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Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Tim Kessler's WHEN GOD MADE THE DAKOTAS
[Note: This review is used by permission of its authors. It may not be published elsewhere without written permission from the authors.]
Kessler, Tim, When God Made the Dakotas, illustrated by Paul Morin. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2006. Unpaginated, color illustrations, grades 2-4, Dakota
Published by a Christian book house and written and illustrated by cultural outsiders, When God Made the Dakotas is a mishmash of Christian creation mythology and invented Dakota cosmology, replete with misplaced Dakota symbols and words (some of which are misspelled).
According to the jacket copy, “Tim Kessler’s creation story, framed as a Native American legend, reminds readers to find beauty and joy in what surrounds them.” In order to create a picture book about the Dakota landscape, one wonders why it was seen as necessary to make up a creation story about the Dakota people, since we’ve already got our own.
After Wakantanka/Great Spirit/Creator has made the rest of the world, he arrives at the world’s edge, where he is greeted by a Dakota medicine man named Woksape (wisdom). After each request from Woksape about what kind of land he wishes for the Dakota people, Wakantanka answers that he has already given that land to someone else. Finally, Woksape says he will take what’s left and Wakantanka, pleased with the medicine man’s humility, fashions for the Dakota people the wondrous Dakota land.
The depiction of Wakantanka as an elderly Indian guy—with white hair, face paint, and three goose feathers stuck in his hair—is more reflective of the Judeo-Christian ethos than it is to ours. In the belief system to which the author apparently ascribes, God is said to have created man in his own image. In our belief system, however, the Creator’s presence is manifest in all things, and does not appear simply in human form.
Further, no informed Dakota would give the Creator a detailed description of what kind of land he’d like his people to inhabit; this would be an insult to the Creator. To us, all creation is beautiful and a great mystery. From the beginning, we have developed a complex, symbiotic and reverent relationship with the land. We are not above the earth but are a part of it and our belief in creation and by extension our Creator stresses this relationship.
There are many other troubling aspects to this book. Here, Dakota people have to settle for the prairies that pale in comparison to the abundant lands that have already been given away. (Kessler’s God acts much like the white men in this way). This seems to diminish both the austere beauty and abundance of the plains, and the importance of the Dakota people. And, by the way, the Dakota live mostly in the woodlands further east. It is the Lakota who inhabit the plains.
That one “medicine man” speaks for a nation is not reflective of the Native value for the collective participation of the group, and of the respected elders, men and women, within the tribe. Finally, a promise by God that the plains will be forever pristine and depopulated belies the white people’s past and present economic and environmental roles in dramatically altering the face of the land to make it uninhabitable for humans, the buffalo and other living beings.
And when in the scheme of creation is this story supposed to have taken place? It seems odd, for example, that the Creator would have created the Pendleton blankets upon which the two are sitting before “he” finished creating the world. “He” creates Tatanka, the buffalo, out of his medicine bag; he creates Maga, the goose, out of two goose feathers. Which came first, something made out of animal hide, or the animal itself? Which came first, the feathers or the geese? It would seem pretty strange in a Christian creation story for God to apologize to Adam for not having enough material to fashion Eden to Adam’s specifications. Why, then, is it seen as acceptable for Wakantanka/Creator/Great Spirit to continually apologize to Woksape?
That this may be “only a children’s book” is where the most damage lies. Who, if not the children, are we more responsible to for instilling honest representations of peoples, an informed respect for the land, and an understanding that man’s heavy hand has much to do with both? If Kessler wanted to extol the beauty of the plains, he could have written what he knows, perhaps about the plains ecosystems, for he certainly doesn’t know the people.
Since everything else of ours has already been stolen, we could at least be left our creation stories. The final page of When God Made the Dakotas closes with the summation, “And it was good.” Pity that from this indigenous perspective, I can close only with the simple conclusion, “No, it is bad.”
---Janeen Antoine (Sicangu Lakota), with Beverly Slapin, Oyate