Several recent and forthcoming titles focus on the American West and offer students an entrée into a place and a pivotal time in our nation’s history. In exploring the relationship between The Horse and the Plains Indians (Clarion, July, 2012; Gr 4-9; photos by William Muñoz), Dorothy Hinshaw Patent offers a glimpse into Native American tribes that had for centuries wintered in North America’s wooded river valleys and its forests and summered on its grasslands. When the seasons changed they hitched their dogs to travois loaded with their belongings and traveled to new camps. It was a way of life and a mode of transport that was to change radically with the arrival in the Americas of Christopher Columbus in 1492, and Hernado Cortés in 1519.
Cortés brought horses and the advantages of having powerful, fast creatures while trying to subdue the native peoples was not lost on the Spaniards, nor on the Native Americans. Patent reports that “the horse revolution started in the 1500’s with the Apache, who managed to steal horses from…ranches around Santa Fe, New Mexico.” Soon the Comanche owned horses, followed by southwest tribes, and by the 1770s the “Plains tribes from Texas into Canada and Illinois…had become horse nations.” Differences in traditions existed between the groups, but they all developed special relationships with the creatures that had changed the way they conveyed their supplies, where and how they hunted, and their manner of fighting. Stories were told about how each tribe acquired their horses, decorative images of the animals began to appear, and the cultures celebrated them.
By the 1800s, as the railroads and gold brought thousands more European Americans westward through the center of the native hunting grounds, conflict became inevitable. After years of broken treaties, bloody battles, and the often forcible removal of native peoples from their homelands to crowded reservations, the U.S. Army decided that the tribal populations would be “easier to control” without their horses. Some tribal members were allowed to sell their animals, some had their horses confiscated, and other animals were shot. Both Native Americans and government troops were aware that by stripping the Indians of their horses they were removing one of the last vestiges of their former lives.
In The Horse and the Plains Indians, the author notes that many people date the end of the Indian wars with the Wounded Knee Massacre in December 1890. Dwight Jon Zimmerman’s Saga of the Sioux (Holt, 2011; Gr 5-10) is an adaptation of Dee Brown’s seminal 1971 title, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Brown’s book told the story of war waged against Native Americans by the U.S. government and its citizens from a Native-American perspective and laid bare many of the atrocities committed by the U.S. Army in its treatment of Indians during the years 1860-1890. Zimmerman’s adaption for a young audience follows that book, focusing on the events related to the Sioux Nation, its well-known warrior chiefs including Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, and some of the significant confrontations of the wars. Like Brown’s text, Zimmerman’s offers primary-source material including numerous quotes from individuals who participated in the events. His book begins with background information on the Sioux Confederation and Little Crow’s War of 1862 and ends with the massacre at Wounded Knee.
Both Plains Indians and Saga of the Sioux are filled with black-and-white, captioned period photos providing readers with portraits of important figures, views of the prairie landscape, Indian villages, and reservations, and disturbing scenes of the battlefields. (A number of the photos were taken by Edward S. Curtis, who documented the lives of American Indians.) There are also maps and reproductions of period paintings and engravings, samples of Ledger Art, and images of artifacts including a pad saddle, a cropper, and a beaded bag.
Each title ends with information on contemporary Native-American life. Patent discusses horse traditions popular today at tribal fairs and riding events, while Zimmerman recounts modern conflicts between native peoples and the U.S. government, and the efforts of groups such as the Sioux Nation to reclaim land promised to them by the U.S. government more than a century ago.
Native-American clothing, artifact ornamentation, Ledger Art, the photos of Curtis, and life in seasonal encampments are just some of the topics introduced in Plains that can be mined for further research. Students can also read S.D. Nelson’s beautifully illustrated Black Elk’s Vision: A Lakota Story (Abrams, 2010; Gr 3-6), which offers insight into the life of a man who was present at the Battle of Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee Massacre. Or, they can consider Nelson’s forthcoming lyrical picture book, Greet the Dawn: The Lakota Way (South Dakota State Historical Society Press, June, 2012, Gr 3-6), and discuss how this title relates to the cultures and events discussed in Patent’s book.
Zimmerman’s portraits of the Indian chiefs and warriors and his detailed accounts of important battles are likely to generate interest. Students may want dig deeper into the lives of these individuals or locate additional firsthand accounts of participants on both sides of the battlefields through archival news reports, diaries, or autobiographies. They may be curious about what Nat Love, an African-American cowboy born into slavery, had to say when he heard about the outcome of the Battle of Little Bighorn, and his relationship with the native peoples he encountered. (See Best Shot in the West, Patricia C. McKissack and Frederick L. McKissack’s graphic fictional account of Love’s life based on his 1907 autobiography and illustrated by Randy DuBurke [Chronicle, 2012; Gr 4 Up]). They could react to Love’s comments, or anything that they have read, in written pieces. Students can also delve more deeply into 20th- and 21st-century movements by Native Americans to regain lands. These titles—and exercises—will open readers’ eyes to an period of American history that was buried for many years.
This article originally appeared in School Library Journal’s enewsletter Curriculum Connections. Subscribe here.
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