The Gift of Handkerchiefs

2 October 2019

I am delighted that my book The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood is back in print. This book tells just one story from my childhood on an American Indian reservation in the 1930s and 1940s, and it contains some traditions that might not be familiar to most of today’s children—though I am happy that my mother’s message of generosity is still customary for this time of year.

By the time of this particular story, the Lakotas were acquainted with the celebration of this special holiday.  It was a continuation of my peoples’ custom of sharing with the whole family. Gift-giving was symbolic and helped us stay connected in a changing world. Candy and fruit given to children showed them they were a treasured part of our community, and when I was young, adults were given handkerchiefs. The reason is not entirely clear. Perhaps it was a pragmatic one. Winter colds with coughing and sneezing into the air, into hands, or onto garments spread germs and disease; so, missionaries encouraged the use of handkerchiefs. Another practical use was that the hanky could serve as a little bag for women who no longer had their traditional leather pouches—now coins, hard candy or tobacco were tied into the cloth square. Or maybe the hanky was simply an inexpensive item that Christian missionaries could afford, as well being used as a tree decoration. Something else I was told is that the hankies were a visible symbol of God’s love that was freely given to a people who gave up so much for a new way of life.

—Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve

 


The image detail at top is from an illustration by Ellen Beier for The Christmas Coat.