Structure and Setting
Events and Vocabulary
An eight-year old Ojibwa girl lives with her family in Minnesota around 1849. Omakayas does not have a blood tie to her family, but she does not know this. As a baby, she was the lone survivor of her people, all of whom died during a smallpox outbreak on Spirit Island. Old Tallow, an Ojibwa woman, rescued the surviving baby from Spirit Island and placed her with the couple Migwam and Yellow Kettle. In their home, Omakayas is a beloved daughter. The novel is organized into four sections, representing each of the four seasons, together creating a story that occurs within a year's natural cycle.
During one summer, Omakayas fetches a pair of western-style scissors from Old Tallow. On the way home, she encounters two cubs, then their mother. The mother pins Omakayas to the ground but does not hurt her. The young girl believes the bears are her protectors. At home, Omakayas helps tan a moose hide for use as makazins (Ojibwa footwear). When her father, Migwam, comes home from a trapping trip, the family rejoices. Omakayas and her older sister, the beautiful Angeline, are told by their father to keep birds from the corn crop. The girls do so and snare many crows for the family dinner. One crow survives but is wounded, and it becomes the beloved family pet Andeg.
During the fall, the family prepares for the long, cold winter ahead, including harvesting wild rice and preparing the winter cabin, located near the trading post, Old Tallow, and other Ojibwa families.
During the winter, Omakayas makes little makazins for her baby brother, using a sewing kit with beads given to her by Ten Snows, Fishtail's wife and the best friend of Angeline. Then tragedy strikes. Smallpox arrives and sickens every family member except Grandma and Omakayas, who work tirelessly to nurse the family back to health. Ten Snows and baby Neewo die, which devastates Omakayas. In addition, scarcity of food leaves the threat of starvation.
Nature comes full circle and spring arrives. With her grandmother's guidance, Omakayas begins her life as a healer. In addition, Old Tallow reveals to Omakayas the story of her past from Spirit Island.
Structure and Setting
The book consists of four sections. What does each section represent? Why do you think the author put them in this order? In some sections, Native American tales are told within the book's main story. For what purpose are these stories within the story told?
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? Consider, also, how the wildlife found in this area of Minnesota affects the lives of the characters and their attitudes and beliefs.
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.
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. What lesson does Grandma want Omakayas and the others to learn from this tale? In the past, how have stories helped you to better understand something about life?
What words would you use to describe the personality of Omakayas? 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? How does Omakayas feel about Andeg, the crow? How did her feelings about birds influence Andeg's position in the family?
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?
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 can you relate the attitude toward family that Omakayas displays to the way people feel about or act toward families today? Choose one sibling and explain how or why Omakayas feels the way she does about that character. Then consider how Omakayas's feelings about that sibling change through the story.
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? Ask students to give examples from the book to support their responses. How does that compare to the role a grandparent plays in families today?
Events and Vocabulary
What are some Ojibwa words that relate to clothing, food, shelter, work, or play? Why do you think the author included an English word along with an Ojibwa word as the title for each of the four sections in the book? The Ojibwa words megwtch and gaygo are used often throughout the story. What do they mean? How do they relate to the story events and characters?
Point out that the glossary at the back of the book contains all the Ojibwa words that are used in the story.
As a collaborative project, have students use the glossary to write a letter to Omakayas, in which they tell about themselves and their families. In the letter, have them use the Ojibwa words that they find in the glossary or that they learned about as they read The Birchbark House.
- 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?
- What part of this story is based on historical fact, and what part is based on the author's imagination? Help students discuss what they learned about Native American traditions and lifestyles that they did not know before.
- What kind of eight-year-old is Omakayas? What are some situations and details from the story that support your response? How does Omakayas change from the beginning to the end of the novel? Again, what are story details that support your idea?
- Omakayas dislikes her brother Pinch but adores her brother Neewo. Have students put themselves in the shoes of Omakayas and explain her feelings toward each brother. Encourage them to look back on the entire story of The Birchbark House. Have them explain how Omakayas's feelings about the family members grew or changed.
- Ask students to discuss the relationship between Old Tallow and Omakayas. Encourage them to explain the attitude of each toward the other when Omakayas goes to fetch the scissors, Old Tallow brings soup to Omakayas after the smallpox outbreak, and a yellow dog attacks Omakayas.
- How does the discovery of the truth about her background affect Omakayas? Ask students to explain how the discovery helps or doesn't help her better understand herself and her relationship to her Ojibwa family. Ask how they think this discovery will affect Omakayas's future.
- Focus attention on the overall themes in The Birchbark House. What lessons about life did Omakayas learn? Which events helped her to learn those lessons? What lessons about life did students learn from the experiences of Omakayas?
- Have your class compare and contrast The Birchbark House to another story, novel, or nonfiction book about Native American people that they have read. Then have them compare the character of Omakayas to other main characters of the same age in stories set in modern times.