Tuesday, June 20, 2023


Over the last few years I've had several questions from parents and teachers about Scott O'Dell's Thunder Rolling in the Mountains. Today (June 20th, 2023) I am going to start reading it and making notes as I do. 

Update on Thursday June 29th at 8:30 AM: I've now read up to chapter ten and strongly recommend it not be used in classrooms. I think the curriculum companies that include it should revisit their decision to include it. It does not educate students. 

I think it originally came out from Houghton Mifflin in 1992. O'Dell is listed as the first author. The second author is Elizabeth Hall. He died in 1989. He was married to Hall. The "Foreword" is by Hall. She writes that
A few years earlier we had followed the trail taken in 1877 by Chief Joseph and his valiant band [...]. From that trip, from the recollections of Nez Perce and U.S. Army personnel, from the writings of historians, and from Scott's instructions and musings about the story, I have completed the manuscript as Scott had asked me to do. Most of the characters are based on actual Nez Perce, and most of their words and deeds are drawn from recollections of survivors."
She writes that these sources are essential to the book:
  • Two eyewitness accounts compiled by Lucullus V. McWhorter: Yellow Wolf: His Own Story (the recollections of Chief Joseph's nephew) and Hear Me, My Chiefs! (based on eyewitness accounts of both sides)
  • Chief Joseph's Own Story told on his trip to Washington DC in 1897
She writes that these books were helpful:
  • Merrill Beal's "I Will Fight No More Forever": Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War
  • Helen Addison Howard's Saga of Chief Joseph
  • Arthur Josephy Jr.'s The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest
I'm glad that she includes her sources. But, questions I pose as I read that info:
  • Who is Lucullus V. McWhorter? It sounds like he spoke with a Nez Perce person. When did that happen? Did the Nez Perce person speak English? Did McWhorter speak Nimipuutimt (the language the Nez Perce people speak). If the answer to those questions is no, there was likely a translator. 
  • Hall says they used Chief Joseph's Own Story as a key source. The subtitle for that source is "Told by him on his trip to Washington, D.C., in 1897*". The footnote for the asterisk says "Chief Joseph's story is presented here not as a matter of historic record or as evidence in the controversy over the facts in connection with the treaty of 1855, but to give an impression of the man." Who wrote that footnote? When I look for information about that account and footnote, what will I find? (Also noting here that the second paragraph of his account says his name is "In-mut-too-yah-lat-lat (Thunder-traveling-over-the-mountains)." Very close to the O'dell/Hall book title, isn't it? 
The copyright page in the book has this summary:
In the late nineteenth century, a young Nez Perce girl relates how her people were driven off their land by the U.S. Army and forced to retreat north until their eventual surrender.
Questions I pose as I read the summary:
  • How does O'Dell (a white man born in 1898) know what a Nez Perce girl of a different gender, era (1800s), and language thinks, feels, and says? 
Now, my notes on chapter one (summary in plain font; my thoughts in italics):
  • O'Dell/Hall use "we" and "I" for their characters. We are meant to read the book as if the characters the authors create are Native and giving us an insider point of view.   
  • O'Dell/Hall use "for many moons" and "three suns" and "six snows ago." I see those references to the passing of time in books written by writers that are not Native. It may sound Native, but is it? 
  • The primary character in this chapter is 14-year-old "Sound of Running Feet." She's in the lead of a group of seven that are on an outing to dig roots. She has a rifle that belonged to her grandfather "Old Joseph." As he lay dying, he gifted it to her, to become hers when she became a woman at the age of 14. That happened three months prior to the outing. They see a cabin with smoke rising from the chimney. When another character asks Sound of Running Feet what it is, he says "White people. [...] Indians do not build cabins." Would a Nez Perce person of that time period use the word "Indians"? They might say that Native peoples don't build cabins because they are not aware of those that do build permanent structures. 
  • Sound of Running Feet learned (quickly) how to use the rifle. Her father doesn't like it but she thinks it would "be bad to speak against the gift now that Old Joseph was dead. He could come back and make trouble." With that, O'Dell/Hall are telling us something about how Nez Perce people feel about death and gifts. What is their source for that? 
  • At the cabin they see a man and woman in the stream. She has a copper pan that the man fills with dirt brought to him by a "boy of our people." They are panning for gold. 
  • The man speaks to them. The Nez Perce boy translates, telling them that the man wants to know how they are. Sound of Running Feet does not answer that question. Instead she asks why the white man has built a cabin on land that doesn't belong to him. At first glance it seems cool to ask the question about the land. This is definitely a character who is familiar with fights for land. 
  • Sound of Running Feet knows that the boy had gone to a mission school at Lapwai, that his name is Storm Cloud, and that he was mixed up in a murder. He tells the white man what Sound of Running Feet asked about the land. and he replies that the Nez Perce own too much land, that they can't use it all, and that they're greedy. He says his name is Jason Upright and that they better not send Nez Perce warriors to talk to him. The group leaves without replying but at a distance, Sound of Running Feet shoots at and blows a hole in the pan the man and woman are using. They went on home. I'm intrigued. Does the boy's past at the mission school mean he's working for the white man as punishment? What was the murder? Obviously the bit about Nez Perce being greedy is ridiculous. 
[Pausing to hit 'publish' on my notes thus far. These are rough notes. There's likely typos and lack of clarity. I'll be back to add more notes later, when I read chapter 2. I invite your thoughts to what I'm sharing.]


