as kind and caring. 

Then, shortly after his nineteenth birthday, Razor was drafted into the army during the Korean War. He described it as “a different kind of regimen than the State School” (Razor), and turned down offers to become an officer and to work in counterintelligence. Instead, he became “the electrical supervisor of twenty Korean electricians and five GIS.”

I received three bronze stars—though I’m not sure what they were for—before rotating back to the States one month after an armistice stopped the fighting (p. 196).  

After the war, Razor continued to work as an electronic technician. He also did radiation testing for the State of Wisconsin and was an amateur ham radio operator. In 1954, Razor married Mary Anne Moore. They lived in Bruce Crossing, Michigan, then settled in Cadott Wisconsin. The couple raised three children, Thomas, Katherine, and Janice.

Razor began writing his memoir, While The Locust Slept (2002) in his seventies after family members began asking him about spending his childhood in an orphanage. It won the 2002 Minnesota Book Award for Autobiography and Memoir, has been translated into several different languages, and is used in high school and university curricula.

Razor found the writing process to be emotionally challenging but cathartic. He explained, “Writing ‘Locust’ was so emotionally demanding, I needed to put it aside months at a time.”

I had written poetry, but never anything lengthier. And I began to extricate from a deeply ingrained sense that my childhood, though uncomfortable, was perfectly normal (Sullivan).

Razor passed away at the age of ninety-three at his daughter’s home in Wisconsin. He continued to share his life story by giving public lectures and interviews until the final months of his life. Razor is survived by his wife, Mary Anne, three children, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Razor was working on three books at the time of his death. Family members completed his novel, Wiijiwaaganag: More Than Brothers (2023), which was published posthumously. It tells the story of Anishinaabe children forced to attend a US government boarding school where they are treated cruelly. Two more of Razor’s books are slated for publication in 2023. 


“James Peter Razor obituary.” Red Lake Nation News, 6 June 2022.

Hast, Julian. “Former ‘State Schooler’ to speak about his abuse at the infamous Owatonna institution.” Owatonna Peoples’ Press, 2 Aug 2021.

Amber, Melis. “Book Review: WIIJIWAAGANAG: MORE THAN BROTHERS”. Geek Girl Authority, 4 Jan 2023.

Razor, Peter. (2001). While the Locust Slept. Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Sullivan, Derek. “Award-winning author will share his story in Rochester.” Post Bulletin, 22 Aug 2014.

Image available here.