Interrelated Themes in the Young Adolescent Novels of Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
The publication of N. Scott Momaday's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn in 1968 marks the beginning of a period of artistic, particularly literary, expression among American Indians termed the "Native American Renaissance" (Lincoln, 1983). During this period, which continues to the present, several American Indian writers have earned critical success and popularity. American Indian poets, novelists, story writers, and playwrights, drawing upon a century of tradition among their peoples of writing in English as well as an age-old tradition of verbal arts, depict for readers in a realistic manner diverse aspects of their historical and cultural experience. Nowhere has this expression found clearer, more forceful expression than in novels. From N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain to James Welch's Winter in the Blood, from Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony to Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, American Indian writers have contributed much to the continued development of the novel, adding to both form and meaning aspects of the genre. Momaday and Silko connect oral traditions to modern life in intricate ways-Momaday through the use of stream of consciousness and Silko by weaving web-like interconnections between characters, between past and present. Welch's sparse language mirrors with vivid realism the world of his protagonists while Erdrich's novels unfold incrementally, through polyvocal narrative, each character revealing a unique aspect of the story. To such structural innovations, these and other American Indian writers have expanded the range of themes expressed in American literary works. Among the themes expressed uniquely by American Indian writers through their characters and their artistic technique are identity, heritage, landscape, alienation, racism, ceremony, balance, and healing.
A less well-developed category of literary expression among American Indian writers is "young adult literature," literature characterized by its inclusion of "conflicts...consistent with the young adult's experience, themes...of interest to young people, [young adult] protagonists...and...language [that] parallels the language of young people" (Bushman and Haas, 2001, 2). An important author writing in this genre is Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe. Sneve, in describing the goal of her writing, has stated: "...I try to present an accurate portrayal of American Indian life as I have known it. I also attempt to interpret history from the viewpoint of the American Indian. In doing so, I hope to correct the many misconceptions and untruths which have been too long perpetrated by non-Indian authors who have written about us" (quoted in Bataille, 1993, 242). Sneve's young adult novels include Jimmy Yellow Hawk (1972), When Thunders Spoke (1974 ), and High Elk's Treasure (1972/1993). I summarize these short novels below, and add a focus on their thematic content. Because of the potential for these works to affect positively the growth and development of young adult readers, I present a case for teachers of English Language Arts to include these works in middle school/junior high literature curricula.
When I taught middle school English, one of my most memorable experiences was teaching Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve's short story "The Medicine Bag." Teaching the story was memorable for a number of reasons. My students connected with it and responded to it with very little external prodding from me. Teaching the story allowed me to address simultaneously content of a multicultural and universal nature. The story bridged the experiences of my students (none of whom were American Indian) and those of the Lakota. Written in 1975, "The Medicine Bag" serves as a useful introduction to Sneve's thematic concerns.
Early in "The Medicine Bag," Martin, the protagonist, admits to being ashamed of and embarrassed by his Sioux great grandfather who "...wasn't tall and stately like TV Indians, [whose] hair wasn't in braids but hung in stringy gray strands on his neck, and...[who] didn't live in a teepee, but all by himself in a part log, part tar-paper shack on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota" (74). When his great grandfather comes to visit Martin's family because "grandpa thought he was going to die, and he had to follow the tradition of his family to pass [a] medicine bag, along with its history, to the oldest male child," Martin must come to grips with his identity and his responsibilities to important aspects of his Sioux heritage (378). For it is Martin who inherits the medicine bag and its teachings from his great grandfather. In the course of learning the ways of the medicine bag, Martin learns to respect and love his great grandfa- ther; Martin honors his great grandfather's memory and all his Sioux relations by following the teachings associated with the medicine bag: "That night Mom and Dad took Grandpa to the hospital. Two weeks later I stood alone on the lonely prairie of the reservation and put the sacred sage in my medicine bag" (381).
Thematically, "The Medicine Bag" focuses on the importance of culture in the formation of healthy identity. It speaks to the need for intergenerational harmony in healthy adolescent development. Fundamentally, it is a story about respect. As Martin learns respect for family and heritage, he learns ultimately to respect himself as an individual. Readers, too, engage in their own reflective search for self.
