Quills and Feathers

from My People the Sioux

The singing of the meadowlarks would presently draw our attention away from the [Lakota children's] bow game, and we would start off to hunt these birds. The larks in our State, at that time, talked the Sioux language—at least, we inferred that they did; but in California, where I now live, it is impossible to understand them. Perhaps they are getting too civilized. In our country, we little fellows thought these birds were our enemies, because they would say things to us that we did not care to hear. They would call out a boy's name, and say that "his mamma wanted him," or some other objectionable expression in bird talk. So we did not like to have these birds come near us.

[…]

Meadowlark, Western

Sturnella neglecta

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Notes

The Western reader's initial response to this passage from Standing Bear's account of his South Dakota childhood may well be one of shock and surprise, at the fact that this songbird was hunted as part of Lakota boys' initiation into hunting-culture manhood, and that the bird apparently served the parents well as a chastising parental surrogate, or "bogeyman." But one shouldn't forget the more fundamental point: the bird speaks. Indeed, the meadowlark (tashiyagnunpa in Lakota) was traditionally dubbed "the bird who speaks Lakota," and was held in a near-familial positive regard by the Lakota in general (i.e., the adults). Ultimately more interesting—and poignant—is Standing Bear's own "fall from animal grace," as it were, in which, through acculturation, he loses his connection with meadowlark language. It was really the human writer here who was "getting too civilized."

Bibliographical information

Author: Standing Bear, Luther (Mato Najin) (1868[?]-1939)

Book: My People the Sioux

Date: 1975 [1928]

Publisher: University of Nebraska Press

Project Information

Genre: fiction