Young Adults Books

GOODBIRD THE (HIDATASA) INDIAN: HIS STORY AS TOLD TO GILBERT L. WILSON; Edward Goodbird, as told to Gilbert Wilson, illustrated by Frderick N. Wilson; Minnesota Historical Society Press, 345 Kellogg Boulevard West, St Paul, MN 55102; 800-647-7827. 1985 reissue of 1914 edition; 78 pages, map, index, illustrations, new intro by Mary Jane Schneider. Paperback, $5.95. 0-87351-188-3

Goodbird, a Hidatsa, was Buffalo Bird Woman's son, born in 1870. He lived until 1938, through the move forced by the Dawes Allottment Act from Like-a-Fishhook Village to the clan town of Independence on the Ft. Berthold North Dakota reservation. He livd through th surviving traditions in the earthlodge village, where the women farmed to a operiod where forced changes had been adapted to, while important cxultural elements were maintained in spite of educational, religious, and other efforts to change them. At the left, Goodbird drew a picture of himself as a youth, learning traditional bow and arrow hunting, sneaking through the Missouri River bottomlands, drowned by the Garrison Dam in 1954 . This book is Goodbird's own life story, covering a period when the people's culture was nearly destroyed -- with special attacks on religion -- and they were supposed to become farmers (the women had been) on high-arid plains as the reservation land was allotted.

His mother tells her own lifestory, and the most complete story of precontact traditional agriculture ever recorded. Goodbird is in the transition: born around 1870 (during a buffalo hunting journey), he becomes a successful rancher for a time, then the first Indian Christian minister on the reservation. Wilson, an unusual anthro who's been ignored by professional scientific types, originally thought of what h was doing, spending 20 years in North Dakota with the Hidatsa clan that adopted him in 1906, as preparing a trilogy of life stories, told by Indian people themselves, for young people. The only publisher he could find (in 1914) for the first one -- Edward Goodbird, son of Buffalo Bird Woman, whose life spanned the old ways and the new -- was a women's missionary society. Wilson was angry that the church removed part of Goodbird's story of his vision quest which (for the Hidatsa) included a form of piercing -- a self-sacrifice of suffering and endurance -- like that of the Lakota Sun Dance. Schneider comments on this, and on the fact that the title is also most likely that supplied by the missionaries:

In the long introduction, Mary Jane Schneider (professor of Indian Studies at the University of North Dakota) tells some of the historical background and explains some distortions the church publishers introduced -- including the title: "Nowhere in the narrative is Goodbird presented as 'the Indian'. He is always Goodbird, one man doing his best to cope with the upheaval of social and economic changes. Furthermore, although the title pages of both Goodbird and Waheenee (his mother's autobiography) indicate 'as told to' Gilbert Wilson, in neither book is Wilson an active presence. That is the charm and strength of the books -- there is reality and immediacy to the subjects' lives." Schneider compared Gilbert's field notes on his conversations with all the Hidatsas and what he published. She finds that there was some rearrangment (these stories were told in many conversations over years) but the editing -- even rewording -- was minimal. It does appear that there was considerable church editing or censorship on Goodbird's personal religious history.

But the reality of Goodbird's story still comes through, in a non-artificial way. Goodbird points out that the original spiritual traditions had already become corrupted by incorporating Christian ideas. (As we might see it, and as he apparently did even when recounting his youth from the viewpoint of having become a Christian minister): " My father explained to me, 'All things in this world have souls or spirits. The sky has a spirit; the clouds have spirits; the sun and moon have spirits; the trees, grass, water, stones, everything..'...We Indians did not believe in one Great Spirit as white men seem to think all Indians do. We did believe that certain gods were more powerful than others. Of these was It-si-ka-ma-hi-di, our elder creator, the spirit of the prairie wolf, and Ka-du-te-ta or Old Woman Who Never Dies, who first taught my people to till their fields,...Anyone could pray to th spirits, receiving answer usually in a dream....[But] a man might have mystery power and not use it wisely."

