The Birchbark House is an incredible children’s novel that culminates many aspects about Native American culture. Engulfed in the life of Omakayas (Little Frog), the reader is enraptured by the connections between humans and nature. The parallels between humans who live with nature (Native Americans) and the humans who wish to consume or defeat nature (White Man), are strikingly accurate, paving way to a new conceptual pattern of thinking about one’s history. As well, we also see the aspects of spiritual connections with animals. Overall, The Birchbark House is an essential read for anyone in order to grasp a further understanding of the connection one may have with their own spirit or the spirit of nature.
Omakayas is first found amongst the shores of Spirit Island, the only remaining survivor of a Smallpox outbreak that wipes her family out. Thus being adopted into her new family (The Anishinabe), we see Omakayas life begin to grow. At once we, as the reader, are alluded towards the fact that Omakayas is somewhat special already. Something in her made it possible for her to survive the Smallpox disease at infancy. This seems to be a parable explaining how one should be thankful for one’s existence in this world. By juxtaposing the fact that her entire family is killed by this “White Man’s” disease, with her survival, we are forced to interpret this as being thankful for existing in the present moment.
The Anishinabe are a tribe that demands heavy responsibility at a young age. However, this is dire due to the circumstances that they are hunters and gatherers. Everyday there has to be work done in order for the community to be stable and thrive. In order for them to get food and water during all four seasons, there has to be a certain degree of discipline amongst every member of that community. Although most people in today’s modern societal structure would be quick to question if this was acceptable or not, it is still a common practice to place chores on your children or for teenagers to go and get a job early on. Overall, the Anishinabe understand that this diligent responsibility was to honor the Earth and nature for making them a part of it and giving them plenty of resources to survive.
This leads to the parallels between the Native Americans and the White Man. Discussions amongst some of the tribe members introduces us to the problems existing between both cultures. The Anishinabe are afraid the White Men are attempting to make them move again, and they are growing tired of that forceful act. As well, they are upset at the fact that Smallpox keeps attacking their tribes. They never knew the disease until White Settlers came to the land, and this adds to their frustration with the White Men, especially when they try to forcibly relocate them. During Deydey and the other tribesman’s discussion, they describe the White Man as “endlessly greedy for land” and “infinitely hungry.” This alludes to the spiritual differences between the two cultures. We see the Native Americans who are heavily spiritual and nature loving, and we see the forceful hunger of the White Man causing a disconnect in communication. When the Native Americans discuss land, it is as if it is apart of them, when the White Man discusses land it is condemned as his “property.”
The Birchbark House continues the branching out of spirituality by showing Omakayas’ connection with animals. During the bear incident, she finds herself able to communicate with the mother bear when she pins her down. Next she ends up with a pet crow, which conveniently causes a rift between Omakayas and her brother Pinch. Amongst the settling of the dispute, Omakayas and her mother go to search for the crow that was shooed away under false pretenses. During this search, they come across the same mother bear and cubs that Omakayas first saw when she realized her gift. She begins to talk to the mother bear and Omakayas’ mother tells Nokomi about it. During the months before winter, Nokomi tells Omakayas that she must listen to the whispers of the bears. This brings us to the conceptual realization of the connectivity the tribes had with nature. This was a matter that was taken seriously instead of bewilderment.
Although a fictional situation, it stands as a metaphorical interpretation of one’s own self. The communication with the animals and the connection Omakayas feels with them is merely a symbol for her growing connection with nature. This is the thematic element the book is trying to achieve. It is trying to teach this spiritual connectivity with nature. It is trying to introduce this concept of ancient wisdom to the mass audiences of those who choose to be ignorant of the very nature they are born of.
When the Anishinabe people are struck with Smallpox from “the ill-man,” Omakayas is distraught at the loss of Newoo and Ten Snows where we see Death becoming a new member of the tribe. These events, however, lead Omakayas to understand her spirit animal, and understand more about herself as a person as we have been seeing throughout the novel. The circular patterns that lead us into the inside of Omakayas is another symbol for how one achieves their connection with their own spirit. The disease that strikes her family is like the struggle one must endure. It is the confusion, the anger, the frustration at not knowing your purpose in this large map of natural placement. But it shows us how these elements are necessary in order to reach that answer. Ultimately, Omakayas finds out from Old Tallow that she was a survivor of the disease at a young age, and thus she now understands her purpose is to care for the sick and stop the disease from decimating anymore of her people.
Overall, this was a fantastic book with overarching elements of spiritual connectivity, the problems between varying cultures, and the immense depth of how one’s culture can be. This might be an essential read for any young child as it could be taught with the same passion the tribes used to have for nature. If that message was explicitly drilled into the thought process of someone young, maybe the future of our very existence may have a new way of thriving on. If we live in a time of ignorance and highly denied spiritual connection, then we see the problems with our own planet (climate change, global warming, mass extinctions of species, human destitution, warfare, greed, hunger); maybe it’s time we try to see how our existence could be if we all respected nature as well as Omakayas did.
“Oh, Mama bear, Mama bear
Please don’t mind me.
I’m just marveling at
The wonder of your Babies.
I feel how warm you are,
deep in your thoughts
I’m sorry I tried to,
Pet their paws.
If you can understand,
Then we must be
You and Me…
Like the Lone Wolf, who howls
Deep at night,
I’ll take on my role
As the bear