Adult Reading Level

BUFFALO BIRD WOMAN'S GARDEN: AGRICULTURE OF THE HIDATSA INDIANS, Gilbert L. Wilson, with a new introduction by Jeffrey R. Hanson, Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul,1917, 1987. 129 pages, photos, maps, diagrams.paperback $8. 0-87351-219-7

Wilson was an anthropologist, an unusual one who was open to friendly involvement with Indian people, interested in learning from elder women, and willing to watch, listen, learn, and present the results in the words of the people, not distorted by theory. For 1915 -- when anthropology was busily trying to become a science -- this was unthinkably revolutionary, This little book is his University of Minnesota PhD thesis. Unlike most such it is absorbing reading. Representing years in the early 1900's spent with the Hidatsa people now living at Fort Berthold, North Dakota, and a particularly close relationship to the old lady identified her as Buffalo Bird Woman, and in other works as Waheenee and Owl Woman, this fascinating book reads like a combination gardener's and cook's How2, as the old lady speaks for herself. Tools and structures used in the planting, cultivation harvest, processing, storage, and cooking are shown in small, clear drawings. She tells of the entire year's round.

In addition to corn, mainstay of the plains native farmers' lives (the women had developed 7 major varieties and practiced careful seed selections), sunflowers, beans and squash were raised. Every aspect of their planting, processing, storage and cooking is also told about. Bird Woman also sings a few teasing songs sung by women field-watchers to passing youths and other cross-cousins:

"You young man of the Dog Society, you said to me
'When I go East on a war party, you will hear news of me, how brave I am!'
I have heard news of you. When the fight was on,
You ran and hid!
Behold, you have joined the Dog Society.
Therefore I call you just plain Dog!"

Here's a recipe she gives for "Four vegetables mixed" for a family of 5:

"I put a clay pot on the fire. Into the pot I threw one double-handful of beans. This was a fixed quantity, I put in that whether the family was large or small, for a larger quantity of beans was apt to make gas in the stomach. When we dried squash in the fall, we strung the slices upon twisted grass each 7 Indian fathoms long. From one of these strings I cut a piece as long as from my elbow to the tip of my thumb. I tied the 2 ends together in a ringh and dropped this into the pot. When the squash slices were well cooked, I drew them from the pot by the string, and put it into a wooden bowl where I chopped and mashed it with a horn spoon and returned the cooked mass to the pot, throwing away the string. To the mess I now added 5 double-handfuls of mixed meal made of pounded, parched sunflower seed and pounded, parched corn. The whole was boiled a few minutes more and was ready for serving. A little alkalai salt might be used, but was not usual. Meat was not boiled with this mess, as sunflower seed gave sufficient oil for fat."

The very detailed knowledge she relates is fascinating. Lengths of vegetable drying strings and corncob braids were calibrated to be a load the average woman could easily carry, to relate to the size of cache pits, and to be easily broken strings for a family-size cookpot. Constructing and lining of the cache pits is described in detail, with drawings -- only one certain type of grass could be used, others molded or didn't protect well enough against groundwater. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of successful agricultural adaptation are related in the woman's easy-to-read, colloquial narrative.

This little book was so fascinating, I couldn't put it down. It is a unique document, the most detailed of any ever known to be collected for such practices, outpointing Frances Densmore's Ojibwe daily life collections, made around the sam time and printed in 1920, because Wilson found a woman who knew all the details, who wanted to talk to him about it and see that way of life -- which had already passed, through seizure of the upper Missouri River bottomlands, and who was eloquent both in descriptions and in persuading her family to make models and drawings for Wilson of the many large structures and tools in use before the way of life was destroyed by forced move from the bottomlands village to the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota, after the passages of the Dawes Allottment Act, and the building of the Garrison Dam, which flooded the rich bottomlands.

The book might sound boring to those whose idea of history is battles, leaders, speeches, governments. Nuagers looking for spiritual motherlode in the pretentious forms they recognize, accounts of ceremonies, male "shamanic"e; declarations and practices, will find none here, just the practicality of women's work in daily survival. Myself, I find this the real and material basis of spirituality: feeding the people, life of the land. I couldn't put this book down, it completely fascinated me. I got a better picture of real, day-to-day traditional community life here than from just about anything else I've read. It's more like a How2 book than an anthropology book. Wilson spent many years in the early 1900's with the Hidatsa people. I hope to see some of this other writings, too. Though this is reviewed in the adult book section, it's very easy to read; I think highschool Native youth will like it, especially girls. Reviewed by Paula Giese

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Tuesday, April 02, 1996 - 9:18:04 PM