The Birchbark House

By: 

Louise Erdrich

Number of Pages: 

244

Minimum grade level: 

4th

Has anyone here read any of the Little House on the Prairie books? Well, this book takes place at the same time, and in the same part of the country, but instead of telling you about the white settlers like Laura Ingalls and her family, you see the same slice of history through the eyes of an Ojibwa Indian girl - Omakayas. For as long as Omakayas can remember, she and her family have lived on the Island of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker. Every summer the family builds a new birchbark house, every fall they go to ricing camp to harvest and feast. They move to the cedar log house before the first snow arrives, and they celebrate the end of the long cold winters at maple sugaring camp. In between, Omakayas life is full of adventures. For example, there is the time she is out picking berries and comes across two bear cubs! At first, Omakayas is a little nervous, but the cubs are so cute, and so playful, and in no time at all, she and the cubs are fast friends, and they are even eating berries out of her hand! But then [read passage, page 29 thru 2nd line of page 30].

Discussion questions

Spoiler alert! Some of the questions contain key elements of the plot. Do not read if you don't want to know what happens!

  1. Think about how changing weather affects the events in the book, including the move from a house made of birchbark to a winter cabin. What yearly events take place in different seasons for Omakayas and her Ojibwa tribe? How does the weather dictate what you do at different times of the year?
  2. Consider how the wildlife found in this area of Minnesota affects the lives of the characters and their attitudes and beliefs.
  3. The Ojibwa harvest wild rice in the fall and maple syrup in the spring. The author carefully describes these and other foods that the Ojibwa eat. Which meal described in this book would you like best? Describe it and tell how the food was gathered and prepared.
  4. Throughout the story, Grandma and Migwam (Deydey) tell stories about the Ojibwa people. At one point, the narrator explains that grandma tells the tale "Nanabozho and Muskrat Make an Earth" in order to teach a lesson to the children, not just to entertain them. In the past, how have stories helped you to better understand something about life?
  5. At one point, Omakayas encounters two bear cubs and their mother in the wild; luckily, Omakayas is not harmed. What is Omakayas's attitude toward the bears? Why? How does that attitude change or grow through the rest of the novel?
  6. How does Omakayas feel about Andeg, the crow? How did her feelings about birds influence Andeg's position in the family?
  7. In the story, Omakayas must do chores, some of which she detests - like preparing a moose hide for makazins - and some she enjoys - like making beaded makazins for Neewo. What is her attitude, in general, toward work? When she plays, what kinds of games does she enjoy? Which game or chore that Omakayas participates in interests you the most? Why?
  8. Omakayas loves her family and respects each member because that is Ojibwa tradition. But she is envious of her older sister, Angeline. She dislikes Pinch at the beginning of the story but adores Neewo. She fears and loves Deydey at the same time. Her mother, Yellow Kettle, is her role model in many ways. How do her feelings toward her family members change during the course of the story? What are the similarities or differences between Omakayas's attitude toward her family and your attitude toward yours?
  9. Nokimos, the grandmother, pays special attention to Omakayas. At the end of the book, she decides to share her knowledge of healing with Omakayas. What purpose does Grandma play in Omakayas's growing up? How do you think Omakayas feels about Nokimos? What role do you think grandparents played in Ojibwa life? How does that compare to the role a grandparent plays in families today?
  10. How did the author organize the events and story in The Birchbark House? How does that structure relate to the traditions and beliefs of the Ojibwa and other Native American people?
  11. How does Omakayas change from the beginning to the end of the novel?
  12. What did you think about the relationship between Old Tallow and Omakayas? How does their attitude towards each other change over the course of the book?
  13. How does the discovery of the truth about her background affect Omakayas?
  14. How does this book compare with other stories, novels, or nonfiction books about Native American people that you have read? How does the character of Omakayas compare to other main characters of the same age in stories set in modern times?

If you liked this book, try

  • The Ballad of Lucy Whipple by Karen Cushman
  • Grasshopper Summer by Ann Turner
  • Call Me Francis Tucket by Gary Paulsen
  • Prairie Songs by Pam Conrad
  • The Way West by Amelia Knight
  • The Log Cabin Quilt by Ellen Howard
  • Sweetgrass by Jan Hudson
  • Morning Girl by Michael Dorris
  • Guests by Michael Dorris
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

Portions of this discussion guide are credited to Trumpet Book Club.

Snacks

Maple sugar candy, blueberries, plums, Indian bread, toasted corn or popped corn

Created in part with funds granted by the Oregon State Library under the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the Oregon State Library.