The Girl from Spirit Island

Book Links: December 2002/January 2003 (v.12, no.3)

by Dean Schneider

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

A baby crawls among the dead villagers, the only survivor of a smallpox epidemic. From a distance, voyagers observe her on the island. Dozens of birds fly above, their sweet songs contrasting "strangely with the silent horror below." Fearing exposure to the disease, the voyagers move on, leaving the baby to die. One voyager, with tears in his eyes, vows to himself that he will tell his wife, Tallow. He fears her temper but admires her courage: "his wife was afraid of nothing."

Summer 1847. Seven-year-old Omakayas loves her life on the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker on Lake Superior. Having lived all winter in a cabin at the edge of a village called LaPointe, she is now helping her grandmother, Nokomis, build their summer birchbark house. It is not a romanticized view of Omakayas' life in this Anishinabe, or Ojibwa, community. There are scary storms and hated jobs, such as scraping moose hides with a sharpened deer's shoulder bone. And she doesn't like her little brother Pinch, whom she finds too loud and greedy. Yet the joys are plenty: her mother's generous smile, her father Deydey's ghost stories, sleeping on the soft earth under the starry sky, hearing the lapping of the waves, and the wonders of forest life.

When Omakayas is sent to borrow scissors from Old Tallow, Omakayas wonders why Old Tallow seems to treat her better than she does anyone else. "She didn't scream at her, or heap disdain on her, order her away from her cabin or set her dogs on her." Old Tallow often sits and talks with Omakayas' mama and grandma, and she shares venison, bear meat, fish, and moose hides with their family. Later in the story, when Old Tallow visits after the first snow, Omakayas realizes that Old Tallow stares at her like she stares at her dogs, with true affection, and Omakayas has the "sudden, curious knowledge" that Old Tallow would protect her with her life if she ever had to.

Omakayas has to be careful with her baby brother, Neewo. He is a spirit still, deciding whether or not to stay. If Omakayas is mean, he might decide to return to the other place. So, for now, the baby has no name other than Neewo, which simply means "fourth," after Omakayas' older sister Angeline, Omakayas herself, and Pinch. Strangely, none of the seven or eight people with the right to give names has yet dreamed a name for Neewo. In the meantime, being careful with Neewo is easy; Omakayas loves her baby brother. She longs to take him out of his tikinagun and carry him on her hip down to the lake. But he is too young, and Omakayas' mother tells her to play with Little Pinch instead. But that means enduring Pinch's noise, his rock throwing, his jumping on her back and pulling her braids, and his destruction of her rock-people village. "Little Pinch? Never!"

It is almost time for the winter move. Through summer and fall, corn had been picked, rice harvested, berries collected, hides tanned, and new makazins made. Summer and fall have been enjoyed in their own right, but have also been the times to store up for the coming season. The snows of winter replace the storms of summer, though winter has its own pleasures, too. There is the dance lodge, the Catholic mission school, and the closeness of friends and relatives. And there are the stories to be told, of windigos, manitous, ghosts, and Nanabozho, the great comical teacher.

The great dance lodge is the center of village gatherings. One evening, fragrant smoke rises through the opening in the roof. People of all ages are talking, dancing, laughing. Old men gamble, old women gossip and play games, young women and young men dance, and children weave in and out of the crowd, hiding and playing tag. Later in the evening, when everyone has feasted on venison and corn soup, something happens that changes everyone and everything forever. A visitor enters. Tired-looking, feverish, and confused, he sits as close to the fire as he can. The next day he dies of smallpox, and soon the disease spreads through the village. Soon all are sick--except for Old Tallow, who never gets sick, and, strangely, Omakayas.

Since Omakayas doesn't get sick, she is able to tend to her family. Beautiful Angeline does not die, but the disease leaves her scarred and her mouth twisted. Deydey tries to leave the cabin in a moment of delirium, risking freezing to death, but Omakayas knocks him out with a block of wood, and when he awakes, his fever has broken. When Yellow Kettle, Omakayas' mother, is too sick to tend to Neewo, Omakayas holds him and holds him, and is holding him when he dies. She had given him nicknames, bird names: Chickadee, Apitchie, Robin, Little Junco, Sparrow, Grouse Chick. He had seemed to like these names, grinning and waving his chubby arms, but now he is gone.

