The Birchbark House (1999) by Louise Erdrich transports the reader to an island in Lake Superior, in 1847, to live a full cycle of seasons through the eyes and voice of 7 year old Omakayas, a Anishinabe or Ojibwa Native American girl. As the family makes their annual move from their winter cedar cabin to the summer birchbark house near the water’s edge we learn about Omakayas’ family and community through her interactions with her siblings, parents, grandparents, neighbors, dreams and wildlife. Following the cycle of seasons, Erdrich richly details the Ojibwa traditions, customs, spiritual and daily life. Young readers will be mesmerized by Omakayas’ struggles and triumphs as she tells them her secrets, her joys and her fears. The respect for nature, the family love, the labors of survival, the clash of the Ojibwa civilization with the chimookomanug, the white people or foreigners, combine to bring Omakayas’ story to life.
The Birchbark House is representative of authentic Native American literature. Styles and themes include stories told in a circle, connections to nature, an emotional involvement with nature, belief systems which include dream, animal and spiritual connections, and verbal histories. The plot advances through the seasons of a year and Omakayas’ story comes full circle from her rescue on Spirit Island through her 8 years to revelation of her rescue. Story telling inside the story is used to further describe the life of the Anishinabeg. They pass on family history, folklore, superstitions and customs. Nokomis tells stories in the cold of winter. Deydey tells stories whenever he is home usually about his travels. The family and especially the children relish story telling time. We know from the author’s notes that Ojibwa was a spoken, not written, language. Their history and identity survives through such story telling. Erdrich informs the reader that The Birchbark House and other of her books tell her own family’s history.
After relating the rescue of a baby smallpox survivor from Spirit Island, the story jumps seven years and unfolds from Omakayas point of view. She introduces all the characters and paints the deep love and respect of their family as they complete the seasonal chores of life such as growing food, hunting for and storing meats, and making clothes and other household articles. Mother, Yellow Kettle, her older sister, Angeline, and Grandma, Nokomis, the family women, are strong and capable. Mother is shrewd, joyful and beautiful. Omakayas is jealous of Angeline’s beauty and bead skills, and yet wants to grow up to be just like her. Nokomis constantly attends to chores, medicines and rituals. Omakayas learns to build the birchbark house, to listen to the plants, animals and dreams and to tell stories by helping Grandma daily. Her little brother Pinch is an incessant bother, always naughty and greedy. Omakayas is embarrassed by the mean thoughts she has about Pinch. It is ironic that Pinch’s behavior paves the way for the family to laugh again after the horrible illness that invades the family. Omakayas heals Pinch and Pinch heals the family. Her little baby brother Neewo is sweet and loving and always delights is Omakayas’ attention. Her love for Neewo is as great as her grief on his death. Deydey, her father, is a fur trader and often away, either hunting or trading. Life was different when Deydey was home “...more exciting, ...more difficult,...less predictable,...more secure”. (p.52) Old Tallow, Omakayas’ surrogate mother, godmother, hero, mentor, savior and friend, looms large as her shadow throughout the story. She provides strength, justice and life.
Summer preparations start with the building of the birchbark house, the responsibilities of growing corn, the scraping of hides for clothing and blankets, playful and serious encounters with the bear cubs and the mother bear, the unfolding spiritual training and adopting the baby crow, Andeg. Come fall, Omakayas describes the preparations for winter by relating the rice harvest story, a community effort, and a time of celebration and fellowship with extended families. Bonds of friendship are made and strengthened through the work of harvesting.
The foreshadowing of the tragedy of the inevitable intersection of the chimookomanug and the Anishinabeg cultures starts with the initial tale of the baby from Spirit Island. Then, while Deydey himself is part chimookoman, his grandfather was French, and though he took secret pride in the building tenets and game of chess which he learned from the white man, outwardly Deydey expressed only disgust for the chimookoman. The non-Indians were arriving in larger numbers, bringing their own system of building, commerce, religion, and education; in short, their own culture. People were saying the Ojibwa must leave the island and go west. “West, always west.” (p.79) Chimookomanug want the Ojibwa to go to the land of the spirits. The white man’s smallpox sent large groups of Native Americans early to the land of the spirits.
Winter brings the joys of snow, lessons in beadwork, unexpected tender moments with Angeline, and the annual dancing celebrations in the dance lodge. The women and children danced. “Even Nokomis couldn’t help dancing.” (p.141) The men played games. All stopped to feast on venison and corn soup. While they were eating the visitor came who changed Omakayas' family forever. He had smallpox and died shortly after arriving. Illness ravishes Omakayas’ family. Winter, already a season of hardship in terms of cold and food, becomes a deadly struggle for survival for the family and village.
In the end, bringing the seasons and Omakayas’ story full circle, Old Tallow reveals to Omakayas her origins. She gives Omakayas physical strength, through food, and spiritual strength, through story, to accept Neewo’s death, to rejoin the family spiritually, to accept her maturity and to face the universal questions of why, why were prayers unanswered, why didn’t medicine work, why were the strong adults unable to fix anything, why does pain last longer that the physical hurt.
The young reader will delight in some of the similarities between Omakayas’ experiences and their own. Though for contemporary non Ojibwa readers' environments are different, the struggles in family life and with siblings, the respect for the parents, the competition for parental approval and effects of earned praise, the awakening of the idea that parents and adults do not know all, the isolation of the individual, the desire to play rather than work, and the awakening of the responsibility for one’s own life will be concepts familiar and compelling. Omakayas is linked throughout her life with birds and bears. The reliance on dream and animal guidance will intrigue the young reader. They will enjoy the colorful texture drawn by the introduction to Ojibwa language and will develop respect for a culture so foreign to most young readers and yet similar to their own.
