Literary Guide for S.D. Nelson’s “Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story”

Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story
by S.D. Nelson

Written by S.D. Nelson, Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story opens readers’ eyes to life in a Native American village in the Dakotas. Based on Waheenee: An Indian Girl’s Story, told to an anthropologist by Buffalo Bird Girl herself, the story follows Buffalo Bird Girl through a full year’s worth of seasonal changes and activities, teaching readers about Hidatsa culture and the ways in which the seasons dictated their lives.

The book begins in the spring, with Buffalo Bird Girl helping to prepare fields and process meat from animals hunted by the village’s men. In the summer, readers learn about Buffalo Bird Girl’s responsibility to protect corn fields from animals, and her adventures berry picking and tuber-harvesting. During the fall, the entire village harvested crops and celebrated with a feast and dancing. In the winter, cold weather drove Buffalo Bird Girl’s village to migrate to a place with a milder climate, so as to be spared the harsh winter of the Dakotas.

The rich story teaches readers a wealth of information about Native American life and culture. The fact that the story’s protagonist is not an adult allows young readers to develop connections to her life more easily – they, too, can imagine doing seasonal tasks as chores to sustain their family and they, too, can relate to capturing rare free moments to play with friends. It is in connecting to Buffalo Bird Girl that readers will do most of their learning for, though they may find many similarities between their lives, the cultural divide between our lives today and that of Buffalo Bird Girl is deep and wide. Though here in western Massachusetts, the seasons dictate many of our activities, they do not force such drastic change upon our lives as they did upon the lives of members of Native American cultures.

Within the accompanying literature guide are activities designed to support readers in tracking the similarities and differences between themselves and Buffalo Bird Girl. A Venn diagram activity and a read-through centered around generating questions help readers to track the things that they do and don’t know about the culture that the story teaches about. Similarly, critical thinking questions help readers to think more deeply about the information in the story and encourage them to think not only about the specifics of tribal life, but about the devices that the author uses to convey certain information. Allowing students to shift their focus from explicitly shared information to ideas they discover using their schema and by making inferences, the critical thinking questions allow readers to strengthen comprehension skills.

Finally, the guide also includes instructions for activities with which to expand upon the ideas presented in the story. Families can try carrying out a recipe for the corn porridge the Buffalo Bird Girl eats every day – though it’s a months-long process including growing, harvesting, drying, and grinding corn, it will put into perspective the vast amount of time and effort that it took for the Hidatsa (and all other Native American peoples) to provide for themselves. Families may also create their own books about Native American life, focusing on the tribe once found in the region where they live. Written for use with Vermont students, the guide focuses on writing about the Abenaki people, but the activity can be replicated for any geographic area, allowing students to connect with the natural and cultural history of their home. Carrying out either of these activities adds a place-based, experiential component to the cultural studies that come with reading the story, and both activities will help readers develop a deeper connection both to their surroundings and to the information presented in the book.

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