South Dakota has a rich literature for children, which includes its own Aesop, Hans Christian Andersen, and Lewis Carroll. Early state authors such as L. Frank Baum, Zitkala-Ša, Eva Katharine Gibson, and Charles and Elaine Goodale Eastman set their stories for young people in the region they knew best—the Northern Great Plains. To showcase this almost forgotten fairy tale heritage, the South Dakota State Historical Society Press began its Prairie Tale Series in 2006, using modern illustrators to bring classic fables and fairy stories back to life.
The first book in the series, The Discontented Gopher, is a short work by L. Frank Baum, who is often called the Hans Christian Andersen of America. Baum, who lived in Aberdeen, South Dakota, from 1888 to 1891, grew up reading stories set in Europe, the fairy tales of Andersen and the Grimm brothers. When he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), he decided that there was no reason that such stories should not be set in the United States. After all, he wrote in 1908, “fairies are not peculiar to any one locality, and every race has its own fairy legends.” His Wizard, which features a Kansas farm girl and a confidence man from Omaha, Nebraska, is considered the first truly American fairy tale.
But it is not the only such tale that he wrote. The Discontented Gopher, first published as a short story in 1905 follows the adventures of Zikky, a South Dakota gopher who encounters fairies who offer him wealth or happiness. He chooses wealth and is soon awash in golden corn grown by area farmers. Wealthy but not happy, Zikky ignores the fairies’ advice to stay close to home and searches for adventure. Two young boys from Aberdeen waylay him and cut off his tail for a gopher bounty, one of the ways in which the farmers of the early 1900s tried to even the score between the crops and the wild animals. Zikky survives and learns that contentment is more important than riches.
The youngsters in this story are based on the author’s son and a nephew who lived in North Dakota. During the summers, the young Baum and his cousin trapped gophers and took them to the county farm extension office for a two-cent bounty. Baum first published The Discontented Gopher in the Delineator, a woman’s fashion magazine; each issue featured a story for mothers to read to their children.
To revitalize this tale for modern readers, the South Dakota State Historical Society Press asked children’s book illustrator Carolyn Digby Conahan to interpret the gopher and his adventures. Conahan, who is also the staff artist of Cricket magazine, transformed Baum’s short fiction into “a wonderful American fairy tale,” according to the Rapid City Journal. The book, which also contains an introduction that sets the scene, a word list, and bibliography, won awards from both the Mom’s Choice Foundation and the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards.
For the second volume in the Prairie Tale Series, the South Dakota State Historical Society Press wanted to showcase the state’s American Indian story-telling tradition. Dance in a Buffalo Skull is a traditional tale retold by Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, whose Indian name was Zitkala-Ša.
Zitkala-Ša, who grew up on the Yankton Indian Reservation in the 1870s, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in several western states, an experience that led her to become an activist on behalf of native peoples and their cultures. In 1901, she published a book of short pieces based on the campfire stories of her own reservation childhood. These folktales grew out of the oral history tradition of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota (Sioux) peoples, and, like Aesop’s fables and the traditional tales of other cultures, they convey lessons to listeners.
In Dance in a Buffalo Skull, field mice come out at night to feast and dance in an old buffalo skull. The small creatures become completely involved in the celebration and forget about possible dangers as a wild cat crawls up on them in the dark. The prairie children who listened to their elders telling this story a hundred years ago would have understood that they needed to stay alert and not get too caught up in what they were doing.
Lakota artist S. D. Nelson’s illustrations for this second Prairie Tale in the State Historical Society Press series mix traditional Lakota Indian art with modern styles to provide visual drama to the old tale. Nelson, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, is the author and illustrator of numerous children’s books, including Crazy Horse’s Vision.
Dance in a Buffalo Skull received the Aesop Accolade Award for 2007 from the American Folklore Society. One of the judges wrote: “For someone writing over a hundred years ago as an indigenous author, trying to present her culture to an outsider audience, I think she did an incredible job—and I love the way Nelson’s illustrations enhance the language for a modern audience and make it clear how well-done her telling really is.” The Mom’s Choice Awards judges also chose Dance in the Buffalo Skull as the Most Outstanding Children’s Book of 2007.
Along with Dance in a Buffalo Skull, the third and fourth volumes in the State Historical Society Press’s Prairie Tale Series begin to reveal how culturally blended the literary heritage of the South Dakota truly is. The third volume, The Prairie-Dog Prince, is set in the western part of the state on the edge of the Black Hills. The author, Eva Katharine Gibson of Chicago, had visited the Hot Springs area in 1895 with her husband, Charles B. Gibson, who was a metallurgist examining mining properties for investors. He later did the chemical analysis of Evans Plunge. During her stay in Hot Springs, Eva Gibson visited Wind Cave and probably heard the Sioux legend that it was the passageway through which their nation came to earth.