The world has become bleak, and Omakayas wonders who will walk with Neewo in the next life. "Since Neewo couldn't walk very well yet, who would carry him when he got tired, when he fell? Who would make sure he was fed in the other world?" She almost wishes she had gotten sick so she could join him.

The high spirits of wintertime celebration have become a season of sadness and hunger. The epidemic has touched everyone. Old Tallow blames the chimookoman, the white man, for the disease, the scarcity of food, even the weather. Omakayas loses her will to live, and Nokomis puts charcoal on her face, sends her to bed hungry, and tells her to remember her dreams. Nokomis wants her to find "a spirit helper, someone great in the spirit world who would help her to recover her will to live."

Eventually, winter gives way to spring. The community starts to heal, and Omakayas learns to live and go on in spite of the sadness. She can't stay wrapped in her grief. There is work in the community to do--maple sugaring, hunting, fishing, planting. Neewo has died, but Deydey, Yellow Kettle, Angeline, Pinch, and Nokomis are still there.

At the very end of the book, Old Tallow tells Omakayas the true story of Omakayas' past. Young listeners are usually surprised to learn that the baby on the island in the opening scene was Omakayas. She was saved by Old Tallow and adopted by Yellow Kettle and Deydey. They raised her as their own and loved her dearly. Surviving the smallpox epidemic on Spirit Island is why Omakayas did not get the disease and was able to tend to her family and ensure its survival. The story ends as it began, with birds singing, only now Omakayas hears new things in their songs. She hears Neewo telling her to get on with her life, "to cheer up and live." Omakayas lies back and smiles as "the song of the white-throated sparrow sank again and again through the air like a shining needle, and sewed up her broken heart."

Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa, based The Birchbark House on her research into her family's history. The first in a planned cycle of novels,
The Birchbark House is beautifully written and features black-and-white illustrations by the author. It can be read aloud to experienced listeners by the end of second grade, and read as a class novel in grades four through seven. It is one of the richest novels available for that audience, both in writing style and in the abundance of everyday details that make the story and a way of life come alive for readers. It offers a detailed look at Anishinabe culture, it portrays the strong role women played in that culture, and it offers a great counterpoint to the Little House on the Prairie series. It's perfect for multicultural units, units on family or adoption, and studying the nineteenth century, and is an excellent novel in its own right.

One theme that could be analyzed is the effect of the white man, the chimookoman, on Native Amercan culture. Deydey, Omakayas' father, is "mixed blood," while Old Tallow blames the chimookoman for all the ills that beset the Anishinabe. This is an example of a theme to examine more closely. Teachers reading The Birchbark House with a class will want to decide how far to go with the many connections and links that can be made. When teaching a novel, I give occasional identification and multiple-choice quizzes on basic details and ideas in the book, just to ensure that students are doing the reading. When planning discussions, keep in mind that they can be written or oral. I see writing as an essential learning tool when reading a novel. To involve students in reading carefully and thinking for themselves, ask them to write frequently on basic questions prior to oral discussions. They will then have invested some thought and reflection, and the subsequent discussions will be better. It is also good to focus each day's discussion on one or two good questions, encouraging students to support their responses with details and information from the reading. Oral discussions can occasionally be written up for homework, giving students the chance to put together the essential facts and ideas from the class discussion. If teachers decide ahead of time which questions will lead to homework writings, they can help students take notes in class and aid in organizing their writing. A third type of writing is the more formal essay or creative-writing activity inspired by the reading itself or by relating it to previous readings.