Back on Sunday, June 25th to add notes. I did a quick re-read of chapter one and am noting a paragraph in there that I did not note above. It occurs just after the group sees the cabin and the white people there. Sound of Running Feet remembers hearing "our chieftains" talking about white people. They (the white people) had only set foot on land that belonged to people in the tribe who "called themselves Christians, those who had sold their land to the Big Father..." I don't recall "Big Father" in other works. Generally, writers use "Great Father" to refer to the president of the U.S.  "Great Father" is seen in books like Peter Pan. Sometime I want to trace down the first use of that phrase. That these Nez Perce individuals who became Christians were able to sell their land tells us that the Nez Perce had gone through allotment. Allotment of their land began in 1889. 

More on "Great Father." Immediately following the dedication in a book called The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians" written by Francis Paul Prucha, there's a set of quotes that have that term. The oldest one is "When your Great Father and his chiefs see those things, they will know that you have opened your ears to your Great Father's voice, and have come to hear his good Councils. It is attributed to Lewis and Clark, in presenting American flags and medals to Oto chiefs in 1804. 

My notes and comments (in italics) on chapter two:
  • In the opening paragraphs, Sound of Running Feet tells her father about the white people they saw at the cabin. He tells her more are on the way. In her narrative, she tells us that he talks to her because he has no sons and that unlike other girls in the village. In Island of the Blue Dolphins, O'Dell created a female character that is "unlike" others. He's doing it here, too, as if he's championing feminism. But does that work? It does for white culture but does it for Native cultures? 
  • She replies, angrily, and uses "Here we stand." and that they will "stand and fight." Both of those are similar to remarks widely attributed to Chief Joseph, delivered by him on Oct 5, 1877: "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever." Why is O'Dell using them here, as dialog for Sound of Running Feet? 
  • The text says that her father, Joseph, is son of Old Joseph, who was an "honored Chieftain of the Ne-mee-poo. He was their chieftain because he could see far away into the land of the suns and moons that had not yet risen." She thinks he was a kind and gentle man who was "too kind" with the whites and "was not a warrior." O'Dell seems to be asking the reader to think of her as tough, tougher than her grandfather. Why didn't she refer to him as her grandfather? 
  • "The sun was dying." That sentence is used to indicate sundown. Did the Nez Perce think the sun was dying? Did O'Dell use that directly from a source or is it his construction?
  • There are several real people in this chapter. One is U.S. General Howard; the others are Nez Perce men. O'Dell has them all speaking to each other. Is there evidence that they said those words? Here's what O'Dell has Two Moons saying to his son, Swan Necklace: "Listen, idler of all the hills and valleys and meadows in this realm of the living," he said, "Listen to me." "Death stalks the Land of the Wandering Waters." When I do a search on that last sentence, the only return is to O'Dell's book. 
Back on June 26: 