In the three young adult novels examined here, Sneve develops these same themes, adding depth and complexity to her treatment of characterization and complexity to plot. The primary audience for these works is young adolescents, approximately ten to thirteen years of age, in grades five through eight. On the basis of the Fry Readability Graph (Fry, 1977), and the potential for interest in the themes and actions in the books, I believe that following reading level for the books is as follows: Jimmy Yellow Hawk: 7th grade; High Elk's Treasure: 7th/8th grade; and When Thunders Spoke: 5th grade.
Jimmy Yellow Hawk
In Jimmy Yellow Hawk (1972), Sneve portrays a young protagonist fully enveloped in a struggle to achieve a sense of his own personal identity. The story follows Little Jim Yellow Hawk from youth through a rite of passage to achievement of young adulthood. At the outset of the novel, Little Jim is too closely identified, as suggested by his name, with his father (Big Jim). While an endearing name to family members and other adults, the name "Little Jim" is a source of embarrassment for the protagonist. He is ridiculed by his friends who feel his name is indicative of not only his physical stature, but also his emotional attachment to his parents.
Along the way to Little Jim's maturation, readers witness aspects of contemporary Sioux life. The Yellow Hawk family works hard at maintaining a ranch on the allotted tribal land they own. The family feels the tension created by trying to maintain traditional Sioux ways (symbolized by the powwow) while meeting the demands of running a ranch. The presence of Grandpa Little Hawk heightens this tension. Little Jim's grandpa tells stories of the old ways while he expresses discontent over new ways of doing things. Grandpa shares with Little Jim the tradition of Sioux naming. When Little Jim, because he "[does not] like being called 'Little Jim' anymore," asks his grandfather, "How can I change my name?" (58), Grandpa relates the story of Goes-Alone-In-The-Morning, a Sioux boy who was able to provide food for his famine- stricken people by trapping rabbits during the dead of winter. Little Jim's initial attempts at trapping end disastrously as he is overcome by the odor of a skunk. Grandpa explains that "...in the old way..... this boy would have been given a name as a result of what had happened with the not so dangerous animal. Such a name might be Skunk Face and he would go by that whether he liked it or not" (72).
By the end of the novel, Little Jim demonstrates independence, persistence, fortitude, and pride. He learns the subtleties of trapping and successfully traps a mink, "one of the deadliest animals for [its] size that we know" (74). In so doing, Little Jim reconnects symbolically with traditions of the Sioux people. After his father, with "...pride in his voice..." publicly declares, "My son, Jimmy, trapped it," (75) Little Jim earns the right to a new name. Adapting the Sioux naming custom to contemporary times, "Little Jim" becomes "Jimmy" Yellow Hawk, a name reflecting his newly achieved young adult status.
High Elk's Treasure
High Elk's Treasure (1972/1993) is story rich in thematic content. Primarily, the short novel traces the emotional growth and identity development of Joe High Elk, the young protagonist. As a result of increasingly complex responsibilities he undertakes, Joe comes to understand more fully his role within his family. He comes to realize what being a big brother to his sister is all about. He learns the value of family and of heritage. Two parallel stories comprise the plot, each story describing a "treasure" alluded to in the novel's title. One story details Joe's efforts to recover a pony lost during a tornado. More largely, this story relates to the line of horses developed by High Elk, the boy's great grandfather. The other story centers on solving the mystery of the hide-wrapped bundle Joe discovers while in a cave as he and his sister sought shelter from the tornado. He speculates that the bundle was left in the cave by his great grandfather, High Elk. Unlocking its mystery proves pivotal to Joe's identity development and that of his cousin.
After losing his pony during the storm, Joe feels ashamed. He enlists the help of his neighbor Mr. Blue Shield in recovering the pony. They come upon horse thieves who attempt to steal Joe's pony. Joe recognizes that one of them is an Indian boy. Unbeknownst to Joe, he is a long-lost cousin, Howard High Elk. After confronting the thieves, Joe befriends Howard and helps him reconnect with both his Sioux heritage and his family by insisting that they both be present for the "unwrapping" of the bundle. As Joe says, "Come with us, Howard. This is your heritage, too" (86). The bundle turns out to be a "winter count," a Sioux historical calendar, handpainted by High Elk, both boys' great grandfather. At the end of the novel, the mare Sungewiye has a male colt which Joe names Otokahe, Sioux for "beginning." The High Elk line of horses can continue. Symbolically, the Lakota people, one individual and one family at a time, continue.
