Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Children's Book Reviews: 'Buffalo Bird Girl' and 'Black Elk's Vision' - by S. D. Nelson

Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story by S.D. Nelson
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2012

Black Elk's Vision: A Lakota Story by S.D. Nelson
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010

Abrams Books for Young Readers has recently published Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story retold by S. D. Nelson. This first person account of the childhood of a woman named Waheenee follows the same format as S.D. Nelson's Black Elk's Vision: A Lakota Story, which was published by Abrams in 2010.

Both books are accounts of the lives of Native Americans in the late 19th to early 20th centuries just before the Euro-American invasion. They are gorgeously illustrated by Nelson and include many archival photos of tribal people from the period in which the story is set as well as images of reconstructions of Native American artifacts and dwellings. Each story is told from the perspective of a real historical figure and describes what life was like for them when they were growing up on the Great Plains.

Buffalo Bird Girl's narrative describes how her tribe's dwellings and tools were made, what type of food they ate and how they acquired and prepared it, and how her people felt a spiritual connection to all living things. She tells of how the Hidatsa traded with friendly tribes and white fur traders, and fought against their enemies (interestingly, the Hidatsa and Lakota were warring tribes).

Buffalo Bird Girl considered herself to be “a happy, contented Indian girl,” and remembers her childhood as the happiest time of her life. She talks of making dolls and playing games with other girls (while the boys shot arrows, wrestled, and raced horses). The girls and women harnessed dogs to haul firewood, dried corn and other vegetables to last throughout the winter, and colored their cheeks with ochre and buffalo fat for dances and celebrations.

Black Elk's story focuses on a vision he had during a childhood illness which leads to his leadership role in his tribe as the U.S. Government moves in to the Great Plains killing buffallo and fighting the Lakota and Cheyenne nations. Custer's encounter with Crazy Horse is described in heartbreaking detail. In 1886, Black Elk and Sitting Bull join Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show and perform as Indians in New York and London.

Both stories contain at least one violent war scene, which include shootings and scalpings. And both end with the encroachment of Euro-Americans on the native lifestyle. Black Elk's story also includes some disturbing photos of U.S. Soldiers burying Indian corpses in a common grave after the Battle of Wounded Knee and concludes with the Lakota being moved to the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Following the first-person accounts, each book contains a fairly lengthy Author's Note and a Timeline which provides more historical information about the cultures portrayed in the stories. S.D. Nelson is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux/Lakota tribe of the Dakotas and grew up in a family that maintained many traditional ways, so several of his own childhood experiences mirrored those described in the stories.

The first-person account makes history more accessible for young readers, although I wonder about the target audience for these books. Some of the content is too mature for elementary school students, but the picture book format will likely put off young adults. The books might appeal to advanced middle school students, or to teachers who could choose to read selections to younger students. They would also be appropriate for adult early-readers since the historical accounts and documents will appeal to people of all ages.

S.D. Nelson is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of the Dakotas. He is the author of a number of children's books. His artwork also appears on book jackets, greeting cards, and CD covers, and his paintings are held in private and public collections. He lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Visit him online at www.sdnelson.net.

Renée Vaillancourt McGrath has worked at Montana Public Radio as a program host since 2002. Her background is in librarianship and she currently works as a freelance editor and website designer and developer. Check out more of her book reviews at reneesreads.com.

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