by Renee Rallo
My first morning on the reservation I woke up to the sound of tiny teeth chewing. Without stirring, I opened one eye and saw that small ball of fur and tail topped off with pink ears and beady black eyes. The mouse saw me watching him build his nest in the corner of my room and let out a squeak that sent a chill up my spine and set my arm hairs on end.
“Go away!” I shrieked at the mouse while I sat up in bed and banged the wall to scare him away. He scurried under the floorboard and gave another faint squeal of defiance as I ran out of the room to find my grandmother.
I have been on the reservation since August, when my mother left me here to work in Rapid City. We had come together in the summer, as we always do. But this year, she left alone.
“Just for the winter, Lillian,” my mother told me at the bus station. She stood there, stroking my hair with one hand and clutching her only suitcase with the other. “I’m going to work all day and night at the hospital this winter and save up money so that you can live closer to school next year.” As she pushed me towards my grandmother and stepped on to the bus she said,
“Don’t worry child, when I come back, you’ll be a winyan, a woman, like me. Respect your grandmother and know that I love you.” She blew me a kiss off her pudgy brown hand and left me there, baking in the August sun.
As the snow built up outside, the mouse chose my room to stay in for the winter. This house of Grandma’s isn’t closed up enough to keep him out. This is one of the Sioux 400 the BIA built years ago and gave away for free. I had thought to myself that it had to be free because no Indian would pay for such an aluminum shack. The reservation was so different than Rapid City, where I grew up with my mother. No furnace to sit by, only wood that must be gathered, cut and built into a fire which only signals more mice to come inside and get cozy.
“It is wani yetu wi, November, Moon of Starting Winter,” my grandmother said. “The mice have come to us for shelter and friendship”
“I hate that mouse. There are no mice in Rapid City.” I grumbled.
“Lillian, come here now. I want to braid your hair.” With a nod of her head, Grandma motioned for me to sit between her knees. I shuffled over, upset that she didn’t care about my mouse problem. As she tugged on my knots, she told me a story.
In the Black Hills, there lived a mouse who began, one day, to hear a roaring in his ear. “Do you hear that roaring noise?” He asked the other mice. “No, there is no noise, pay no mind to what you think you hear,” the others replied. But, for days the mouse heard the roar and finally, his curiosity pushed him to find the source of the noise.
After three days of crawling, the noise kept getting louder and louder. Until finally, it was all he could hear. He came upon a giant river, and found the roar he had been searching for. He sat next to the river and thought about how beautiful it was and wished his other mice friends had come with him to see the sight. Suddenly, he heard the noise of paw steps and the mouse turned to his right to see a raccoon staring at him.
“What are you doing here?” asked the mouse.
“I have come to drink from the river, what are you doing here?” asked the raccoon.
“I have followed the noise of the river. Now that I see it, I realize it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen” .
“This is the most beautiful?” asked the raccoon. “Well, if you want to see something spectacular, then you must squeeze together and jump as high as you can. When you reach the peak of your jump, open your eyes and then you will see the most beautiful sight”.
The mouse was afraid, for he had never jumped very high before. But, he worked up his courage and did it. He gathered himself together, and jumped up as high as he could. At the peak of his jump, he opened his eyes and saw the vast mountain range, covered in greenery and graced with streams all over. The mouse was so entranced by what he saw, that he didn’t look where he was landing and fell directly into the river. After much struggle, he rescued himself from the current and floated on a piece of wood toward the riverbank. He had floated far away from the raccoon. Even though he felt fear, he decided that he was going to find the mountains he saw in his jump. He roamed along until he came to a field.
At the edge of the field, he came across a huge black, furry being with dark brown eyes, full of pain and wet with tears.
“What are you and what is the matter, great being?” asked the mouse.
“I am ta tan ka, buffalo, and I am dying. The only thing that can save me is the eye of a mouse, but there is no such thing as a mouse, and so, I will die”, cried the buffalo.
“I am a mouse, I will give you my eye so that you can live” offered the mouse.
With that, the mouse’s eye flew from his head and into the great buffalo and the buffalo was healed. Ta tan ka rose up and thanked the mouse.
“I am indebted to you, where are you going now?”
“I am going to find those great mountains that I saw, but I am afraid to cross this field, afraid an eagle will swoop down and eat me”.
