As Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve’s stories came to life, her life became her stories. Sneve has based nearly all of her published work on family moments, inspired by the rich heritage of oral storytelling traditions. In a voice that celebrates the past, she brings traditional Native values to the present.
Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve’s life is not one of numbers, although the numbers are revealing. She’s 76. She’s been married for 59 years. She has three children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. She’s written more than 20 books and received many awards — including the National Humanities Medal, given to her by President Clinton in 2000, the first ever given to a South Dakotan.
But numbers alone don’t reveal all of her accomplishments. How she rose above the Rosebud Indian Reservation where she was born on Feb. 21, 1933, a place where she never saw anyone writing books or even dreaming about it.
How she would travel far away from the Depression, the poverty, the dust-beaten emptiness of a reservation that still holds some of her life’s happiest moments. A reservation where she was unaware the rest of the country had plunged into a depression.
“I really wasn’t aware that anything was lacking. We didn’t have any money anyway, and so it was just the way life was,” Sneve said.
She would avoid bathroom stalls marked “Indians only,” which she naively thought was a good thing, and ignore from the seasonal anthropologists investigating Indians, the ones she and her friends made up wild stories to tell to just because they would believe anything.
She would go to South Dakota State University and get degrees in English and history, graduating in 1954 as one of only four Native students.
“I didn’t realize I was different than anybody else till I went to college,” Sneve said. “It was a shock. I had to be aware that if I wanted to stay there … then I would really have to draw on my own personal strength to do that.”
Her skin is not as dark as it was in college, when she really stood out. And her hair is silver now, bone-straight, falling to her chin. Her hands are weathered and wrinkled, as strong and determined as her will.
But as far as she has come from the reservation, she is never far from the echoes of her grandmother, Flora Clairmont Driving Hawk, or of her stern great-grandmother, Hannah Howe Frazier. Their stories remain in her heart and continue to inspire her. Stories that came to life for her, and later her life would become her stories.
Eventually, her rich heritage translated into multi-cultural appreciation and tolerance themes in her stories. She strives to represent who she is — Lakota, Dakota, Ponca, Scottish, English and French — with accuracy and truth, honoring that identity.
“I cannot be totally a Native American woman when it comes to a blood situation. But that is how I have grown up, as a Native American, so I have always thought of myself first as that,” Sneve said.
Her mother is Native and her father an Episcopalian priest. So religion became a strong part of her life — “a family affair.” But despite her great-grandmother Hannah’s (stern) Christian religion, Virginia also learned about White Buffalo Calf Woman and absorbed Lakota spiritual beliefs.
The rolling balance between ethnic identities is something her children learned too, having a Native mother and Norwegian father, or “Sioux-wegians” as Virginia called it. This mingling is reflected in “The Trickster and the Troll,” Virginia’s book where the Lakota trickster Iktomi meets and befriends a Norwegian troll and they share a common fate.
Shirley Sneve, Virginia’s daughter, executive director at Native American Public Telecommunications in Lincoln, Neb., described her family’s diversity this way:
“The holidays for many people is when you take that ethnic identity out of the closet and really do it up, through all the traditional recipes and stuff. That’s what always happens at our place. Thanksgiving will be lutefisk and leska and buffalo stew.”
Virginia’s son, Paul Sneve, an Episcopalian priest in Rapid City, said the way he was raised in two cultures made him different from both the Santee kids and the white kids in Flandreau, S.D.
“What I was doing was sort of translating anthropologically, trying to make sense of both cultures,” he said. “I was white, I was Indian, so I think I had to defend myself or my people one way or another. I became a young anthropologist. I had to, and so did Shirley, and so did my little brother.”
Dr. Norma Wilson, a former professor of Native literature at SDSU, believes that appreciation of many cultures strikes at the literary core of Sneve’s writing.
“I think that she would want to instill in her readers a sense of pride and respect for what is admirable, for what is good, for what is life-giving … (for) cultural and family tradition. I think that she would want that whether the reader was a Native American or a non-Native American. She is trying to transmit the understanding that as human beings we learn how to live from those (who) live well and responsibly, with consideration for the world around us… and the ability of that world to thrive and go on living.”
