Young Adults Books

WAHENEE: AN INDIAN GIRL'S STORY AS TOLD BY HERSELF TO GILBERT L. WILSON, Buffalo Bird Woman to Gilbert L. Wilson, illustrated by Frederick Wilson; University of Nebraska Press, 312 N. 14th Stret, Lincoln, NE 68858. 800-755-1105. 1921, reprinted 1981, Bison paperbacks, University of Nebraska Press. 189 pages, index, glossary, explanatory notes, Paperback, $7.95. 0-8032-9703-3

Waheenee-wea (Buffalo Bird Woman) was a Hidatsa, one of the settled, agricultural tribes living on the upper Missouri River. She was born in 1839, 2 years after the devastating smallpox epidemic which wiped out most of the allied nearby Mandan tribe and about half the Hidatsa people. The survivors consolidated, and moved from the deadly site of the Five Villages some distance north where they founded Like-a-Fishook Village (now drowned by the Army's 1948 Garrison Diversion Project). Waheenee's great-grandmother, White Corn, and grandmother, Turtle, told her many stories of these times (Waheenee lost her biological mother when she was 6, but had three other mothers -- sisters of Weahtee).

Gilbert Wilson was seeking a PhD in anthropology in the early 1900's. He was sent to the Hidatsa at Ft. Berthold reservation in 1906, and returned every summer for 20 years. He became very close to elderly Waheenee and her family: Wolf Chief, her younger brother, and Goodbird, her son (who had attended the white man's schools and was a farmer cattle in the white style -- traditionally, the Hidatsa women had been the agriculturalists).

In a rather clunky intro by Jeffrey Hanson (unidentified but almost certainly an anthro), Wilson's work with the Hidatsa is said to be important for 3 reasons: (1) It shows the transition period of cultural change due to white contact; (2) Anthros can make and confirm theories because there's such a large body of Hidatsa lifestyle descriptions; (3) All the informants on that are dead now, so anthros are stuck with what White collected, quite a lot, luckily.

Forget that, forget Hanson. The importance of Wilson's work is that the Hidatsa people -- whom he became quite close to, over many years -- are allowed to tell their own stories in a lot of detail. Elsewhere (in Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden, it becomes clear that the family made drawings and models, reproduced tools, and showed Wilson, physically, how many daily life activities were done. Wilson's brother, an artist, often visited the reservation with him, making many sketches which were later reproduced as engravings in this book.

Wahenee tells many stories -- som of which I've seen elsewhere -- but differently, warmer, plainer language, and she always gives a context in which she heard the story. Here's one about both her early hairstyle and child discipline:

"When I was naughty, my mothers usually scolded me, for they were kind women and did not like to have me punished. Sometimes they scared me by saying 'The owl will get you.' This had to do with an old custom.

"Until I was about nine years old, my hair was cut short, with a tuft on either side of my head, like the horns of an owl. Turtle used to cut my hair. She used a big steel knife. In old times, I have heard, a thin blade of flint was used. I did not like Turtle's hair cutting a bit, because she pulled.

" 'Why do you cut my hair, grandmother?' I asked. 'It is our custom,' Turtle answered. 'I will tell you the story. Thousands and thoseands of years ago, there lived a great own. He was strong and had magic powers, but he was a bad bird.....'"

Owl appeals to the Indians he'd been harming for protection against their hero. He promises to help them by making children obey their lders in the future, if he can recognize them by owl-ear hair tufts.

Other contexts for traditional stories include a hunting camp (Hidatsa men sometimes took wives along on hunting parties for a pleasurable spring outing before the planting season). It's quite clear there that the storytellers are telling tall tales, capping and topping each other, to appreciative and joking remarks among all the listeners. A visitor drops in to the lodge and, seeing Waheenee's puppy, tells her an Ariwkawa dog story about how sickness and death came to the people via a white and a black dog.