The buffalo thought for a moment and then said, “If you walk beneath me, I will lead you across the field to the foot of the Sacred Mountains. The eagle will not be able to see you. I am a sacred buffalo and you will be safe under me”. And so they set out and made it safely across the field to the foot of the mountain. With only one eye, the mouse went on alone and soon came across a large being with gray fur, shaking and panting in great pain.
“What are you and what is the matter?” asked the mouse.
“I am sung manitu tan ka, the great wolf, and I am dying. The only thing that can save me is the eye of a mouse, but there is no such thing as a mouse and so I will die.” The mouse thought for a moment. This great wolf’s life could be saved by giving his eye, but he was so close to the Sacred Mountains and without his eye, he would not be able to see its beauty. But the wolf was so beautiful and fine that he deserved to live and so the mouse said,
“Oh, but there IS such a thing as a mouse. That is what I am and I will give you my eye so that you may live.” With that, the eye flew from the mouse’s head and into the wolf and the great wolf was healed.
“I am indebted to you. Where are you going and how can I help you?”
“Well, I was going to find the Sacred Mountains but I am afraid that an eagle will swoop down and eat me on my way, and now I can not see,” replied the mouse.
“Climb on my back,” offered the wolf.
“Your fur will blend with my fur, the eagle will not see you and I will
carry you to the top of the Sacred Mountains”.
The mouse roamed around for a while until he ran into a frog.
“To ka ho? What’s wrong?” asked the frog. The mouse told his tale of his jump and his journey and the buffalo and the eye and the wolf and the eye.
“Now I am on the Sacred Mountains, and I can not see their beauty.” The frog felt badly for the mouse and proceeded to describe the surroundings to him in great detail. Neither one of them noticed the shadow that crossed over them. The mouse wanted to show the frog how high he had jumped in the first place and so he tried again. He scrunched himself into a ball and jumped up with all his might and at the peak of his jump, wam bli, the eagle that had been circling, swooped down and devoured the mouse.
The mouse felt himself at the peak and realized he did not fall back to the ground. Instead, he felt himself going higher. Slowly, he began to see again and looked down towards the ground. He saw the most spectacular sight, the Sacred Mountains, from above. The mouse and the eagle became one and soared in the clouds and finally, the mouse was able to see the Sacred Mountains through his eagle eyes.
I turned to look at my grandmother who had long since finished my two perfect braids and looked past the tears that had welled up to see a great depth behind her eyes. I realized that I too, had tears in my eyes and wondered if I had that kind of depth within me. I looked, but found no words in my throat.
As she stood up, she whispered,
“The mouse comes to you for friendship.”
I remember the next three months in white as the blizzards blew through and kept me, grandmother and my mouse huddled by the fire. The mouse told us his name was Scratches Loud and we all had a good laugh about how much I hated him when we first met in my room that November morning. The days of that winter were long and I spent most of my time playing with my new friend. Scratches Loud told me stories about his clan and mouse tribe. On the coldest days, we sang for my grandmother the songs that make springtime come.
“When you sing about the sun and the June berries, you call for them to come to you. And the more you sing, the quicker they come,” Scratches Loud said that singing produced the warmth that filled our small tin home. Smiling broadly, my grandmother agreed with him.
During the day, Scratches Loud and I would go outside to gather wood from the pile and make paths through the snow banks. We would pretend to be lost and play a game of survival but we always found our way back home just before dark. During the night, grandma and I would concentrate on our beadwork by the faint light of the lamp. Keeping what she was working on a secret, she sat with her back to me. She turned around only when she taught me a new pattern. I was making a dress for my mother to wear when she came back for me in the summer. Grandma showed me how to make a pattern of the hills where we lived. Scratches Loud was my main subject and model.
As May, the Moon of Green Leaves, came upon us, the snow began to melt. Grandma started telling me to hurry and finish my mother’s dress, for she would be coming for me soon. Tears well up in her eyes when she speaks of my mother coming back and so that makes the tears well up in my eyes, too.
On a warm Friday, Grandma handed me a bag and instructed me to say goodbye to Scratches Loud and walk with her. I kept asking her where we were going but she would not answer me.
We walked to the bus station that I had been to five months before to see my mother off.
“Kun si, grandmother, where are you sending me?” I cried. I searched her deep eyes for an answer, my own eyes pleaded with her to tell me.
“Your hair has gotten so dirty this winter,” was all she said to me. “You have to wash it before you can go on.” With that, she pushed me on the bus and turned to walk back to our home. As I wondered where I was being sent off to, I saw from the bus window two of my uncles come out from behind the station and join her. Why hadn’t I seen them earlier? Why were they hiding from me? Where was I going? I cried and cried until I fell asleep.