Goodbird was a strong character; he became a leading rancher (farming the allotted lands was not possible, everything always died). He even made up a posse and retrieved some Indian cattle a local white rancher had stolen. At this time, although the treaty payments were paid in head of cattle and equipment), the Indians didn't own them, the government did. Goodbird describes how as Assistant Farmer for the Indian agent, he goes around inspecting what his neighbors are doing: Have they built a barn as prescribed? Have they laid in two tons of hay per head of cattle? But `in the 1909 taking of the northeastern rangeland of the reservation and giving it to white ranchers, the government thought they would put the Indians out of the cattle business. They abolished Goodbird's job of assistant farmer. Goodbird, a Christian by then through school and perhaps choosing some religion over none (all demonstrations of Indian religion were being heavily surpressed) took a job as a missionary at Independence. He reports another kind of motivation:

"My uncle Wolf Chief says of the Christian way: 'I traveled faithfully the way of the Indian gods, but they never helped me. When I was sick, I prayed to them, but they did not make me well. I prayed to them when my children died; but they did not answer me. I have but two children left, and I am going to trust to [the Chrisitan] God to keep these that they do not die." [But Wolf Chief's last surviving child, who was in college, died about the time Goodbird's first grandchild was born.] For Wolf Chief, and perhaps others, the tragedies whose ultimate cause was the white man, were laid against the old religion, which may have been killed as much that way -- people perceiving failures of spiritual powers against things done or caused by the white man -- as by the more overt surpressions and Christian proseletyzing that were going on.

Still, some of the old ways come through. They want to build a better chapel instead of the log cabin. They take up a subscription among themselves, buy lumber. "Wolf Chief wanted to give us the land for our chapel, but the Indian commissioner wrote 'No, you may sell your land but you must not give it away.' So we bought the land for a dollar an acre; but Wolf Chief gave the money back to us, outwitting the commissioner after all!" Damned curious: all sorts of Indian land was given away -- huge acreages to be farmed or ranched to make money -- for churches on reservations all over. Here the Indians have to run a kind of scam to build their own church, which thy are running thmselves, evn though it is an established well-known sect.

Goodbird ends his story: "I own cattle and horses. I can read English and my children are in school. I have good friends among the white people, and best of all, I think, each year I know God a little better. I am not afraid."

But the white man hasn't been very kind to Goodbird's descendants; before his death in 1938's, much more land had been taken, ten years later, the dam that was to drown all the good land, the heart of the reservation, the Missouri Valley of the millennia-old culture of all 3 tribes, Mandan and Arikara, as well as Hidatsa, was a-building. Though perhaps overly focussed (due to the church publisher) on Goodbird's religion (with some of their own interpolations), the book was also guided by Wilson's life-long intention to let the Indian people tell their own story, to let them present themselves as fully-rounded human beings, their history and lives as they themselves saw and lived it.

There's considerable overlap in this book with the much more detailed and polished old village lifestory of Goodbird's mother, Waheenee (University of Nebraska Press); that Wilson published -- not through a church group -- 13 years later, not long before he died. Various passages attributed to Goodbird in the present book were in fact told by his mother, Buffalo Bird Woman. Others come from her brother (Goodbird's uncle) Wolf Chief. Wilson intended to make these autobiographies for young people a trilogy, but Wolf Chief's life story was never published. It exists in Gilbert's extensive field notes and reports and in several anthropology papers he published before his death.

Nowhere in this book does Goodbird mention that he likes to draw (Wilson got him notebooks, charcoals, and colored pncils, and Goodbird completed one book of sketches a year for about 5 years.) Some of these -- redrawn to solid outlines are in the MHS A COLORING BOOK OF HIDATSA INDIAN STORIES, which is a very simplified summary of the early part of Goodbird's life, with charming pictures he drew himself. More about the life of the period will be found in THE WAY TO INDEPENDENCE the artistic-historical book prepared by MHS for the travelling Hidatsa exhibit, done in 1987.

Goodbird's autobiography, despite the occasional bits of church-imposd censorship, and the tilt toward Christianity it had to have given the only publisher for it Wilson could find (as well as by Goodbird's own adaptation to the enforced white man's road) is still interesting reading for older Middle or YA young people, and for many adults. Supplementation with the coloring book provides not only material for younger ones, but for classroom exhibits and illustrations. The large, well-illustrated MHS Hidatsa history exhibit book will provide a great wealth of material for high school teachers to draw on. Highly recommended. Reviewed by Paula Giese

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

Last Updated: Monday, April 29, 1996 - 8:24:23 AM