Saturday, February 23, 2013


The subject of most biographies of Native women are Pocahontas and Sacajawea. I did a search of the Comprehensive Children's Literature Database to get a rough sense of how many books there are about each one. I limited the search to those published between 2000 and now. I got 188 on Pocahontas, and 192 on Sacagawea. Quite a lot, don't you think? Some critics say those two women are heralded by those who seek to celebrate figures in U.S. history because they helped Europeans. Some say they were diplomats; others say they were traitors.

My point in sharing those publication numbers is to say that I think publishers would do well to publish biographies of other Native women!

With S. D. Nelson's Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story, Abrams has scored a big win. It is racking up starred reviews by the mainstream review journals and by those who look more critically at the portrayals of American Indians. It is, for example, on the Cooperative Center for Children's Books CHOICES 2013 list.

Nelson's art invites the reader to pick up the book. Once inside, there's a mix of his art and photographs of Hidatsa people. The back matter provides a timeline that teachers will find helpful when using the book in the classroom. With the Common Core thrust upon them, this biography will surely get lot of use in classrooms.

I agree with the praise the book is receiving, but have one quibble. I wish that the book cover and text featured her Hidatsa name, Waheenee, which means Buffalo Bird Woman, instead of "Buffalo Bird Girl." I'm guessing the change from woman to girl was a strategy to help young readers identify with Waheenee as a girl, but I think Nelson's illustrations make that point quite well.

Some background

Nelson tells us that his source for this biography is Waheenee: An Indian Girl's Story; Told by Herself to Gilbert L. Wilson.  Wilson's book was published in 1921.

Scholars in American Indian Studies and American Indian Literatures point out that the audience for these early books was not a Native one. As evidence, we point to text in the books, where the author is speaking directly to the reader. Consider, for example, Wilson's Myths of the Red Children published in 1907. In the Foreword, Wilson wrote that fairy tales from Europe were delightful, but that with Myths of the Red Children, America's "little reading folk" could develop "a kindly feeling for a noble but vanishing race" (p. vi). I think it is fair to say he was not thinking of Native children as readers of Myths of the Red Children. 

Take note, too, of Wilson's use of "vanishing race." Wilson was part of the research efforts of the late 1800s and early 1900s that sought to document Native cultures before we died out. A major problem with that research effort is that many of the researchers did their work largely unaware of their own perspective, which is an outsiders perspective. Many did not understanding much of what they observed. A year after Myths of the Red Children was published, Wilson began his work with the Hidatsa people.

One outcome of that work was Waheenee. Like Myths of the Red Children, it was written for a child audience. Its final pages (beginning on page 183), speak directly to that young reader:
Young Americans who wish to grow up strong and healthy should live much out of doors; and there is no pleasanter way to do this than in an Indian camp. Such a camp you can make yourself, in your back yard or an empty lot or in a neighboring wood.
Following that passage are instructions for making a pole hunting lodge and several pages of recipes. I think it fair to say that Wilson was keen on playing Indian.

Nelson is wise not to echo Wilson on that point. His careful use of Wilson's material is important in other ways, too.

Buffalo Bird Woman was born in 1839 and died in 1932. She lived through a lot of changes. The Hidatsa were part of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. Subsequent violations of the treaty resulted in a huge loss of their land. During her lifetime, they were moved to a reservation. There were several devastating smallpox epidemics.

Of those significant events, only smallpox is included in Wilson's book. On page 9 of his book, Wilson says: "Then smallpox came." We all know that smallpox came from Europeans, but that information isn't provided anywhere in Wilson's book. In his picture book, Nelson does indicate the source for smallpox (p. 3):
It arrived with the coming of the white men. They did not bring the sickness on purpose, but Indians could not fight off this disease--they had no immunity to the dreaded evil spirit.

During Waheenee's lifetime, her people experienced tremendous loss of land and were moved onto a reservation, but these things aren't included in Wilson's book. When the word 'enemy' appears in the book, it is used only to describe other tribes. Doesn't that strike you as curious? Biased, perhaps? It seems to me that Wilson wanted his readers (remember, this book was written for white children) to develop a viewpoint of Indians as aggressors.

Nelson talks about enemy tribes, too, but doesn't leave out reservations. On page 39 of his Buffalo Bird Girl, Nelson (in Buffalo Woman's voice) writes:
Like-a-Fishhook is gone now. There are no buffalo left to hunt, and the fur trade ended long ago. The government of the United States said my people had to move from our village. They promised to provide rations of food and clothing if we lived on a reservation. The government built roads, schools, and churches. They told us that our children had to learn to live the white man's way. So we Hidatsa, as well as the Mandan and Arikara people, gave up our round earth lodges and began living in square cabins on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

I would have loved to see one more page about the Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara people... In the "Today and the Future" section of the Author's Note, Wilson writes this:

The Hidatsa people are still here, as are the Mandan and the Arikara. They remain one sovereign nation. Each member of the nation has the same freedoms as every citizen of the United States. Like all other human beings, they face the many challenges of a rapidly changing world. Today they govern themselves with self-determination. Their words and actions give shape to their lives and hope for their children. 

I want teachers who use the book to put that information front and center of their use of Buffalo Bird Girl. Introduce students to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation website. Teach the book by teaching children about Waheenee's people---as they are today. Teach them what sovereign nation means! Show them the pictures on the site! And while you're at it, teach them about Nelson's tribe, too. Visit the website of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation!

We need more books like this one, by authors like S.D. Nelson. Thanks, Mr. Nelson, and you, too, Abrams, for Buffalo Bird Girl. 


Heather Munn said...

Wow, sounds like a great book.

Robert Trujillo/Tres said...

This is awesome, thanks so much for sharing. I will pass it along on the river.

Susan Carr said...

This is a lovely book--but I am wondering about the subject heading that is part of the book's CIP: "Blind women--biography--Juvenile literature". I can find no reference to the fact she was blind and I would think this an important detail. Do you know the story?

Mommy Chickadee said...

We read this book in our homeschool because I noticed that my kids were picking up stereotypes from their other school books, and I wanted to counteract those. This ended up being one of my daughter's favorite books! I loved it, too, and learned so much from it. I'm glad to have found your review of it!

Unknown said...

Hi! I just read this book to my first grader for the first time. One unfortunate thing jumped out at my daughter as we looked through the illustrations - there is a page where the natives are meeting with a white elderly man over a table to trade; he is drawn realistically, while they remain stylized. My daughter asked "why is he the only one that's real?" So. Clearly the author had some unaddressed bias. My plan is to draw a stylized version of an old white dude and glue it into our copy. I suppose another thing to do would be write to the publisher/author and see if they would release an updated version.
Aside from that, our favorite page is the girls yelling at the boys that are taking the corn cobs early. :)
I'm loving this book as an adult, and it seems that my girl isn't quite ready for it, and that perhaps it'll be more age appropriate for 7-9 yrs old. Shall see.