Book Review: Christmas Moccasins

Rating: ★★★★☆

This is a compelling story about courage and forgiveness told from a Native American perspective.  On Christmas Eve a young child and his grandmother are robbed of both their coats and Grandmother’s moccasins by three drunken youths, and walking home barefoot in the snow Grandmother loses two toes to frostbite.  She spends the final quarter of the following year preparing extraordinarily beautiful beaded moccasins to give to her assailants at Christmas.

Ray Buckley is Lakota, Tlingit, and Scots, and is affiliated with the United Methodist Church.  His stories express Christian teachings within a tribal way of thinking.  His theological basis can be a bit fuzzy, and at times he is more mystically intuitive than biblically centered, so each of his stories ought to be be examined carefully.

One potentially concerning element of this story is that in the scene on the front cover where Grandmother is beading the moccasins for her assailants, she is pictured against a background of what looks like an abstractly stylized dreamcatcher composed of wintry trees, with two figures below them.  Traditionally a dreamcatcher is modeled after a spider’s web and is believed to catch bad dreams or thoughts.  Picturing the  dreamcatcher seems to be the author’s way of showing how Grandmother’s courage and faith help her defeat her fear.  This may be an attempt to appropriate a culturally recognized symbol for a redemptive interpretation, and I’m not settled on whether this is a good use of the symbol.

Another potentially difficult element of the story is that Grandmother performs a water-cleansing ceremony before making the moccasins, and again before delivering them:

Carefully she dipped her hands into the basin again and again, patting the length of her hair, her shoulders, her torso, and her legs.  In October, with no stream unfrozen, it was her way of cleansing her spirit — the way of beginning something sacred.  In the twilight of the kitchen, my grandmother was praying.

I am not familiar with this kind of spiritual cleansing ceremony, but it reminds me enough of smudging (wafting fragrant herbal smoke as part of prayer) to suggest that this may be another cultural practice rooted in tribal religious tradition.  However, one might simply interpret this as the author does, as a way of ritually cleansing oneself from the effects of another’s violence, when a full bath is impossible.

Although these cultural elements are somewhat troubling because of their association with non-Christian religious practices, Grandmother’s forgiveness has a ringing beauty that is well worthy of setting before children’s eyes, and this forgiveness is presented through a lens of faith and grace.  As she sets out to deliver her gifts, the reader sees an owl (traditionally considered a harbinger of terror and death) staring out from the page as Grandmother  says to the child, “We’re here to do the Creator’s work.”  When she hands the gifts to her assailants, she says simply “I wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas.  God bless you,” and they are rendered speechless.

The story ends with the narrator’s statement that “In the small house were captives of God’s love.  But we were truly free, liberated by the same love.”  In returning good for evil Grandmother expresses the extravagant love of God toward ill-deserving people, fulfilling the command that Christians “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:21).  The young men, embodiments of her fear, are rendered powerless by her forgiveness.

Because this story illustrates so beautifully the power of faith-filled forgiveness, I recommend it despite its inclusion of symbols which have traditionally been associated with traditional tribal religion.  It speaks directly to the fear, anger and despair of Native American people who remember in their bones the robbery and slaughter of their recent ancestors — the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the Navajo Long Walk are only two examples of just this kind of evil worked against entire nations of Native people.  This story of hope and restoration, rooted in faith in God, is very timely.

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Publication Information: Buckley, Ray. Christmas Moccasins. Abington Press. 2003. ISBN: 0687027381.
Categories: 4 Stars, Age 04-08
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Posted on July 7, 2009

2 responses to Book Review: Christmas Moccasins

  • Copied from my account:

    Raymond Buckley says:
    As an author, I am always so grateful for the kindness and contributions of readers. I am grateful to Shanna Gonzalez for her thoughts and kindness. I have learned from them, as I do from everyone.

    As with many of my stories, this story was not originally written in English. It was simply written for my family as a gift at Christmastime. It is a story about a remarkably courageous person who had no need of “contextualizing” her religious beliefs of her culture. Like many of our Native parents and grandparents, she survived the forced memoval to boarding schools, by people who would not allow her to speak her language. When she did, she was beaten with canes. Unfortunately, the people who taught her to read the Bible and took away her Native name, were the same people who beat her when she spoke her tribal language. She survived the period in our history when Native children could be forcefully removed without the knowledge or consent of their parents, and when it was illegal to teach Native children in their languages. Native spiritual leaders were sent to Clinton, SD to be interred as “insane”. This story, seen in the light of her history, is the story of forgiveness in the way that made cultural and spiritual sense to her.

    The image on the cover is not a dreamcatcher. It is simply the beautiful, tall, narrow, black spruce of Alaska, with the image of a grandmother and grandson walking through them. You will find them in most of my books. It represents the memory of the beautiful woman on the cover.

    As an educator and cultural/tribal historian, I would be happy to refer Ms. Gonzalez to individuals and resources where she can learn more about Native culture, including ritual cleansing and adaptation. There is so much to learn and so much joy found in the process.

    There is a danger in trying to identify something that isn’t there, calling a cultural Native symbol “pagan”, and refer to an author’s religious affiliation as a point of a review. It would be familiar to my grandmother. She survived all of that to be a woman who loved God, loved her people and all people, taught all children to be proud “of the people God had made them.” She was also a person who believed in forgiveness. This is her story. Please don’t manipulate it into something else.

    Ray Buckley
    author, Christmas Moccasins

  • Thank you, Mr. Buckley, for giving this beautiful book to my children, and for offering more information about ritual cleansing ceremonies and adaptation. My grandfather also went to an Indian boarding school, and he taught me to be very careful about certain aspects of traditional religion. The boarding schools are one reason I am unfamiliar with much of my Tlingit culture. Nevertheless I feel the need to grapple with the themes in your books from a biblical and theological perspective. I have never found an attempt to blend the two traditions in the way you have done in your stories, and would certainly like to learn from you. Will you please contact me through my website and give me the resources you mentioned?

    I apologize for mistaking the image on the cover for a dreamcatcher. I have also changed the word “pagan” above to “traditional tribal religion.”

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