My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE GAME OF SILENCE by Louise Erdrich

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2006 winner, The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich.

The Game of Silence is the second book in Erdrich’s Birchbark Series which follows an extended Anishinabe (Ojibwa/Chippewa) family through the 1840s-60s in the Upper Midwest. Erdrich also won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2013 for Chickadee, the fourth book in the series. In fact, Erdrich is the only author to earn the Scott O’Dell Award twice.

I did things backwards, and I read and blogged about Chickadee first. I’ve since read the rest of the series. The first three Birchbark books focus on Omakayas, a young Anishinabe girl, and Chickadee takes place years later and focuses on Omakayas’s son.

In The Game of Silence, Omakayas, about nine years old, and her family receive word that the American government is planning to push them out of their homeland on Moningwanaykaning (Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker, now known as Madeline Island, WI) into Minnesota, territory of the Bwaanag (the Dakota and Lakota) who are hostile to the Anishinabe. But, first, Omakayas must deal with her pesky little brother, her warrior cousin, an angry boy refugee, and her gift of dreams.

History Lesson:

The Sandy Lake Tragedy–Although we don’t see it first-hand through the eyes of Omakayas, The Game of Silence is set into motion by what becomes the Sandy Lake Tragedy. The U.S. government had promised the Anishinabe they could stay on their lands near Lake Superior, and the government promised yearly payments. The payments were usually made on Madeline Island, WI. However, in 1850, the payments were going to be made near Sandy Lake in northern Minnesota Territory, requiring the Anishinabe to travel far from their homes.

From what I understand, the movement of the payment wasn’t predicated by the Wisconsin white people’s desire for the Anishinabe land. It turns out there were government leaders, including Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs, who wanted the Anishinabe to be relocated to northern Minnesota. Why?

Because the presence of the Anishinabe presence in Minnesota would bring economic gain to themselves and Minnesota. Anyway, the leaders had convinced President Zachary Taylor to relocate the Anishinabe. When the Anishinabe ignored the relocation order, Ramsey and others made a plan to lure the Anishinabe to Minnesota for the land payments, believing the Anishinabe would be so far from their homeland they would decide to stay.

The payments were to be made late October. When the more than 4,000 Anishinabe arrived, the government payments hadn’t. But, winter and diseases soon arrived. To complicate matters, there wasn’t enough shelter or food, and much of the food there was spoiled. Many Anishinabe died.

When a tiny partial payment finally arrived in early December, the Anishinabe decided if they were going to die, they would do it back in their homeland. However, they had to walk through heavy snow to get home, and hundreds more died on their way. Altogether, more than 400 died that winter.

In 1852, a group of Anishinabe travel to Washington, D.C., to request President Millard Fillmore stop the relocation, and he does order it to stop and requires the payments to be made at Madeline Island. The Anishinabe also had white supporters, especially missionaries and newspaper editors.

One of the Anishinabe leaders who made the trek to D.C. is Chief Buffalo. There is a leader named Buffalo in the beginning of The Game of Silence. I believe he’s the same man.

Writing Lesson:

An Active Protagonist–Omakayas’s life is turned upside down because of the Sandy Lake Tragedy. She cannot change the big situation. Middle grade readers will relate. They are often affected by big, terrible situations they have no control over.

However, the protagonists in middle grade books do exercise personal agency. In fact, their story arcs are often how they realize or decide that they can make certain decisions and act on them. They learn to be proactive and not just reactive.

For example, Omakayas cannot change the situation between the Anishinabe and the U.S. government. But, she does make choices that affect her life and the lives of her family members. And, although she and her family have been victimized, she chooses not to be a victim.

For more information:

Louise Erdrich (who is also an owner of a Minneapolis, MN, bookstore)

Sandy Lake Tragedy and Memorial

Chief Buffalo and Benjamin Armstrong

Join me Sept. 29 as I blog about the 1999 winner, 40 Acres and Maybe a Mule by Harriet Gillem Robinet.

Have you read any of The Birchbark Series? If so, which one is your favorite?


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