Gibson also traveled extensively in Germany, studying folktales, and when she returned to Chicago, she used all the raw materials from her various trips for a series of plays and novels for which she could not find a publisher. After the success of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, she recast the material as a children’s book, calling it Zauberlinda, the Wise Witch, which was published in 1901.
For its third Prairie Tale, the South Dakota State Historical Society Press condensed and adapted Gibson’s 1901 novel into a thirty-two-page picture book that follows the adventures of Annie, a young girl who lives on a farm near the Black Hills and befriends a gnome prince disguised as a prairie dog. Making some unwise wishes about her father finding gold in the Hills, Annie is whisked underground like Alice in Wonderland to the home of the gnomes, where she learns some important lessons in the style of all fairy tales. Meeting up with her prince once again, she returns home through Wind Cave. Again, Carolyn Digby Conahan’s wistful illustrations give The Prairie-Dog Prince a modern character that earned the book the 2008 Mom’s Choice Award for Most Distinctive Illustration.
The Racoon and the Bee Tree, the fourth Prairie Tale, came off the press in the fall of 2009. Written in 1909 by Charles Eastman and Elaine Goodale Eastman, it combines a traditional American Indian story with the style of Aesop’s fables. Eastman, whose Indian name was Ohiyesa, was born in Minnesota in the 1850s among the Santee Sioux, or Dakota Indians. He later became a doctor and worked on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where he met Elaine Goodale, a teacher from Massachusetts. The two married and started a successful writing career that included a collection of American Indian stories called Wigwam Evenings, in which this story first appeared.
The Raccoon and the Bee Tree opens one evening as a raccoon sallies forth to find his supper. Discovering a honey cache in a bee tree, he helps himself and earns nothing but trouble as he encounters angry bees, a family of skunks, chattering squirrels, and a hungry bear. Rapid City artist Susan Turnbull’s illustrations bring the charm and humor of the story vividly to life. Turnbull studied at the American Academy of Art in Chicago and has illustrated five other books.
For the fifth Prairie Tale, which was released 25 September 2010, award-winning Lakota artist Donald F. Montileaux turns L. Frank Baum’s short story The Enchanted Buffalo into a picture book for modern readers. Once again, Baum set his fable on the American Great Plains, and this time he invoked American Indian legends to tell a darker moral tale. The story opens with the buffalo king Dakt, who leads the Royal Tribe of the Okolom. A rival soon kills the king and takes control of the buffalo tribe. Having a powerful spirit guide, the usurper thinks he is invincible, but a young, brave-hearted challenger proves him wrong.
Baum’s inspiration appears to have been Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book (1894), which set animal fables in the jungles of India, where Kipling had grown up. Baum, who lived in South Dakota during the Ghost Dance movement, had not been sympathetic to the Lakotas’ plight at that time, but his 1905 story conveys an authentic American Indian flavor and a strong empathy for the culture that he had observed close-up in the late 1880s.
Grounded in Lakota tradition, Montileaux’s artwork brings new energy to Baum’s Enchanted Buffalo while at the same time underscoring the story’s blended cultural roots. The artist’s earlier book, Tatanka and the Lakota People: A Creation Story, published by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press in 2006, earned multiple awards, including the Aesop Accolade from the American Folklore Society and the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America.
In choosing to publish the Prairie Tales, the South Dakota State Historical Society Press hoped to remind state and regional residents that authors, both immigrant and indigenous, had been at work here almost from the beginning of statehood. The Press also hoped to give modern illustrators an opportunity to work on children’s books that featured the Great Plains locale—the prairies and plains, the tall and short grasses, the wildlife and wildflowers of South Dakota. Some of the artwork for each book has become part of the state’s permanent collection at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre.
Not least, the Press published these books as a way of sharing the history of the region with young readers. Each of the Prairie Tales features an introduction that fills in the historical background behind the stories—the reasons for gopher bounties, the oral storytelling tradition of the Sioux, the background of Wind Cave and Black Hills settlement, and the blending of storytelling traditions. Complete with bibliographies and word lists, the Prairie Tales are designed to educate and entertain.
Finally, we are running a writing and illustration competition for 1st to 5th grade children. All the details for this exciting competition can be found on our Prairie Tale website or by contacting us via email to request more information.
Nancy Tystad Koupal