Meet Kaya

Published in 2002; author Janet Shaw; illustrators Bill Farnsworth and Susan McAliley


Kaya'aton'my, who goes by Kaya, lives in what will become the area that we know today as southeast Washington, northeast Oregon, and the lower panhandle of Idaho, but in 1764, none of North America was part of the United States. Kaya is Nimíipuu, today called the Nez Perce, and spends much of her time with her father Toe-ta, mother Eetsa, older sister Brown Deer, four-year-old twin brothers Wing Feather and Sparrow, and adopted sister Speaking Rain. She and her mother and siblings are traveling to where her father is fishing at a salmon run with other Nimíipuu men (the Nimíipuu are a nomadic hunter-gatherer society). Her grandparents are there too. Kaya's excited to show off her new horse, Steps High. She thinks Steps High is the best horse there could be, but also tries to listen to her mother's admonishment to not boast. As they reach their destination, Kaya is charged with watching her younger brothers--Eetsa and Brown Deer need to unpack, and Speaking Rain is blind, so the task falls to Kaya. At the fishing camp, Kaya gets talked into racing her horse against another boy's. She gets lost because Steps High isn't trained well enough yet for racing. As she's finding her way back, Kaya suddenly remembers her brothers. When she finds Speaking Rain, the boys have run off from her.

Fortunately, Kaya and Speaking Rain find the boys and they're safe. But because of Kaya's carelessness, she must be punished. And that means all the other children will be, too. The Whip Woman, an elder appointed to carry out punishments, gives all the children a switching across the backs of their legs and then reprimands Kaya's thoughtlessness as something even magpie wouldn't do, prompting several of the children to start calling her Magpie. Kaya's grandmother tells her to learn from the nickname, that each time she hears it should strengthen her resolve to never act so rashly, and as Kaya becomes an adult the nickname will fade.

Kaya tries to heed her grandmother's advice, though the taunts of the other children sting. She's able to put it aside shortly after when the tribe holds a large ceremonial dance. Her sister is old enough to court, and Kaya thinks she should choose Cut Cheek, a handsome young man who is also a good hunter and fisherman. Kaya describes what's happening during the courtship dance ritual to Speaking Rain, and both are happy when Cut Cheek seeks out Brown Deer and she accepts.

The next day Kaya and Speaking Rain ride out on Steps High to the river to look for their grandmother's knife. When they get near where their grandmother thinks she left it, Speaking Rain waits by some berry bushes while Kaya searches. Speaking Rain starts picking berries, and gets close to the steep bank of the river without realizing it. Kaya tries to warn her, but the dirt under Speaking Rain's feet crumbles and she falls into the fast-moving river. Kaya urges Steps High into a gallop is is able to overtake Speaking Rain and ride into the river to catch her before she's swept away. Her father, who heard Kaya cry out, arrives in time to see the rescue. One of the boys who was teasing Kaya saw too, and it restores some of the respect he'd lost for her.

The book ends with Kaya reflecting on all the commotion of the last few days. She knows that soon she'll be an adult, and hopes she can be a strong and courageous leader. To do so, she knows she'll have to earn that respect and not just boast to feel important. She also knows she can make that happen.

Looking Back

The historical sections is about the Nimíipuu culture. One important facet was (and I think is?) oral tradition, passing down history and stories with the spoken word. When Kaya was growing up, she wouldn't have had much interaction with European settlers. There was some impact though: the domestic horse is from Europe, and so are diseases like smallpox. But European immigrants and their descendants started exploring more west, most notably with the Lewis and Clark expedition. Kaya would have been 50 when the group met the Nimíipuu tribe in the winter of 1805, a meeting which probably saved the explorers from starvation. But as more settlers arrived, the Nimíipuu and other tribes were forced to assimilate into a new culture. Children were sometimes essentially kidnapped and made to attend boarding schools where they weren't allowed to speak their native languages and were coerced into abandoning their culture. The Nimíipuu are still in America today as the Nez Perce, some on reservations and some not. Many do what they can to reclaim and preserve their culture.


This book is dedicated to "the Nez Perce girls and boys, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, unto the seventh generation."

"Kaya" is pronounced "KY-yah."

I remember when Kaya was first introduced. There was a lot of talk about how the doll would have a closed mouth, because showing teeth would have been offensive in her culture. Yet Kaya has an opened-mouth smile on the cover of this book.

Kaya's four-year-old brothers still nap. My older daughter stopped that about age two, but I shouldn't complain because I myself stopped napping around my first birthday.

I'm from the Pacific Northwest too, the Seattle area specifically. I like college football, and cheer for the UW Huskies. UW's rival is the WSU Cougars. What's my point? Kaya should be worried about mountain lions, or pumas, or catamounts (yes, that's a legitimate word). Not Cougars. Ugh.

While European disease certainly took their toll on the indigenous populations of the Americas, there was a whole series of deadly epidemics that started in the 1500s, including what researchers now think was a strain of Hanta virus that acted like the Ebola virus that ravaged parts of Central America. Due to a combination of illnesses from around the world, it's estimated that 90% of the original inhabitants of what would become the east coast of the United States died before most of the European settlers arrived, and the depopulation spread west from there.

For some very interesting perspective on whether Kaya is a respectful portrayal of a young Native American girl, check out this website. It also points out some factual errors. One of the things it mentions is that while the Looking Back section says the name Nez Perce comes from French fur traders thinking the people wore seashells through their noses, it was actually a reference to the way they would pierce the septa of their horses' noses so the animals could breathe deeper and therefore run longer.

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