One way Sneve instills pride in her stories is by letting her life flow into the stories. In 1972, she published her first book, “Jimmy Yellow Hawk,” partly inspired by her brother, which garnered recognition when it won the Native American writers category in the Interracial Council of Minority Books for Children contest in 1971. “Grandpa was a cowboy and an Indian,” was partly based on her grandfather.
Virginia learned to write “as a natural extension” of hearing stories so often. Her teachers encouraged her when they recognized her ability, and her mother encouraged her to keep writing.
Paul said the stories are valuable to him because he saw a completely different side of his family.
“I don’t ever remember her telling me (traditional) stories because we were hearing them from other people, mostly family,” Paul said. “But she would tell us stories about our family … they had full and very rich lives, and that our family had a lot of good stories”
Sneve spent 25 years as an English teacher and high school counselor in South Dakota, all the while laboring away at manuscripts, staring down rejection after rejection.
“That is what I decided I wanted to do, so I wasn’t going to let a few rejection slips slow me down,” she said. Perseverance and family encouragement kept her writing, although her kids didn’t know until they were older exactly what she was doing, plugging away at a typewriter all the time.
“It was a secret. I had no idea she was doing this stuff,” Shirley said.
Wilson believes Sneve’s role as a teacher contributed to her writings as motivation and research.
“She wasn’t just holed up somewhere writing, she worked with children,” Wilson said. “She knew what kinds of home situations they had, what kind of difficulties they experienced as Native American children growing up in American society, which often didn’t do much to validate their native tradition or to involve them at all, she understood that.”
No more grandparents (0:44)
Virginia Driving Hawk talks about the lack of generational support and impact in our society
When she saw her daughter reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and that the only reference to Native people was a stereotypical and false one, she pushed harder to publish literature that would be positive and true for Native people. She still has to work against the generalized and outdated impressions of Native Americans, even with her success as an author.
“I have difficulty getting contemporary stories of Native Americans published because publishers think that their readers still want Indians riding horses, hunting buffalo and living in tipis,” Sneve said. “So when you write a contemporary story, particularly if you are writing about problems on the reservation with the alcohol and the drugs… They don’t want to read that about Indians. That’s disillusionment, you know. They still want us to be princesses.”
One of Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve’s purposes is to dispel stereotypes. Contemporary stories of native americans are still hard to publish because publishers think the public still wants to read about indians riding horses and chasing buffalo. Stories about problems on the reservation are not what they want to publish.
A culture that’s still alive (0:30)
Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve recounts children in classrooms inquiring about Native Americans
Sneve first heard of the injustices the United States inflicted on Native people from a Japanese-American student teacher at the Saint Mary’s School for Indian Girls, where she graduated in 1950. The student teacher was talking about the internment camps her family was forced into during World War II. The entire class of Native girls was shocked that the government would treat people like that — displacing them and abusing them. Ironically, the student teacher was shocked at their reaction and had to explain to them the longstanding government policy toward Native Americans.
As far as she has come, she says she can’t afford to feel complacent because there is too much yet to do. She wants to publish modern stories of life on the Rez. She is still plugging away at her writing with the same humility she had before being published; only now she is internationally renowned.
“(Her fame) is sort of strange…She’s the same person,” Paul said. “She’s always been very intelligent, very articulate. That’s who raised us, and I think she taught us to be that way too. Yeah, the work that she did was important and wonderful and great, but she is still just mom to us.”
Her mother’s perseverance is what Shirley says emboldened her to pursue her own career and for Paul to have a broader impact as a priest serving a largely Lakota community just outside of the reservation.
“(Her success) has given us permission to make our own way, to try to broaden horizons, to try to push limits,” Paul said. “We all do what we can; it just kind of comes with being in the family.”
Because of her, young girls growing up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation today know they can write books, they can be published, they can be strong and persevere and achieve their dreams. In a sense, her life has come full circle. Now the only number that matters is one, whether it is one non-Native adult who sees a new perspective or the one Native child who reads her stories and has hope for the future.