Friday, December 13, 2019

Recommended: SPOTTED TAIL by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Nineteenth-century Sicangu Lakota leader Spotted Tail (Sinte Gleska) is the subject of a new biography for middle grades, by David Heska Wanbli Weiden (Spotted Tail, Reycraft Books, 2019). Spotted Tail was highly influential, but is generally less well-known than other Plains leaders of his time such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.

The book's four sections or chapters -- Early Years, Warrior, Family Life, and The Chief -- are followed by two pages that explain some Lakota customs, and 2 pages appropriately titled "A Short History of the Lakota People." (It's very short.)

This story of Spotted Tail's life opens with a description of his participation, as a boy, in a buffalo hunt. It ends with a brief account of his 1881 murder and its eventual repercussions for Indian law, and some paragraphs about his legacy.

In between, what stands out are Spotted Tail's efforts to understand and address the threat posed to his people, and to all Native peoples, by the ever-encroaching settler-colonizers. Weiden shows how his subject's perspective changed with his experiences, from young Lakota fighter to prisoner of the US government to caring father to negotiator for his people. He even briefly sent some of his children to the Carlisle Indian boarding school. (When he discovered during a visit there just how the school was "educating" Native children, he took them home again.)

A real strength of the book is the way Weiden connects certain aspects of Spotted Tail's life with ongoing issues for Native people -- such as the Lakota people's efforts to keep/recover the Black Hills. The long-lasting legal and political implications are simply but clearly explained.

One of the Lakota customs Weiden explains is naming, specifically his Nation's customs around receiving a "spirit name." At first I winced on seeing that; too many non-Native people love the idea of "Indian names" and want to appropriate them! But a careful reading assured me that, unlike some authors who talk about naming practices, Weiden provides context and limits for Lakota naming. In the main text, he explains the circumstances of Spotted Tail's naming. In "Lakota Customs" at the end, he notes that many cultures give children spiritual or religious names, and explains that in Lakota culture, naming is often accompanied by a giveaway. Most importantly, in my opinion, he shows subtly that a Lakota spirit name is not something just anyone can get. That's a healthy perspective on the matter. He invites readers to consider whether they "like the idea of having two names" -- much better than inviting someone to choose their own "Indian spirit name."

The combined efforts of artists Jim Yellowhawk (Itazipco Band, Cheyenne River Sioux) and Pat Kinsella (White) -- especially the many dramatic 2-page spreads -- make Spotted Tail visually striking. Yellowhawk's ledger-style art and Kinsella's bright photos and montages provide imaginative windows on what life might have looked and felt like for Spotted Tail, in his time, while connecting readers to the present-day Lakota Country landscape.

Example of a 2-page mixed-media spread from Spotted Tail 
I'm not in a position to judge whether all Lakota readers will agree with the author's version of events surrounding the Grattan fight, during which Spotted Tail led Lakota fighters against US cavalry, earning honors from his nation and an order for his arrest from the government. Apparently more than one version is retold. Still, the author's account of those events and what happened after are likely to impress readers with Spotted Tail's courage, resourcefulness, and determination.

Discussion/reflection questions for readers are artfully incorporated into the illustrations, and interspersed throughout the book: "Do you think the government should apologize for terrible events that happened long ago?" "How would you feel if the government made you leave your home?" "What do you think it means to be wealthy?" The questions bring "added value" to the text, and adults who share or recommend the book may get good conversations started by asking young people to respond to them.

A few times when I was reading, it felt evident that Weiden is writing for a non-Lakota, non-Native audience -- for instance, he says, "If you are lucky enough to visit the Lakota Nation ..." But at no point did I have the feeling that he is "othering" anyone.

One wish for this and future biographies of historical Indigenous heroes:
Authors, please provide your sources. That allows your readers to follow your research trail, and become researchers themselves. [Edited 12/14/19 to add: Publishers, also take note -- help authors fit those sources into the finished work!]

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