Sunday, May 28, 2017

Runs With Courage by Joan M. Wolf

Runs With Courage is a novel about a young Lakota girl who is taken from her family on the reservation and sent to a missionary school to be "civilized" with the intent of assimilating her into 19th century white America. Ten-year-old Four Winds lives on a the Great Sioux Reservation with her parents and younger brother Bear.

The following historical backstory will help readers understand the setting of Runs With Courage. The Lakota people migrated from the Great Lakes area to the Great Plains in the 17th century. They had been primarily hunters and gatherers but soon began to hunt buffalo, becoming nomadic and living in teepees. They also acquired horses during this time and the horse changed their culture completely.They came to rely on the buffalo completely and their conflict with other tribes revolved around raiding other tribes for their horses. They developed the practice of "counting coup" which is mentioned in Wolf's novel, where honour was obtained by touching the enemy without causing harm.
Their way of life continued mostly untouched by the arrival of the settlers until the mid-1800's. Until this time the US government considered the west to be of little economic value and the land fit only for "Indians." This changed with the discovery of gold and other minerals on the West coast and as settlers and speculators passed through Lakota territory they came in conflict with the various tribes. The US government built forts throughout the west to protect travelers. One of those forts was Fort Laramie.

The United States Army built Fort Laramie on Lakota lands without their permission. The treaty brought together eight tribes who had been at war and also the United States government in an attempt to resolve the conflicts. The government used a different form of mediation than what the Indian tribes were familiar with and attempted to give each tribe a territory. Territorial claims between the tribes were set out and the United States government agreed not to claim any of this land. The treaty also guaranteed safe passage through this land along the Oregon Trail and allowed for roads and forts to be built.

By North Dakota government.
However, the treaty which protected Lakota territory from settlement, was not honoured by the US government. The Lakota people, many of whom did not even know about the treaty, continued to raid other tribes and attempted to defend their land from settlers. Attacks on settlers were met with force by the US army. A new treaty,  the Fort Laramie Treaty 1868 (Sioux Treaty of 1868),  was negotiated between the US government and the Lakota in which white settlement in the Black Hills, considered sacred by the Lakota, was banned forever. The treaty also granted the Lakota people hunting rights in South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Montana until the buffalo were gone. The US government believed the one way to remove the Lakota permanently was to destroy the buffalo, on whom the Lakota completely relied.

However when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, (an 1874 expedition led by General George Custer) prospectors began trespassing on land and the government did not uphold its part of the treaty. The Lakota attacked miners and these attacks were met with resistance by the US army. This resulted in the Great Sioux War of 1876-77 in which the Lakota, after winning several battles,  were eventually defeated by a reinforced US Army. Their sacred Black Hills land was annexed by the US government and the Lakota were forced onto reservations, prevented from hunting buffalo and made dependent on government rations.

A part of the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868 stipulated that the Lakota should be "civilized" and that their children should be sent to "mission" schools. Eventually the Great Sioux Reservation was broken up into smaller reservations and the Lakota were forced to sign away millions of acres of land.

Runs With Courage begins in 1880, a few years after the Great Sioux War when the Lakota have been settled onto the reservation and are becoming dependent on government rations. Four Winds and her family had lived in the forest near He Sapa (the Black Hills) before they were forced to move onto the Great Sioux Reservation. The novel opens with ten-year-old Four Winds and her little brother Bear witnessing the arrival of a wagon of two white people, a man and a woman. Four Winds questions her parents and uncle about them that night at dinner. Her uncle reminds her that the whites are people like them but they are not honourable because they do not keep their promises. Almost a month later, Four Winds' uncle tells her that they live in the white man's world and must learn about them. For this reason she will be sent away to live with the white men and attend their school for girls only. Four Winds is deeply upset but she agrees to go when she realizes she has no other option.

Four Winds' mother gives her a small wotawe and Bear gives her a small carved rabbit before she leaves. Four Winds arrives at the All Saints Missionary School late that evening and is taken upstairs to a room where there are other Lakota girls preparing for bed. Four Winds has never seen a bed before and the clothing she is given is strange and scratchy. A girl named Walks Tall tells Four Winds that it will get easier.

The next morning, Four Winds soft deerskin dress which still "held the scent of prairie" and her mother's wotawe and Bear's rabbit carving are taken away and her hair is cut. She is given the name of Sarah and doesn't understand why adults punish children by hitting them. Four Winds learns that she cannot speak Lakota or she will be punished, and she is not allowed to dance for joy because that is behaving like a savage. Four Winds who has been starving on the reservation, eats too much bread at breakfast and feels unwell afterwards. While she is in her room recovering, she discovers a Lakota boy burning her clothing and cries herself to sleep.

Despite all the strangeness Four Winds is determined to be strong and brave. But daily she is confronted with things that make no sense to her and she feels overwhelmed. Can she still be Lakota and survive in the white man's world?