Vocabulary can be handled in a number of ways. A modest approach is to ask students to keep their own lists of unfamiliar words as they read the novel, perhaps 20 words in the course of the book. Students should try to figure out words from context and look them up in the dictionary only when they are not sure. The teacher might add a few key words of his or her own. Or, the teacher could choose words from the novel and put one or two words a day on the board. Since
The Birchbark House incorporates many words from the Ojibwa language, originally a spoken, not written, language, there will be many words of interest to students. These words are listed in a glossary and pronunciation guide at the back of the book, but it is still good practice for students to try to figure them out from context.

Discussion Questions

  • Describe the summer life of the Anishinabe. Describe Omakayas' role in her family. What jobs does she do?
  • Describe Omakayas' relationship with Old Tallow.
  • Explain why Neewo doesn't have a name yet.
  • Explain the effect the encounter with the bears had on Omakayas.
  • Compare and contrast summer life and winter life among the Anishinabe, or Ojibwa.
  • How did Omakayas and her family survive the winter of sadness and hunger? Identify several ways or reasons.
  • Identify the things that helped Omakayas to heal and have the will to go on.
  • At the end of the book, how does Old Tallow's story help Omakayas?
  • Identify references to the chimookomanug, white people, throughout the novel. What is their effect on the Ojibwa way of life?
  • Is it possible for a book to be both funny and tragic?


  • Using clues and information gathered from the text, locate the setting of the novel on a map of the United States.
  • Identify topics in the novel that might be researched for brief reports and oral presentations. Such topics might include smallpox, types of dwellings used in different Native American communities, how the Ojibwa compared with other Native American nations in different regions, etc. Educator and author Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Web site is one good source of topics:
  • Read T
    he Little House on the Prairie and contrast the portrayal of Native Americans in it with their portrayal in
    The Birchbark House.
  • Assign a paper showing how Omakayas changed from the beginning of the story to the end.
  • Omakayas has a perfect day with Neewo in the scene on p.40-46. Invite students to write about one of their best days.
  • Omakayas has many conflicts with her brother Pinch. Invite students to write about a time they didn't get along with a brother or sister. (An only child could substitute a friend.)
  • Select a scene to act out for reader's theater. Write a script for the scene.
  • Ask students to read a novel by another Native American writer such as Joseph Bruchac or Michael Dorris, or a title about a Native American character by an author of another culture. ("We Are Still Here," a bibliography of books about contemporary Native Americans on p.58 of this issue, lists some appropriate titles.) Assign a paper comparing and contrasting the culture portrayed in that book with that shown in
    The Birchbark House.
  • Reading aloud picture books to any age student is a great way to introduce stories about other Native American nations past and present, to teach about art, and to get students hearing good language. Some good ones are Joseph Bruchac's
    A Boy Called Slow (Philomel, 1995) and
    Crazy Horse's Vision (Lee & Low, 2000), Richard Van Camp's
    What's the Most Beautiful Thing You Know about Horses? (Children's Book Press, 1998), Cynthia Leitich Smith's
    Jingle Dancer (HarperCollins, 2000), and Joy Harjo's
    The Good Luck Cat (Harcourt, 2000).
  • Go to for Aaron Shepard's reader's theater script of "The Hidden One: A Native American Legend," from the Micmac of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. You might perform the script, then compare and contrast this story with Robert D. San Souci's
    Sootface: An Ojibwa Cinderella Story (Doubleday, 1994) or Rafe Martin's
    The Rough-Face Girl (Putnam, 1992).

Sampling Erdrich

Grandmother's Pigeon. Illus. by Jim LaMarche. 1996. 32p. Hyperion, paper, $5.99 (0-7868-1204-4).

Readers will be enchanted by the magical realism of this tale about a grandmother who rides to Greenland on the back of a porpoise, and the mysterious eggs found in her cluttered bedroom. It is a story of wonder, delight, and wisdom.

The Range Eternal. Illus. by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. 2002. 32p. Hyperion, $15.99 (0-7868-0220-0).

The Range Eternal is a woodstove and "center of true warmth" for a young girl growing up in the Turtle Mountains. The lyrical writing and dramatic illustrations evoke a warm sense of place and family.

Dean Schneider teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.