My notes and comments (in italics) on chapter three:
  • When General Howard went to Chief Joseph to tell him to leave Wallowa, Chief Joseph tells him that when he was "ten snows" he climbed a mountain, made a bed on a stone, and had no water or food. He "put a pebble in my nose and a pebble in each ear to keep me awake." After "five suns" his "guardian spirit" appeared and gave him his name, "Thunder Rolling in the Mountains." That name, he says, binds him forever to the land. O'Dell is describing what he wants us to read as a Nez Perce ritual. What is his source for it? 
  • Howard doesn't care about how Chief Joseph feels about the land. They have to leave "before thirty suns come and go." Another Nez Perce man (Too-hul-hul-sote) tells Howard that "the Spirit Chief" made everything and asks who is "this man" who tells them they have to leave.  Chief Joseph asks for more time because the Snake River is flooding and they would die crossing it. Howard says he will send soldiers with guns to drive them out, and Chief Joseph says they will go. Sound of Running Feet knows some of the Nez Perce men will not go and thinks she agrees with them. 
My Notes and comments (in italics) on chapter four:
  • Chief Joseph speaks to his people, telling them they must leave. In part, he says "Some among us, the young warriors, will say to you, 'Do not leave. Do not flee like old women. Fight. We shall live here in peace.'" That line -- 'do not flee like old women' -- bothers me. O'Dell wants us to think old women are cowards. What is his source for that characterization? 
  • Chief Joseph tells them they are outgunned and outnumbered and have to leave in "ten suns." He tells them to make bundles of things they value. Sound of Running Feet looks at Springtime (her mother), who is pregnant. 
  • Sound of Running Feet goes to Swan Necklace (the two are supposed to get married; the passage includes details on who gave what to whom). "You have heard Chief Joseph speak. Where do you stand?" He is a painter. His father, Two Moons, does not think that is a worthwhile occupation. He belittles him. During the visit from Howard, Two Moons made Swan Necklace hold the horses of two of the younger warriors (Red Moccasin Tops and Wah-lit-its). His father thinks it there is a war to be fought and it is not good for them to be married until after the war. Sound of Running Feet gives Swan Necklace her rifle and bullets. A lot of historical fiction has scenes where a marriage is planned. One family has to give the other items like horses and blankets. What is the source for that? 
Back on Wednesday, June 28, to add more notes:

My Notes and comments (in italics) on chapter five: 
  • In the second paragraph, Sound of Running Feet gives a physical description of Ollokot: "He was very tall and had his hair cut in a roach that stuck up and made him look like a giant." Earlier in the book she talks about her father's braids. Physical descriptions like these are awkward. Or perhaps what I mean is that outsiders (like Scott O'Dell) who are writing as if they are insiders focus on things that they think matter. But, do they matter to the insiders? And are they accurate? The mostly-available photographs of these two men show them in a certain way but did they look that way all the time? It strikes me as a rather exotifying and reductionist move from O'Dell.  
  • In this chapter, Too-hul-hul-sote is angry about being made to leave their land. He shouts "Our Great Spirit Chief made the world," he said. "He put me here on this piece of earth. This earth is my mother. You tell me to live like the white man and plow the land. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom? You tell me to cut the grass and make hay. But dare I cut off my mother's hair?" There's a couple more sentences after that. As I started reading that passage, I thought that it sounds a bit (or a lot) like an as-told-to construction or interpretation of something a Native person said that a white person embellished. I did a quick search and was quite surprised to find "Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom" as something said by someone else entirely. I see it attributed to Wovoka (who was Paiute) and to Smohalla (who was Wanapum). I kept looking and found the following two quotes in Josephy's book, The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest. Josephy is one of O'Dell and Hall's sources (as noted above)! These two quotes open Joseph's book:
"The earth is part of my body . . . I belong to the land out of which I came. The Earth is my mother." --TOOHOOLHOOLZOTE, THE NEZ PERCE 

"You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again. You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like white men! But how dare I cut off my mother's hair?" --SMOHALLA, NORTHWEST INDIAN RELIGIOUS TEACHER

 There's a lot to dig into but at this moment I think a teacher would be doing a tremendous disservice as an educator, if she uses Thunder Rolling in the Mountains! To me, it looks like O'Dell and/or Hall erred completely in taking that "Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom" and attributing it to Too-hul-hul-sote. 

