For Educators

S. D. Nelson’s Native American stories are an excellent addition to any multicultural lesson. Each book includes an informative Author’s Note for parents and classroom teachers.

Author’s Note  from Gift Horse: A Lakota Story

My great-great grandfather’s name was Flying Cloud, and he was a Lakota Warrior. I am a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the Dakotas, descendants of the Lakota Indians about whom this story is told. Many times I have wondered what it was like for Flying Cloud, as a boy, growing up. That is how I came to write this tale. When I was a child, my mother, Christine-Elk Tooth Woman, often told me about the Old Ones who came before her, including Flying Cloud.

Lakota Indians are also known as the Sioux. This label, which means “snakes” in the most reviled sense of the word, was originally given to them by their Ojibwa [Chippewa] enemies. However, today, Sioux denotes the proud race of the Plains Indians still living in the Dakotas.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Lakota lived on the vast grasslands of what is now the central part of the United States. Mounted on horses, they followed the great herds of buffalo that supplied them with most of their food and clothing, and even skins to cover their tipis. They lived as part of the natural world, integrating themselves into it. For guidance and understanding they called upon Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, who is the life force that exists within all things. The Lakota lived in harmony with the changing seasons, with all of the other creatures, and with all of the different elements in their environment. Their manner of life reflected the lives around them; for instance, they hunted in hands much as wolves do. They revered all of Creation Sun, Moon, Stars, Mother Earth and called the four-legged beings and the winged creatures their brothers. To this day, the Lakota believe that the green growing things are their relatives. A curious contradiction of humanity is that they did not always get along with their neighboring Indian tribes and were known as fierce warriors. In 1876 the Lakota and Cheyenne joined together to defeat General Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Horses were considered a sacred animal, and one of the finest gifts that a person could give to another. The Lakota painted their horses and decorated their own bodies as a symbolic connection to the natural world. Symbols could provide strength, protection, and supernatural powers. Thunderbolts signified “raw power,” and the color red represented the rising Sun that is the Spirit of the East and wakens each day. Images of the dragonfly and lizard were used because those creatures were difficult to catch and kill. Both men and horses wore eagle feathers tied in their hair that gave them the “thunderbird” power of the winged ones. Similarly, wearing a headdress made with buffalo horns or a wolfskin would provide the Warrior with that animal’s innate qualities.

A Lakota boy thirteen to sixteen years old underwent a rite of passage into manhood. This process was a means of preparing him to become a contributing member of the tribe. Many stages prepared a boy for this event. The sweat lodge was used for spiritual purification. A sweat lodge was a low, domed structure made out of bent saplings, covered with buffalo hides or blankets. Inside, it was black as night and virtually airtight. When a participant entered the lodge, he was returning to the womb of Mother Earth. Participants sat in a circle. Sage, cedar, and sweet grass were burned as incense. Water poured over hot stones created steam. To participate in a sweat lodge was a sacred time when prayers were offered and answered. A Vision Quest was an individual’s journey into the spirit world. Through fasting and meditation a person-isolated from the rest of the tribe might receive insights. Some individuals received a vision for an entire lifetime.

To become a Warrior, a boy needed to be an accomplished hunter and possess at least one good horse, a bow and arrows, a shield, and a fine Warrior shirt. But most of all he needed courage. There was no greater demonstration of courage than counting coup against an enemy. This meant touching or striking an enemy with one’s bow or even with one’s bare hand. The intention was not to injure the enemy, but to make contact and escape unharmed. This was proof that one had achieved Warrior status. Flying Cloud counts coup when he knocks over the Crow guard and rides away unscathed.

The world has changed since this story of Flying Cloud. The Lakota and the Crow now consider each other friends. Today’s Warriors are known by their words and deeds and gain honor by caring for their fellow human beings and the wild creatures. Today there is greater equity and shared responsibilities. Both boys and girls compete in sporting events, create beadwork, and participate in sweat lodges as well as other rituals and traditions.

My illustrations are done with acrylic paint on wood panel. My style is directly influenced by the ledger book drawings (1865-1935) of Plains Indian artists. In my paintings I connect with Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. I spread paint and color so that you might share in my vision. For I have an artist’s vision of Father Sky and Mother Earth, of the winged ones, of our four-legged brothers, of the little crawling creatures, and the two-legged humans. I have a vision of the mountains and forests, all singing the song of life, all dancing in a circle, in a good way.