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Avid Reader: Making memories during uncertain times

Published: 5/22/2020 1:10:00 PM
Modified: 5/22/2020 1:09:48 PM

Whether we like it or not, pretty much everyone is home right now. Kids have been home for Quite Some Time, and there is no relief in sight. I am willing to bet “how to keep them busy” ideas are flying between cell towers and across the internet miles day and night. What to do, what to do.

This is the perfect time to either tap into some old family traditions – or start some new ones. It is going to be these seemingly little things that will make the good memories for our kids as we all slog through the pandemic.

I thought about how my own experiences shaped those growing up years, and how often food played a big part. It is that with almost all kinfolk, and a good example would be the traditional ways for many Native American families. Native Americans have always relied on family, especially in times of crisis, and in many ways their customs can give us some ideas of surviving troubled times. They farmed together, prepared meals as a family, and took joy in being together during those simple daytime activities. Today, many of us seem to have gotten away from using food preparation and dining traditions to maintain the customs of the family; and realizing this, Kevin Noble Maillard has penned a delightful story that reminds the reader how bread can used to have a celebration of old and new, traditional and modern, similar and different.

“Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story,” penned by Maillard, a Seminole, and illustrated by Caldecott Honor Winner Juana Martinez-Neal, is a Robert F. Sibert medal winner. This book is fun, informative, and delicious. It is also not just about food! Every page, beginning with the illustrations and finishing with the end papers, tells us something of the history, culture, resourcefulness, determination, and sense of community that has helped Native Americans survive when faced with such overpowering odds against them. It is also delicious. Did I mention that? There are recipes to try (which I did), and I also learned that every Native American family has a fried bread recipe. Every recipe is different. There are even two recipes in this book, and both are the one and only authentic fried bread family recipe. You see, every “auntie in charge of the food” is sure her recipe is the “real” one. (Maillard has two aunties – you see the problem here). Every other “auntie in charge of food” knows that all those other aunties are wrong. What does this tell us? That all families are basically alike, all have traditions, every auntie is always right, and together as a family they will endure despite all those wrong aunties.

My mother was the oldest of nine children. Eight girls and one boy (the youngest – heaven help him). Every single one of my aunt’s pierogi recipes is different, mostly because when they got the recipes from my grandmother and then shared with each other at least one ingredient was either switched or left out. I am sure by accident. Ah-hum. Going by my family’s example, the kids (that’s me and my cousins and our children), have all joked about the different pierogis – knowing all the time that our own mother has the authentic recipe of course. Yes, we have maintained our culture through shared experiences involving the genuine, and, regrettably for my cousins, the fake pierogis. Stories around the table, support for each other during trying and often scary times – the common thread is the foods and their histories.

Cooking simple recipes with children, such as fried bread – but not every day due to calories and cholesterol of course, gives children special memories. These memories link them to ancestors who ate the same food (minus the wrong recipes of course), experienced similar hardships, and who ultimately survived.

Survival is everyone’s goal, and family stories and cultural traditions remind us we are not the first, or only, people who have experienced this struggle. This theme permeate the Native American culture and “Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story” by S. D. Nelson, is a biography of a young Hidatsa girl growing up in the traditional ways on the Missouri River in the Dakotas during the 1800s. While this story focuses on the early life of Buffalo Bird Girl and the joys she experienced during her growing years, there is a much more detailed history of the Hidatsa people, along with a time line and bibliography, provided at the end of the book for older readers.

To put this book into an historical perspective: the first recording of Buffalo Bird Girl’s story was by Gilbert Wilson, an anthropologist, who traveled to the Dakotas and recorded any vestiges of traditional life among the Plains Indians that he could find. It was then, in 1906, that Wilson met Buffalo Bird Girl. Wilson made detailed recordings of her stories and reminiscences which resulted in a series of amazing publications – now over 100 years old. It is from these documents and actual photographs of Buffalo Bird Girl as an old woman, that Nelson, a Lakota, wrote and illustrated this current narrative for children.

Children who read this biography will be able to relate to Buffalo Bird Girl and her life as she celebrates the good memories. She has chores, plays with her friends, and, yes, experiences dangers. But it is how the story handles the sad times and focuses heavily on the good times that will give parents the opportunity to begin a discussion on resilience and how to put a positive spin on our own current times.

Sticking with Native Americans and their endurance, I was reminded that one of the best ways the elders helped the younger generation to understand life and their philosophy was through stories. Each of our own families had a unique spin on the fables common to our own particular culture, and one of the current best Native American ones is, “Wild Wisdom: Animal Stories of the Southwest” written by Rae Ann Kumelos and illustrated by Jan Taylor. Charming, amusing, and at time very tender, this compilation of Native American animal tales come from a long tradition of recognizing the wonderful relationship between humans and animals – in fact – the marvelous relationship with the entire natural world.

The Native Americans need to teach resilience to their children just as all parents of other cultures need to teach it to their children. By using animal stories to give children guidance, in a way that entertains and delights, we are able to help them focus on how to survive, how to endure, and how to prosper. From “Deer: Dressed for Success” to “Turkey Saves Thanksgiving for Everyone but Himself” these heartening stories will celebrate the importance of a strong belief system of survival through mutually beneficial relationships. No one is separate. We are all in this together, and together we will, with resilience, endure, survive, and prosper.


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