I spent that weekend at my mother’s small apartment in the city.
"Grandma doesn’t hug as strong as you do, mom.” I told her.
I wondered when I would go back to the reservation. I had left the beaded dress I made for my mother there, I had left Scratches Loud there and left my grandmother there without any real goodbye.
Saturday, my mother spent a lot of time cooking more food than the two of us could have eaten. I was surprised that after I had been gone for so long, my mother now only spoke to me in commands.
“Lillian, don’t mash the berries so long . . . make the balls of dough flatter for the fry-bread, girl.” When the food was done she wrapped the pemmican, wozapi and taniga soup and put it in the refrigerator. Later that night, she washed my hair and sat me down to create two perfect braids on my head. And she did not speak. What happened that weekend to inflict my mother and grandmother with the same unusual silence?
Sunday morning we woke before the sun and once again boarded the bus. This time, the walk to my grandmothers house was tiring. I was full of confusion, weighed down with packages of food and frustrated by the silence. As we walked up the path, I couldn’t help but notice all of the cars parked nearby. I saw many people mingling around, saw my uncles from the bus station gathering willow branches near the south side of the house, saw smoke rising from a freshly built Inipi, sweat lodge, saw my aunts busy cooking over the fire and finally, saw my grandmother in a newly crafted dress with intricate beadwork. I walked over to her and a broad smile came over her deep brown face. She bent down and I expected her to kiss my head, but instead, she took a deep breath of my clean hair.
“Now you are ready, wi cin. The Inipi is waiting to tell you the path of your life and I have spent all weekend dreaming your name.”
In the Sweat Lodge, I sang my winter songs, and the wichasha wakan, medicine man sang his songs of prayer.
“Brothers and sisters, each of you is asked to pray: Pray for what you desire in this life. Appreciate the life giving air. We must be aware. Someday, each of us will take our last breath. This cool air rushing inward Reminds us to appreciate Our Breath, Our Life.”
I soon felt the direction of my life call to me.
When the ceremony was over, my relatives moved into the house to eat the feast that had been cooking since Friday when I left. I saw my mother inside, dishing out the wozapi, berry pudding.
“Lillian helped me make this.” She proudly declared to everyone who tasted it.
“That wi cin? That girl?” They replied.
“No,” my mother said as she caught my eye across the distance. “That winyan, that woman.”
Grandma came towards me and removed my clothing which was soaked with sweat from the Inipi. The cool towel felt good as she stroked the heat from my skin and murmured prayers in her deep Lakota voice. She handed me a dress, and I knew it was what she had worked on all winter, sitting with her back to me. Our house, the fire, the reservation, Scratches Loud and the deep white snow was all there in the design. It was beautiful. Tears welled up in her deep eyes and I felt the warm water well in my eyes, too.
She put the dress over my head and pulled it over my body. Then she stepped back and admired the fruit of her winters work.
“You came here with sadness in your heart. Missing your mother and in fear of the winter mouse. But, you learned from Scratches Loud how to make a nest your home, you learned how to sing to invite the warmth and you kept me company during the Moon of Hard Winter. Your breath kept us warm and alive when otherwise I would have frozen from loneliness. Your song kept my fingers warm enough to bead the dress you and I wear. Now, you are a woman, a winyan like me and your mother. You have gone to your first Inipi , have found the direction of your life. And so, you are renamed. Within this home you are Warm Song Woman. Your name is your power and when I call you by it, you gain more power. You tell Lillian to say goodbye to Scratches Loud and I invite Warm Song Woman to come out and join the feast.”
My grandmother left the room and my eyes searched the floor for Scratches Loud’s nest. I called to him, but he did not respond. In the west corner of the room, an eagle tail feather caught my eye and it was then that I knew Scratched Loud was gone forever. I walked to the corner where his nest used to be, picked up the feather lying there and fixed it in my braid.
It was dusk, my first night as a woman.
Before joining the feast, I walked outside and looked to the sky.
And I saw Scratches Loud soaring above the treetops, his first night as
The short story, "Winter with Scratches Loud" was written with two goals in mind: the first to serve as an example of the distinctive writing and storytelling style of Native Americans, the second to address issues of acculturation and ritual within the Lakota tribe.