Karen Louise Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota to a German American father, Ralph Louis Erdrich, and an Ojibwa mother, Rita Joanne Gourneau, on June 7, 1954. Her mother was of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Ojibwa (or Chippewa) Indians and her grandfather was tribal chair of the Turtle Mountain reservation in Minnesota. Both of Erdrich’s parents worked for the Bureau of Indian Falls boarding school when she was young. Though born in Little Falls, Erdrich was raised primarily in Wahpeton, North Dakota and was the oldest in a family of seven children. While growing up, Erdrich’s parents encouraged her story writing. Her mother would bind her “books” for her in woven construction paper book covers and her father would pay her with nickels for the stories that she had written.
In 1972, the first year that Dartmouth University admitted women, Erdrich entered that university where she received a degree in anthropology and met her future husband and literary partner, professor Michael Dorris. Dorris was the chair for the newly established Native American studies department at Dartmouth. After receiving her undergraduate degree, Erdrich continued her education at Johns Hopkins University in 1978, by pursuing her M.A. in creative writing. Erdrich worked several jobs as a lifeguard, waitress, poetry teacher for prisoners, and a construction flag signaler while beginning her writing career. The young writer was a visiting poet and teacher for the North Dakota State Arts Council from 1977-‘78 and she was a writing instructor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD from 1978-’79. She also edited the Circle, a Boston Indian Council newspaper, and worked as a textbook writer for Charles-Merrill Co. in 1980. Eventually, though, she returned to Dartmouth University as the school’s writer-in-residence.
At Dartmouth, Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris began to work very closely on their literary careers. Together, Dorris and Erdrich wrote a short story, "The World’s Greatest Fisherman", which won the Nelson Algren fiction award. Later, Erdrich and Dorris expanded this story into their first collaborative novel, Love Medicine. Dorris and Erdrich frequently worked collaboratively on novels. One of them would come up with an idea and they would work together to create the piece of writing. The person who had originally thought of the idea would make all of the major final decisions about the novel and would be listed as the actual author of the book. Remaining faithful to their culture, Erdrich and Dorris pledged together to donate a part of the royalties from their novels to American Indian charities. On October 10, 1981, the couple’s literary union became a matrimonial one, as well. They later had six children together: Reynold Abel, Jeffrey Sava, Madeline Hannah, Persia Andromeda, Pallas Antigone, and Aza Marion. Reynold Abel passed away in 1991. Six years later Dorris and Erdrich were separated and they were no longer working together on their novels. Michael Dorris ended his life on April 11, 1997.
Louise Erdrich’s writings concentrate on Native American characters, the theme of magic in Native American life, and her novels are written in the circular style of most Native American literature. She has written several best-selling novels for adults, including: Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, Tracks, The Bingo Palace, and The Crown of Columbus, a novel about the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. She has also written several anthologies of poetry; two well-known volumes are Jacklight and Baptism of Desire, and her short stories appear in several anthologies of both American literature and those of specifically Native American literature. Erdrich’s fiction is primarily Native American, but her works and themes reach out tomany readers of other cultures and some of her work has been translated into fourteen different languages. Erdrich also has an interest in children’s literature. She has written a children’s picture book entitled Grandmother’s Pigeon and, of course, this piece of young adult fiction, The Birchbark House. She received her inspiration to write The Birchbark House while working with her mother on a research project of their family history. The Birchbark House is Erdrich’s first book written for young adult readers and it is also the first book which she has illustrated herself.
Louise Erdrich has won many literary honors in her career. Among these are:
- Academy of American Poets Prize
- National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship
- National Magazine Award for Fiction
- Sue Kaufman Prize for Best Fiction (the American Academy Institute of Arts and Letters)
- Los Angeles Times Award for Fiction
- Nelson Algren fiction competition
- Pushcart Prize
- Virginia McCormack Scully Prize ( Love Medicine; best book of the year dealing with Indians or Chicanos; 1984)
- National Book Critics Circle Award for best work of fiction; 1984
- American Book Award from the before Columbus Foundation
- Love Medicine named one of the best 11 books of 1985 by New York Times Book Review
- O. Henry awards
- nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award
For more information on Louise Erdrich and her work, you may visit these sites:
return to top
1. Recreate a larger version of the Ojibwa settlement according to the maps on the inside of the book’s covers. The two maps will be divided among several groups of students who will be responsible for researching and creating the different areas. Tasks will include making a birchbark house, the winter house, makazins, tobacco pouches, rock people, and willow dolls.
2. Contrast the circa 1847 and present day Lake Superior Islands.
3. Discuss Spirituality: Contrast what spirituality meant to Omakayas and her family with the personal attitudes and experiences of the students.
4. Using the text as a reference, each student will write about a typical day-in-the-life of Omakayas. Each student will then write their own personal day-in the-life, and then respond to any differences and/or similarities.
5. Using other reference sources, students will
create two maps: One will locate all Native American settlements,
circa 1847; the other will reflect all present day Native American
settlements. Students will research the how, why, and when such changes
(see related webquest)
return to top
Fiction, Ages 13 and up--also by Louise Erdrich
Fiction by Other Authors
Objectives of the classroom
Students will create maps depicting Native American settlements around 1847 and Native American reservations today.
Students will research the reasons for, the times of, and the ways in which these changes in Native American settlement occurred.
Students will visit these sites on Native American culture, current census reports, historical maps, and historical reference points for changes in the location of Native American tribes.
This will provide them with a research base for their projects.
return to top