When Thunders Spoke
Norman Two Bull, in When Thunders Spoke (1974/1993), encounters race-based hostility from a white shopkeeper as well as the more subtle racism of a white minister. With the help of his father and grandfather, he is able to confront anti- Indian racism and to better understand himself as a result. Norman learns to value the ways of the Lakota as espoused by his grandfather, Matt. At the same time, Norman, like most young adolescents, struggles to mature and come to understand himself more fully. Through the influence of his grandfather, he moves toward knowledge of traditional Lakota ways. He gains greater self-awareness and a more secure sense of himself as he is forced to confront differences between himself and Brannon, the non-Indian shopkeeper who sees the world in terms of profit and materialism. "You Indians are just a bunch of superstitious heathens. I'm surprised at you, Mrs. Two Bull. You belong to the church and should know better.... No wonder you people never get ahead in this world" (93). Norman reconciles the identity conflict within himself as he confronts his mother, a converted Christian, and decides to honor traditional Lakota spiritual and familial values: "'A prayer before I leave you,' [the minister] said, bowing his head. Sarah lowered her head and closed her eyes.... Norman looked at the coup stick" (71). Even though this inter-generational conflict plays out in an American Indian context, non-Indian adolescents can relate directly to the antagonism between Norman and his parents. Norman rejects his mother's attempt to mold his spirituality. At the same time, he realizes he can continue to love her.
Among the important developmental tasks accomplished by protagonists in the young adolescent novels of Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve are the achievement of personal identity, acceptance of familial and social responsibility, and adoption of adult roles. Sneve's adolescent characters, after initial skepticism, even embarrassment, grow to exhibit pride in their American Indian (specifically Lakota) identity. Jimmy Yellow Hawk, Joe High Elk, and Norman Two Bull express profound respect for sacred ceremonies, accompanying teachings, and the objects used to perform ceremonial rites. In addition, these characters reconcile differences between themselves, their friends, siblings, and their parents. They grow to respect their elders, especially their grandparents, further strengthening ties to family and community and to cultural heritage. Sneve portrays Sioux families in a realistic rather than romantic and nostalgic manner as they struggle with contemporary life. These families must cope with life on reservations, balancing tradition with the frequently conflicting demands of the modern world. The Lakota who people Sneve's novels are real; they are not warriors mounted on horseback or "squaws" carrying a "papoose"; rather, they are students, teachers, homemakers, ranch hands, parents, and grandparents. In portraying Sioux life with humanity and realism, Sneve dismantles prevalent stereotypes of American Indians.
Reading and studying Sneve's novels broaden students' worldviews, exposing them to a truthful treatment of the American Indian experience. Undermining the mythic image of Indians presented on television and in movies, Sneve's protagonists are real-students, both Indian and non-Indian, can relate to their interactions with parents and friends, their motives, introspections, concerns, and fears. In short, through vicarious experience and personal reflection, readers grow in their understanding of self and "other."
Bataille, Gretchen M., ed.. Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland, 1993.
Bushman, John H. and Kay Parks Haas. Using Young Adult Literature in the English Classroom, 3rd edition. New York: Merrill, 2001.
Fry, Edward. "Fry's Readability Graph: Clarifications, Validity, and Extension to Level 17," Journal of Reading, 21, (1977): 242-252.
Lincoln, Kenneth. Native American Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Sneve, Virginia Driving Hawk. High Elk's Treasure. Lincoln: Bison Books, 1972; re-released 1993.
Sneve, Virginia Driving Hawk. Jimmy Yellow Hawk. New York: Holiday House, 1972.
Sneve, Virginia Driving Hawk "The Medicine Bag," in Millett, Nancy C. and Raymond J. Rodrigues, Eds. Explorations in Literature: America Reads (Classic Edition). Glenville, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1991, 374-382.
Sneve, Virginia Driving Hawk When Thunders Spoke. Lincoln: Bison Books, 1974; re-released 1993.
Jim Charles is a professor of English Education at the University of South Carolina Spartanburg.
Reference Citation: Charles, Jim. (2001) "Interrelated Themes in the Young Adolescent Novels of Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 2, p. 60.