Native American Heritage Month Kid Lit Review of “The Christmas Coat” by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve

The author, the daughter of an Episcopal priest and a Lakota Sioux mother, grew up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. In this book, set in the winter of 1945, she writes of her own experience during her 12th Christmas. She had outgrown her old winter coat, and was looking forward to the arrival of donated used clothes that came yearly from church congregations in the Eastern U.S. When a box finally arrived, however, Virginia had to obey the family rule of putting the needs of the rest of the congregation above their own. She struggled to deal with her disappointment and jealousy after a rival girl took the coat she wanted.

It all turns out well in the end, however, when, on Christmas Eve, two additional boxes arrived that were sent specifically for the priest’s children. One contained a beautiful red coat for Virginia, and the other had cowboy boots perfect for her little brother.

The illustrator, Ellen Beier, immersed herself in the history of the Lakota Sioux in her preparations for creating the lovely paintings for the book, which are done in watercolor and gouache.

Discussion: The author said in an interview that she had trouble getting her contemporary stories about Native Americans published, because “publishers think that their readers still want Indians riding horses, hunting buffalo and living in tipis.” One of Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve’s goals has been to dispel such stereotypes, especially after finding her own children being influenced by them.

Sneve succeeds in showing that Native American children wear regular clothes, attend school, interact just like other kids do, and don’t spend all day hunting buffalos. However, I thought the book could have included more information (in a Parent/Teachers section, perhaps) on why the people on the Rosebud Reservation were (and remain) so poor, so that they had to rely on charity to weather the harsh South Dakota winters. I can imagine kids asking about this part of the story.

While a book for children may not be the proper venue to take on the entire sorry history of our treatment of Native Americans, there is an opportunity here to offer some information to counter the usual myths (bandied about every Thanksgiving, for example) about the “benign” European colonists whom Native Americans [not really indigenous at all, it is emphasized to high school history students, but just previous immigrants] were “delighted” to see. Somehow these “Natives” ended up happily giving their land to the colonists, willingly sacrificing their culture and traditions in response to colonist demands, and then taking themselves off to live on reservations in isolated areas after terrorizing cowboys and serving as football mascots. Not surprisingly, as Terrie Epstein found, studies find white students imagining Native peoples mainly as obstacles to or problems for “American” national development. We will never help reverse the situation if we turn a blind eye to it.

The Rosebud Reservation where this book takes place is home to Sicangu Sioux, one of the seven tribes of the Lakota nation. It occupies all of Todd County on the southern border of South Dakota. Nearly half of the people in Todd County live under the federal poverty line, making it one of the poorest counties in the nation. (Ranking just above it is neighboring Shannon County, home of the Pine Ridge Reservation, which in 2010 had the lowest per capita income in the entire United States. As Nicholas Kristof reports, “Half the population over 40 on Pine Ridge has diabetes, and tuberculosis runs at eight times the national rate. As many as two-thirds of adults may be alcoholics, one-quarter of children are born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and the life expectancy is somewhere around the high 40s — shorter than the average for sub-Saharan Africa. Less than 10 percent of children graduate from high school.”)

Few American Indians and Alaska Natives below the poverty line have private health insurance coverage. The Indian Health Service, responsible for the provision of health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives, is chronically underfunded, especially since the IHS, despite being mandated by treaty, is classified for budgetary purposes as a discretionary program. Nevertheless, Native Americans have, as Nicholas Kristof mentioned, severe health problems, more so than any other major racial or ethnic group in the U.S. (See U.S. Government documentation here.)

In 2000, the median family income on Rosebud was $18,673, and as of 2005, unemployment among the Rosebud Sioux tribe was over 80%. (See this CNN report, and/or this report from the U.S. Department of Interior.

Ill treatment and impoverishment of Native Americans have been government policies from the very start of the colonization of this country, beginning with the appropriation of their land, and abhorrently including the extermination of many of their people. (A revealing history of the relentless efforts to eliminate American Natives is reported in Richard Drinnon’s seminal work, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building, 1997.) These policies have extended into modern times thanks to the legacy of years of discrimination, forced relocation, forced assimilation, and dependence on the incompetent Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of Interior, inter alia. (There have been a number of government reports issued on the BIA’s notoriously egregious mismanagement, such as this one and this one, but not much is ever done to remedy the situation.)

Why are the Native Americans so poor and so unhealthy? It is not because they lack ambition. It is not because they want to fail and to be sick. But the story is long and complicated, and casts the U.S. Government in a very negative light, so it doesn’t get much play in the schools or the media. (You can read a bit of an abbreviated explanation in this piece on rural poverty among minorities.) I am not asking for a full disclosure in a children’s book. But I am suggesting that we all make an effort to put a word in for truth and awareness-raising whenever we can. The past may have been exceedingly bad for Native Americans, but the future doesn’t have to be.

Evaluation: This story about the virtue of putting the needs of others above your own for the good of the community is especially appropriate during the Christmas season. It might also open the way to discussions with children about the disparities in wealth among people, and the uses to which such knowledge might be put.

Published by Holiday House, 2011

Product Details
Reading level: Ages 5 and up
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0823421341
ISBN-13: 978-0823421343

Note: The Rosebud Episcopal Mission was established in 1875 on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in south-central South Dakota. It is the body of all Episcopal churches serving the spiritual needs of the Lakota People. They still provide local relief agencies with supplies through the generous donations of churches and individuals across the nation. Furthermore, other relief agencies still collect and send clothing to reservations in South Dakota. For donation information, you can check, for example, here for Pine Ridge and here for Rosebud if you are interested in helping.

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8 Responses to Native American Heritage Month Kid Lit Review of “The Christmas Coat” by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve

  1. It is time for us to finally teach history correctly in our schools – so much of what we’re taught is wrong. This looks like a beautiful book.

  2. Amy @ My Friend Amy says:

    Great post, Jill. This book sounds nice and at least like it might open the door for more discussion and learning from interested parents.

  3. JoV says:

    Beautiful illustration. It’s great that you are introducing books of virtue for tis season. 🙂

  4. I love the illustrations for this one. It’s too bad that publishers don’t really have a clue as to what people would like to read about.

  5. stacybuckeye says:

    Any good way to talk about disparity of wealth is something I’m interested in. I worry about that where we live and want Gage to have a healthier view of the world.

  6. zibilee says:

    I know I have said this before, but this situation with the Indians is shameful. We have no right to have treated them this way, and to continue on with it now. I think this post is excellent. It highlights the problems of the Indian community that the rest of America just negates. For God’s sake, they were here first!!

  7. becca7931 says:

    You know I began writing a post for Native American Heritage Month and then I forgot all about it! I have no memory lately I am telling you, girl! lol Great post!

  8. bookingmama says:

    I do think this book manages to bring to light some of the important aspects of charity, but you are so right about how much more this book could have done to educate children (and parents) about this tribe.

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