Elsewhere is recorded one of many so-called Sioux myths by Marie McGlaughlin, wife of the army major whose infamous rolls now determine who is and who is not a tribal member for several Dakota tribes, and who was herself on the Army payroll. I've calld it "the corniest" bcause of McGlaughlin's overwrought, archaic language and heavy-handed Victorian moralizing. The story obviously wasn't Sioux, they weren't corn farmers. And here, in this book, Waheenee tells it right! She was fooling around with seed corn her grandma was shucking into a bowl, spilling a few grains. When her grandma tells hr not to fool around with it, she complains they have plenty for her to play with -- and her grandma tells her gracefully snd in normal language the story of one little forgotten nubbin of corn, whose moral is that none of this gift (whicvh is alive, has a spirit, of its own) is supposed to be wasted.

There's a lot of human interest in Waheenee's story. As a budding teen, she attracts the attention of the young warrior Sacred Red Eagle Wing, who attends Waheenee's family corn husking (along with 30 other young men -- husking was a kind of combination party and feast, and a way to show off to a family's girls). But at the husking somebody else shows up: "I saw Red Hand looking at me, and I was glad I was wearing my elk teeth dress. 'He is a young man,' I thought. 'Not a boy, like Sacred Red Eagle Wing.'" She promptly forgets the younger man and starts a teen crush on the older one.

In her 20's, describing her life while married to her long-time husband, a Mandan, she mentions many small details which make it clear that any picture of a squaw doing heavy work walking behind hubby submissively is a white man's fantasy. Son of a Star is considerate, and chides her for trying to show off to the other women (on a hunting trip) by taking up what he considers too heavy a load for her. She often mentions in passing his little attentions such as helping her in and out of boats, portraying love and care, not the surly warrioresque exploitation of women of the stereotype. And:

"My husband walked at my side if he talked with me. At other times he went a little ahead, for if enemies or a grizzly attacked us, he would thus be in front, ready to fight, giving me time to escape."

Waheenee's life is a good story, filled with the details that give color and vitality to the life as it was. She ends: "I am an old woman now. The buffalo and black-tailed deer ar gone, and our Indian ways are almost gone. My little son grew up in the white man's school. He can read books, he owns cattle, he has a farm. He is a leader among our Hidatsa people, helping teach thm to follow the white man's road....But for me, I cannot forget our old ways."

"Often in summer I rise at daybreak and steal out to the cornfields; and as I hoe the corn, I sing to it, as we did when I was young. No one cares for our corn songs now," she says sadly.

Because it is simply and clearly written, young readers will have no difficulty with this book. They will get a warm and colorfully-detailed narrative of the ordinary lives of a peaceful people. The story is much more coherent and than the rather infrequent monographs anthros occasionally collected from Native women (male anthros mostly wanted ot talk to men and they either wanted to hear about battles or aboutr rites that they could shoehorn into theories). Life is in the details, and those came out over many years of remembering, with nostalgia, not quick interviews. Wilson says "Indians have the gentle custom of adopting very dear friends by relationship terms. By such adoption, Buffalo Bird Woman is my mother. It is with real pleasure that I offer to young readers these stories from the life of my Indian mother."

A very unusual and unscientific attitude for an anthro. Anthros of the time were just trying to persuade thmselves and everyone that what they were doing was a science. Wilson wasn't into theories, he was into people, so he remained an obscure and unfamous fellow. While the better-known anthros made a pseudo science, and forceed their often-hasty observations to fit various theories, Wilson's adoptive people speak to us across time in graceful, natural voices and great detail of daily lives. Other books about the culture and lives of this family of Hidatsa people are published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden a fascinating story by Waheenee of food, agriculture, and even recipes; a coloring book of pictures of Hidatsa - Mandan traditional life, by Waheenee's son, George Goodbird, and several others. Waheenee's own life story -- which is also the story of a typical life of a woman of the Hidatsa/Mandan people who lived peaceful, agricultural lives on the plans for over 1,000 years, is very highly recommended. Reviewed by Paula Giese

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

Last Updated: Friday, April 19, 1996 - 5:56:30 AM