In his article, “’No One Ever Did This To Me Before” Contemporary American Indian Texts in the Classroom”, J. Purdy writes that five distinct elements of Native American literature must be present to distinguish this form from other styles of writing: Landscape, Literature, Language, Ceremony/Ritual, and Community/Communal Identity. In “Winter with Scratches Loud”, I tried to incorporate all of these elements to establish a believable Native American voice. By incorporating the seasons and alluding to the hills area the where the story takes place, a landscape is established. The effect of literature is made created in the oral tradition of storytelling illustrated when the grandmother relates the story of Jumping Mouse to Lillian. Lakota language is used by the grandmother and mother throughout the story. Ceremony/Ritual is obviously addressed during the sweat lodge and naming process. Finally, a community/communal identity is established in the gathering of friends and relatives at the end of the story.
While doing research for this assignment, I noticed a fifth element present in most Native American writing, the use of magic realism. While magic realism has no concrete definition, it can be explained as a style of writing which incorporates both the real and unreal, the possible and impossible. Literature written in the style of magic realism does not depend on linear storytelling or chronological recounting of events. The use of magic realism is found mostly in non-Anglo literature, reflecting minority culture’s recognition of the idea that magic is a part of reality, that spirit is part of the body and that human beings are not separate from each other or other elements of nature. Thus, I gave the mouse, Scratches Loud, a speaking role, acknowledging the belief in the possibility of communication with animals recognized in native American culture.
In this tale, Lillian is in the process of being acculturated as an Indian by spending a harsh winter on the reservation. The first element of acculturation is shown through storytelling. The story of Jumping Mouse obviously serves to “humanize” the mouse to allay Lillian’s fear of it, but it teaches much more than that. The story subtly teaches about persistence, the give-away, the sacred stature of animals and the idea of an afterlife.
The second element of acculturation is the act of beading, a traditional art among Sioux tribes. The end result of the beadwork is not only a functional item, such as a dress, but the design is also symbolic of an experience and, in this case, an artistic representation of a phase of life.
Traditional food is cooked by the mother in this story, Lillian participates in the preparation which is another method of acculturation or “Indian education”.
Finally, the sweat lodge experience and naming ceremony serve to initiate Lillian into her Indian culture and gives her a concrete ritual experience to mark her official entrance into the Lakota tribe.
All in all, I attempted to include many subtle and overt cultural traditions and behaviors into the development of Lillian’s character. I portrayed her as humble and quiet, which seems to be characteristic of behavior valued in the Lakota tribe. I also found that the tradition of naming an adolescent is not accompanied by a set or specific ritual. Although the time one is named is distinct, special and ceremonial, it is not structured and conducted in the same way each time. I found this aspect different than most other Native American rituals which seem steeped in structure and specific, repeated steps.
I was hesitant to write a story in the
first person, attempting to assume the role of a Native American.
However, in preparing to write, I read many short stories and books about
culture and behavior, and I feel the end result is true to the culture
and a fair representation of a young native American girl.
Erdrich, Louise. The Antelope Wife. New York: HarperCollins Publishers,1998.
This novel served as an excellent example of Native American literature.Grobsmith, Elizabeth S. Lakota of the Rosebud: A Contemporary Ethnography.
Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1981.
This ethnography gave me an understanding of modern life on the Lakota Reservation from an anthropologists point of view. Grobsmith’s description of naming ceremonies prompted my interest in this practice.“Lakhota Language.” Compuserve. Online. www.lakhota.com. Access date:
10 October 1999.
This website provided me with all of the Lakota words and definitions I incorporated into the story.Purdy, J. “’No One Ever Did This to Me Before’ Contemporary American Indian
Texts in the Classroom.” American Indian Quarterly. 16.1 (1992): 53-62.
I found this article through a classmate who did a presentation for another course on the distinguishing characteristics of Native American literature. Purdy’s article outlines five characteristics which I decided to include in my story.Riley, Patricia, Editor. Growing Up Native American: An Anthology. New York:
William Morrow and Company,1993.
I read this anthology of Native American short stories about childhood so that I could gain a deeper understanding of the distinct rhythm and linguistic pattern of Native American literature.Rosen, Kenneth, Editor. The Man To Send Rain Clouds: Contemporary Stories
by American Indians. New York: Viking Press, 1974.
I read this collection of short stories and poems to aid me in acquiring an Indian voice.
FGCU CAS 2000, Fort Myers, FL.
This is an official web page of Florida Gulf Coast University.
Updated Summer 2000.
Webmaster: Dr. Jim Wohlpart