Runs With Courage provides younger readers some idea of what it was like for the children of native Americans and their families during the late 1800's and early 1900's as the push to settle the west occurred. Initially the United States government was not interested in settling the west and deemed the land there as having little economic value. However the discovery of gold and other minerals changed that view and although

As with First Nations people in Canada, Native Americans were forced into missionary schools and later residential schools with the intent of erasing their culture and replacing it with the white man's culture. Wolf has fashioned a Native American character who tries to resist the white man's attempts to change her. Four Winds is both courageous and resilient. Although she doesn't want to leave her extended family she obeys her elders. But her initial experience at All Saints Missionary School and the white culture forced on her prove overwhelming.

At first Four Winds resistance is vocal and filled with anger as she strikes out against the teachers and her fellow students. When she berates them for co-operating with the white teachers, Moon Awake asks her "Since coming to this school, have you been hungry?" Four Winds realizes that she has not been hungry since she came to the school but she feels this was not her family's reason for sending her.

Four Winds initially believes that she has been sent to the white man's school to be a bridge between her people and the white culture. But she is confronted by William the boy who burned her clothing, who tells her that the Great White Father is the name given to the American presidents and that these people are not honourable. Four Winds now believes the white men do not want a bridge to her people. This suspicion is further confirmed when Four Winds is sent to the office to get a pair of scissors and she sees a plaque that states, "Kill the Indian, Save the Man". Understanding what this means leads Four Winds to break the plaque, be whipped by Pastor Huber as punishment, and run away to her tiospaye.

Four Winds makes the decision to return to the school after her mother reveals the truth about her being sent to the school; "They told us we must send you or they would withhold our rations.' I felt numb.My being at the school had never been about bridges. It had been about food and nothing else.  That was how I had helped my tiospaye. I had saved them from starvation." Wolf shows in this scene the shame Four Winds' Uncle and Father have at not being able to provide for their tiospaye as a result of being forced onto the reservation and being unable to hunt their main food source, the buffalo.

It is Four Winds' friendship with the only other character in the novel to resist assimilation into white culture that helps her cope. William, whose real name is Catches Fire came to the school after his entire tiospaye was murdered by white soldiers. His resistance to assimilation into the white culture is more covert.   Everyone believes him to be slow but William is quite intelligent and he uses this mistaken perception as a way to "count coup", "a supreme act of bravery to touch an enemy in battle without killing him." He saves the sacred things that each student brought with them to the school. He moves slowly to hinder the white teachers at the school. In the barn, William has created his own sort of tipi with sleeping skins. Late at night, he dances, an activity that has been forbidden and considered savage.

Watching William dance, Four Winds finds that her "angry spirit has been soothed." She decides to give her fellow students back their sacred things at Christmas in a secret meeting. And ultimately she figures out a way to get herself back to her people - by becoming a teacher to them and being a bridge between the two cultures.

Runs With Courage ends on an upbeat tone with Four Winds who has been renamed "Runs With Courage" by her tiospaye, living happily on the reservation with her family. Although Wolf portrays many of the hurtful ways the white teachers treated indigenous children, their experiences seem tame in comparison to what really happened in most missionary and residential schools. The children are well fed, and although the school is cold in the winter, there is none of the neglect or rampant sickness that was common in these schools. The novel effectively demonstrates how the Lakota parents were manipulated to send their children to the schools and how their children were eager to do what the white teachers wanted. The alternative was starvation. Four Winds comes to fully understand this when she sees the change in little Laughing Deer who arrives at the school. Laughing Deer quickly learns to speak English and say the Christian prayers even though she doesn't understand what she is saying nor the beliefs behind the prayers. Miss Beatrice shows her off to the senators who come to visit the school, "When she was able to speak English, she spoke in complete sentences. I think it is a true testament to the ways we are trying to civilize these people."

Wolf attempts to create a balance in her novel with both good and bad characters; Miss Beatrice is a kind teacher who lets the Lakota children dance and she tries to comfort Four Winds while Pinch Finger (Miss Agnes) is harsh and Pastor Huber believes they are savages and heathens.However, most of the secondary characters are two dimensional.

One of the more interesting chapters in the novel deals with Four Winds' reaction when she sees herself and her classmates in a photograph taken of the school. Four Winds cannot comprehend what she is seeing. "But the girls in the picture were white girls." When Pinch Finger points out Four Winds in the photograph, she is filled with disbelief. "I shook my head. That was not me. I could not have mistaken myself for a white girl." Later on she tells Catches Fire, "I saw a white girl standing with many other white girls. But they were us. It was me! I thought I was a white girl!" Four Winds feels like she is losing her identity and won't be unable to hold on to who she is. But Catches Fire tells her "They cannot have our spirit. It is like the hunting game I showed you. Sometimes you can't see everything." He is telling her that inside she remains a Lakota.

Overall "Runs With Courage" is a simple novel that gives younger readers a basic understanding of issues involved in the residential/missionary schools in relation to the Lakota aboriginals. It also sets the stage for further inquiry into the history that led to the Lakotas being forced onto the Great Sioux Reservation.

For more detailed information on the History and Culture of the Standing Rock Oyate.

Book Details:

Runs With Courage by Joan M. Wolfe
Ann Arbor, Michigan:  Sleeping Bear Press     2016
211 pp.

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