WASHINGTON -- Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve has long known something most
people never learn: the world has been created, and destroyed, many times
Sneve, a storyteller by profession, was at the Smithsonian's National
Museum of the American Indian this month to discuss her new book, "Bad
River Boys: A Meeting of the Lakota Sioux with Lewis and Clark," an
unconventional take on the expedition whose bicentennial is still being
celebrated ... or mourned, as the case may be.
Sneve, Rosebud Sioux, earlier wrote a series of books for children on
Indian nations -- Hopi, Cherokee, Iroquois, Navajo and Sioux among them --
each beginning with the tribe's account of how the world came into being.
"Bad River Boys" is about a different kind of beginning: the first
systematic exploration of America's West. And it hints at an end, if only
of an era, since the trip had consequences as costly for the Lakota as all
the trouble dreamed up in an Iktomi tale.
Growing up on the Rosebud reservation, Sneve spent much of her youth
listening to her grandmothers tell stories. The women fostered in her a
belief that the spoken word was sacred, and a yearning to tell tales when
her own time came.
She has published a score of books since then, many of which are still in
print: "The Medicine Bag," about an urban Indian boy who learns the lessons
of his grandfather; "Completing the Circle," concerning her early life on
Rosebud; "Dancing Tepees," a collection of poems from the oral tradition;
and "The Trickster and the Troll," an "in between book" for children and
adults, said the author, that mixes her husband's Norwegian heritage and
Indian lore to stress the importance of maintaining native ways, no matter
"Bad River Boys" is about converging traditions, too. Sneve's book is told
through the eyes of children, three Lakota boys to be precise, and their
meeting with the famous Corps of Discovery in 1804.
When Sun, Antler and Cloud see a strange boat plying the Bad River, a
tributary of the Missouri, one fine summer day, they swim out to meet it.
The white men, called "Americans," greet them gruffly. A parley is arranged
between the Sicangu Lakota and the newcomers on a nearby island, and the
boys crawl out on a tree limb to watch the proceedings. It may well be,
Sneve told her lecture audience, the only book about Lewis and Clark ever
told through the eyes of children.
The meeting begins poorly. A violent tussle is about to break out when one
of the boys falls from the tree into the water, thus breaking the tension.
The rivals patch up their differences until the Americans brusquely decide
to leave two days later. They light a swivel gun as a final threat and push
off on their journey, refusing to even barter with their hosts. The Lakota,
who control traffic on the river, are miffed to come away without any trade
"Why did the Americans get so angry at us?" Cloud asked his father, Black
Buffalo. "Because," he responded, "we were in their way."
"We don't say 'celebration,'" Sneve said of the bicentennial, which many
Native people do not honor; "we call it a 'commemoration' of the event."
Sneve, who has been writing children's books since 1972, said the industry
has changed over the years. "An attempt has been made by publishers to be
more accurate," she acknowledged, even if they don't always pay attention
to their consultants. Adventure tales from the past still outnumber
contemporary Native stories, she lamented, a trend that deepens the rut of
As a girl, Snave attended Milk's Camp day school, Okreek, and St. Mary's
School for Indian Girls. Her father, an Episcopal minister, instilled in
her strong religious values; her mother encouraged her studies. Sneve
recalled the time a favorite teacher took her to the nearby community of
Winner to visit a library: "I was awed. I had no idea there were so many
books in the world."
Now those libraries have many of her books. The girl, entranced by folk
tales and legends, went on to earn a master's in education from South
Dakota State University and was awarded a National Humanities Medal by
President Bill Clinton in 2000.
Sneve is seeking a publisher for her newest project, a story about a group
of Lakota girls who befriend a Hmong immigrant girl from southeast Asia.
The book is based on a true story that took place in Rapid City, where
Sneve was a school counselor. A group of Lakota students there vainly tried
to adopt a Hmong boy and get him funded under the Johnson-O'Malley program.
"They wanted to make him an Indian," Sneve said fondly. She smiled at yet
another cross-cultural story that reflects the arc of her own life and
distinguished writing career.