‘Tribal Childhood, Growing Up in Traditional Native America,’ by Adolph Hungrywolf

Maria Scandale, Today correspondent
5/22/09

Ancestral heritages” and “simple traditions” are crowded from the thoughts of many of today’s Native children, says author Adolph Hungrywolf in “Tribal Childhood: Growing Up in Traditional Native America.”

Hungrywolf sets out to “encourage them to feel good about their Native heritage” and “to remind them of how closely they are descended from our land’s original Children of the Sun” who lived in harmony with nature.

In this, his seventh book, Hungrywolf draws on historical texts from 100 years ago, and adds his own commentary based on more than 30 years of helping to raise his children among the Blackfoot people. The historical archives cover customs among the Winnebago, Flathead-Salish, Navajo, Chippewa and other American Indian tribes.

It wasn’t so many generations ago that a child’s entry into the world was attended by the custom of coiling the umbilical cord into a circle – “a symbol of the circle of life.”

The midwife diapered the child in hand-tanned hide lined with moss, sage or a layer of powdered buffalo dung. Then she wrapped the baby in a piece of old, soft hide tied with a leather cord and handed it to its mother for its first meal from the breast.

“That is the way our family’s grandmothers described the birth of a Blackfoot child ‘back in the old days,’” Hungrywolf said. “There were no adjustable beds, drug injections, disposable diapers, or feeding formulas.”

He adds that childbirth at its most natural was also at its “most deadly.” Due to high infant mortality, tribal custom decreed that mother and child should stay in seclusion for a month, “until the passing of a moon.” Then the child’s coming-out party included a feast with presents for the guests. Most often, the child received its name that day, usually given by an especially notable person.

After the section titled, “A Child Is Born,” “Tribal Childhood” focuses in turn on “Growing Up Outdoors,” “Initiations to Tribal Mysteries,” “Staying Alive,” “Finding a Mate,” “Some Childhood Stories” and “Tales for the Fireside.”

A Hidatsa tribal member, Wolf Chief, told awesome tales of breaking horses to an archivist in 1913 and 1918. His memories reached back to the 1860s.

“Several of us drove a herd down by the Missouri at a place where the current was rather swift, and so likely to prevent a swimming colt from getting back to shore too easily. I roped a two-year-old and drove him into deep water. Swimming out to the colt, I mounted him and made him swim with me on his back,” Wolf Chief’s tale goes. And that was just the beginning of the dangerous procedure.

Some of the stories were told around the Hungrywolf table, like the account of tribal elder Mike Swims Under, born in 1913, of being taken along as a child to the traditional ceremonies of the Beaver Bundle, the Medicine Pipe dances, and the Sun Lodge.

“I learned to respect the customs of my ancestors. I learned the songs and the ways of praying. I learned to love Nature and the Sun.”

As for other stories, the historical texts, some readers might at first wonder at the point of view as they read the attribution at the beginning of each narrative. For the Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, 1911 the writer would have eyed the Omaha people under a magnifying glass. But the observations were respectful in the texts that Hungrywolf chose for the book. And they give today’s reader, Native or non-Native, details that might otherwise have been lost in time’s hourglass.

“In the Omaha family, the children bore an important part; they were greatly desired and loved,” observed Alice C. Fletcher and Francis La Flesche for the Smithsonian. Their narrative compliments the “politeness” that was instilled early on. “No child would think of interrupting an elder who was speaking, pestering anyone with questions, taking anything belonging to an older person without permission or staring at anyone, particularly a stranger.”

Parents of today, Hungrywolf is passing along a big help if young people hearing the stories have second thoughts.

“The close interrelationship between the young and the old. … is the key to success in traditional life,” Hungrywolf concludes. “The most important theme is that of families working together to survive the constant challenges of life.”

We still have constant challenges, he says. They may appear different from those of the tribal past, but we too often face them as individuals, rather than as families united in the same cause.

People of all backgrounds can enjoy and learn from these stories, Hungrywolf says. “Everywhere there is a shortage of successful families to serve as role models for the young of today.” These stories are examples by which to “make the lives of our children more meaningful than were our own.”

More than 40 vintage photographs and illustrations are included in the 223-page softcover book published by Native Voices Book Publishing Company of Summertown, Tenn. There are also photos of the author’s children enjoying their tribal childhood.

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