Writing and teaching have been the lifework of Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve. Her stories come from childhood experiences on the Rosebud Reservation. Sneve attended BIA day schools and graduated from St. Mary’s High School for Indian Girls in Springfield. She then studied at South Dakota State University in Brookings, graduating in 1954 and earning a master’s in education in 1969. When she retired from teaching and counseling in Rapid City in 1995, it created more time for writing.
Sneve has written more than 25 books, numerous short stories, articles and poems meant to shine a positive and accurate light on Native Americans. “I think my experience working with both Native and non Native children gave me a little better insight into how there are cultural differences even now,” she says.
Her most recent book, Sioux Women: Traditionally Sacred, shows how important Native women are to their tribes, communities and families. She begins with the story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, a legendary figure who considered women sacred because they gave life to the tribe. Although they did not have an active voice in tribal council, women still had influence. “Sioux men could have more than one wife, and often did,” Sneve says. “Women could persuade the men how they would like things to be. It’s kind of a silent influence, but it’s always been there.”
Sioux Women includes photos of early Native women, though they were difficult to find. “There just aren’t that many,” Sneve laments. “When Europeans first contacted the tribes it was men that did it, so they focused on the men of the tribe and the women were in the background. They assumed women didn’t have much of a role.” More recent depictions of “women warriors” were easier to obtain — like Marcella LeBeau, an army nurse in World War II, or writer and scholar Elizabeth Cook Lynn. “She’s been really active in the Rapid City community to promote Native American affairs. It has often led to controversy, but she goes right for it,” Sneve says.
Lower profile women aren’t absent from her story. “Women have always worked together in raising children and taking care of families ... And women adapted easier to reservation life because their role didn’t change that much.” They often became their family’s steadying center — especially after the introduction of alcohol, which Sneve says has been disastrous for many. “I tell how Native women have realized they are going to have to take care of their own kind. So we have organizations like the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society at Rosebud that watches over and offers shelter to abused women and children. They’re offering counseling, treatment and benefits that women wouldn’t be able to have unless they did it for themselves,” she explains.
Sneve hopes that when young Native girls read her book they’re inspired to tell their own stories. “We still need Native American writers, so I’m always hopeful that what I do encourages that.”