Another selection to continue November’s celebration of Native American Heritage.
Title: The Chsitams Coat, Memories of My Sioux Childhood
Author: Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
Illustrator: Ellen Beier
Publisher: Holiday House, 2011
Themes: Christmas, Native Americans, Sioux, generosity, gifts
Awards: American Indian Youth Literature Award
The frigid gale blew sideways across the South Dakota Prairie, and cold rain lashed the children’s bare faces. They leaned into it to stay upright on the reservation road to school. Squishy slime sucked at their rubber overshoes. Eddie Driving Hawk’s left overshoe stuck in the gumbo.
“Aah, Sister! Help!” he cried as he grabbed Virginia’s arm, trying to keep his sock out of the mud.
“I’ve got you.” Virginia steadied the little boy while Marty Brokenleg freed the overshoe.
“If I had cowboy boots, they wouldn’t have come out of the overshoes,” Eddie grumbled.
Virginia and her brother are never allowed to pick first from the donation boxes which arrive from the east coast at church because their father is the episcopal priest, and she is heartbroken when a bossy older girl gets the beautiful coat that she covets, though she trusts her mother’s counsel to think of others in need. The story is based on the author’s memories of life on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.
Why I like this book:
I appreciate the authenticity of how the Sioux tribe in the book were celebrating Christmas, a Christian holiday. This makes one reflect on how Native Americans would be sent to reservations and not allowed to practice their culture or traditions, including religion, use of Indian names, dress etc The reality is many Native Indians converted to the dominant religion of the oppressors.
The Christmas Coat tells a simple story about children and families who need things, but who must learn to consider the greater good before their own interests. In fact, Sneve dedicates this book to her mother, “who taught me to think of others who needed more than I.” Sneve gives readers windows into the characters’ minds as they envision the items they desire, or as they envision their continued disappointment because of having to put others before themselves. Beier’s illustrations contribute to the sense of economic depression that surrounds the characters – clothes don’t fit quite right, the school walls are cracking, and the characters’ faces clearly demonstrate their desire for new belongings.
The family dances and laughs together as they examine the items that will be given away to residents of the village demonstrating a strong caring family despite their poverty. When Virginia makes an unkind remark about the stink her classmate’s new coat, which she wanted, her mother reminds her that kindness is the correct response.
Cultural references unique to Native Americans on a reservation in South Dakota are woven into the story. A portrait of a Native American in traditional dress hangs in the schoolhouse, along with chalkboards and a map of the United States. The characters’ names blend of modern and traditional, as is the small mixture of toys pictured in the family home. The Wise Men in the Nativity pageant wear special headdresses and traditional clothing, and traditional foods are incorporated into the Christmas feast.
This is a story full of the traditional values of Christmas, where generosity, family and community are prioritized.
The Christmas Coat could be integrated into social/emotional curricular work, studies of families and communities, or conversations about life for some on reservations.
Debbie Reese wrote a review here of the book including how much research went into the text and illustrations for accurate depictions of these Native American scenes.