Omakayas and her family are Ojibwe Indians living on Madeline Island. The year is 1849 and Omakayas (Little Frog) is seven years old. She has one older sister, Angeline, and two younger brothers; one a baby and the other, Pinch, is pure trouble. The book is set up on the cycle of the seasons as this small tribe of Ojibwes enjoy the warm days of summer preparing for fall and winter. The snowy months prove difficult for the tribe as many are short on food and sickness robs Omakayas of her baby brother. Erdrich set it up nicely in this seasonal manner to help us feel in the moment with this peaceful tribe. I have a romantic notion for Native tribes and this book shares all the positive as they begin to feel the encroachment of the white man on their land and Omakayas understands more about her gift for dreams.
The sequel to The Birchbark House continues the thread through seasons with several adventures. Another small tribe arrives by canoe, bedraggled and starved, as they escape from the white man and sickness. Old Tallow gets lost during a heavy snow as she searches for game to hunt and Deydey leads the priest on a mission just as the ice over the lake begins to crack and break. Any of these problems demonstrate the difficulties native people had even without the added fear of losing their way of life. Omakayas learns to accept her dreams as she uses a particularly powerful dream to rescue her father. She is a strong and unique young female character who takes pride in her family and the way of life she's too often taken for granted.
"The air cooled quickly. It was a little cold to sleep outside, but Deydey spread out the fire and built it up to a huge blaze. When the fire had all burned down to a bed of coals, he spread out the coals and then all of the family heaped sand on top of the big spread-out remains of the fire. They were making their bed. The soft comfortable sand was their mattress. Underneath, the coals would continue to give off a gently heat. They all lay down under the stars. There were no mosquitos or flies when the air was so chilly. Yet the warmth from underneath kept them comfortable. Deydey made this sort of sand bed often on his trips, and the children loved for him to make it for them." (72-73, The Game of Silence)