Back on Thursday, June 29th (at 8:30 AM) with more notes:

I read chapter six but am not noting any passages in it. Here, then, is chapter seven:
  • Chief Joseph and his group are leaving their homeland but are also having fights with soldiers. They're leaving White Bird Canyon and thirty-four white soldiers, dead. Sound of Running Feet makes "a doll for my baby sister with a piece of a soldier's shirt." and "My small cousin had a pair of soldier's heavy boots and asked me to cut off their tops and make a purse out of them." That sounds to me like trophy-taking associated with soldiers--not children.
  • As they ride, White Feather, a girl one year older than Sound of Running Feet asks her if she is pleased. "The warriors have won and your father has lost." Sound of Running Feet replies that she is pleased and that if the soldiers follow, "we will beat them again." When Swan Necklace tells her about soldiers dropping their guns and running for their lives, she claps her hands with joy. This defiance and joy are rubbing me the wrong way.   
In chapter nine, Sound of Running Feet thinks that if the war is over, she'll be able to marry Swan Necklace. As they ride she takes care of the children in the group, and tells them stories about Coyote, "the trickster with magic powers." Her story is about how Coyote created the tribes. Hmmm... a creation story. Will I find that in a source? 

On to chapter ten:
  • Chief Joseph and his group have had several fights with soldiers. Many of the soldiers have been killed. Swan Necklace and Sound of Running Feet are talking about the battles. Then, we read this:
"Children made ugly masks of the dead soldiers with eyes hanging down on their cheeks and pieces of ear cut off. They dug holes and buried the masks deep and laughed and hummed secret songs that they made up." Pretty grotesque, isn't it? Did that happen?! How the heck does a teacher work with that passage?! How does it impact Native kids? How does it impact non-Native kids? 


Thursday, June 29, 4:12 PM -- my final set of notes:

I'm not making detailed notes by chapter at this point. I'm tired of the recurring not-Native phrases and oddities like the constance references to Canada as "the Old Lady's country." I did a quick search on that and all hits go to O'Dell and teaching materials about the book. Another redundant phrase is "fight no more" or a variant of it. O'Dell made a real person -- Chief Joseph's daughter -- into the main character in his book. She looks down on her father throughout the book. Did she, in fact, feel that way about her father? From what I've found so far, there's no support for creating her with that disposition. 

In chapter 19 is the "Hear me, my chiefs" speech that is widely attributed to Chief Joseph. Just before it appears, O'Dell writes that Chief Joseph walks to his pony and gets his rifle. General Howard reaches for it, but Chief Joseph pulled it back and said he was not surrendering to Howard. Instead, he was surrendering to Colonel Miles because "This is the man that ran me down." The last sentences of the speech are:
"Hear me, my chiefs," he called. "I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."
Then, O'Dell writes, warriors stepped forward and laid their rifles on the ground in front of the generals, and women and children came forward and stood with the men. Sound of Running Feet, however, "could not join them." A small group slipped away for "the Old Lady's country" and she's decided to go with them. Swan Necklace is among them. Most of the remaining chapters are about battles and deaths and trying to get away from soldiers to what they think is safety in Sitting Bull's camp. In the final chapters, Sound of Running feet is married off to an Assiniboine man but runs away. She imagines killing him with her rifle but doesn't. In an afterword, O'Dell and Hall say that she made her way to Sitting Bull's camp and stayed there for a year before returning to Lapwai where she took the name Sarah and married George Moses, a Nimipu man (Nimipu is the name the Nez Perce use for themselves). She never saw her father again. He and the group that was with him were taken to Oklahoma and later returned to Lapwai if they agreed to become Christians. Chief Joseph refused and was taken to eastern Washington, to the Colville Reservation where he died in 1904.


Those are my notes. I'll study them and in some instances, do some research to verify what O'Dell and Hall wrote in their book. Then, I'll do a more formal review. I think it may take the form of an open letter to educators, including the individuals at Great Minds Ed, who produce the Wit and Wisdom curriculum. Thunder Rolling in the Mountains is part of their curriculum.