Reading the West 9-14-09

Candy Moulton
Encampment, Wyo.

American Indian storytelling and European fables come together in “The Raccoon and the Bee Tree,” the fourth book in the Prairie Tale series published by the South Dakota State Historical Society. This title for young children includes the work of award-winning artist Susan Turnbull of Rapid City, whose modern artwork illustrates the century-old tale.

Written by Charles A. Eastman and Elaine Goodale Eastman the story takes place in the prairie woodlands of eastern South Dakota or western Minnesota.

Raccoon, just awakened from a long day-time nap, heads across the prairie as dusk settles in. In his ventures he meet a crane and a loon, steps on a family of skunks, chatters with some red squirrels, and finally finds a sweet pot of honey in a bee tree. This is where he begins to learn lessons.

Charles A. Eastman (1858-1939) was a Wahpeton Dakota. He worked as a doctor on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation before turning to writing. He published nine books and numerous articles on Sioux legends, customs and beliefs.

His wife Elaine Goodale Eastman (1883-1953) was born in Massachusetts and moved to Pine Ridge in 1886, where she worked as a teacher. After their marriage, she encouraged her husband to write of his experiences, live, and heritage.

The other day at our house, we had yellowjackets make a nest in the bird feeder, which hung just outside the door to our deck. As my husband decided to remove the menace, he thought he would just wait until pests were quiet for the night. Well, suffice it to say, his plan to put the bird feeder in a garbage bag and seal it didn’t work exactly as he had planned. I think I will give him this new book to read, perhaps like the Raccoon, it has a lesson for him when dealing with bees of any variety.

Other books in the Prairie Tale Series include “The Prairie-Dog Prince” by Eva Katharine Gibson, with illustrations by Carolyn Digby Conahan, “The Discontented Gopher” by L. Frank Baum with illustrations also by Conahan, and “Dance in a Buffalo Skull” by Zitkala-Ša, which features a group of tiny revelers having a party in a buffalo skull on the Plains. This traditional Lakota tale was passed orally through generations until 1901 when it was translated and written down by Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, 1876-1938).

There is a bit of excitement and mystery to this tale when a wildcat sneaks up to the buffalo skull where mice are having a celebration.

In both “Dance In a Buffalo Skull” and “The Raccoon and the Bee Tree” introductions explain the origin of the tales.

These books are suitable for young readers grades one through three, or younger children if a parent, grandparent or older child handles the reading task.