SWEETGRASS, Jan Hudson. New York : Philomel, 1989. (Grades 5-8).
A superb first book about a Blackfoot girl in the days just before heavy interaction with settlers by a Canadian author who has recently died. Dawn Rider, 1990, was a disappointing second work. Reviewed by Lisa Mitten and Naomi Caldwell-Wood
A second Look: Sweetgrass is the only daughter of Shabby Bull, member of the Blood Division of the Blackfeet Nation. Told in the first person, the first half of the book mainly concerns Sweetgrass's obsession with getting married.
"Pretty Girl couldn't know how I would've sacrificed a finger [somehow I doubt that] to be in her place. I was 15, she was 13 -- but she was the on whose parents had announced her marriage."
The girl is self-absorbed to a degree that would be far more believable of a 20th century upper middle class American girl than of a young 19th century Blackfeet woman: "Father gives me all the little things I want....Grandmother is one person who cares about me....I get my own way most of the time" and so on. If this is the author's attempt to make Sweetgrass seem just like themselves to young white girls, then she has succeeded.
About halfway through the book, the baby dies of smallpox; this is the beginning of a terrible epidemic. Sweetgrass is not stricken, and must tend the members of her family, some of whom live. This is supposed to have caused her to grow up, although there isn't much evidence of that. In the end, the one whom she constantly refers to as her 'boyfriend' returns. Although they don't exactly ride off into the sunset together, we know that Sweetgrass is goiing to get her own way this time too.
It is a little difficult to know what this author's intention was in writing this book. Certainly, she seems to have had little understanding of the patterns of tribal life, and she says some truly extraordinary things: "Aside from my obnoxious almost-brothr Otter...there have been only babies in our tipi. And when they die young, they don't count. ...But as I brewed the tea, I cried. All I wanted to do was leave all these sick people, go out on the clean snow and puke them all away." Sweetgrass's friend, Prtty Girl, is given to Five Killer, a man her fathr's age, to be a "slave wife" because her father needs the horses. (For those who don't know, it was not the custom of the People to sell their daughters.)
It took me a while to figure out that, when the smallpox strikes, Sweetgrass's family are camping alone. Granted, bands might split up during the winter, but no family, unless they had been banished, would choose to go off alone. That would be death. Although none of th characters aree too appealing, the portrayal of the women is appalling. "Bent-Over-Woman always walked like she was tired...with graying hair sticking out from her braids like dirty feathers, she looked just like a crow." "My aunt waddled troward us, panting from the heat. Her buckskin underclothes must have been sticking toigether." (Buckskin underclothes, eh? Oh well.) The women have to be married off young so that the men " will have someone to tan the buffalo robes for trading."
Sweetgrass may lack the overt racism of the Little House books, say, or the Matchlock Gun, but it is demeaning and inaccurate in so many ways that I would not consider it even as an alternative. It might be of interest to note that this book received the Canada Council's Children's Literature prize for 1984 and was the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for children. And to think that I was told recently by a Canadian: "We treat our Indians better..." Reviewed by Doris Seale, Cree-Santee in Through Indian Eyes
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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996
Last Updated: Monday, March 11, 1996 - 11:37:17 AM