The Star in the Cottonwood Tree

Here’s a confession I never thought I’d make on this website — I adore cottonwood trees. (I know this is random. Stay with me. There’s a point here, I promise.)

They’re not a terribly useful tree. The wood isn’t great for building and it’s pretty awful for burning, thanks to its high water content. And cottonwoods send tons of downy fuzz drifting through the summer skies, so they’re kind of a mess.

Cottonwoods are not trees that people are neutral about. You love them or you hate them.

And I love them. I love their height and the way the sun hits the clusters of elegantly pointed leaves. And most of all, I love the way those leaves dance in the breeze. They flutter and rustle and catch the light, humming and lulling me to into silence like running water.

This dance has fascinated me since I was a little girl. I grew up wild among the level farm fields of western Minnesota, a place of wide open spaces, an endless ocean of sky.

Trees were rare. Most were planted in orderly shelter belts designed to block howling prairie winds or as shade trees in my little town. Cottonwoods were rarely among them.

The cottonwoods I found were untamed things. I found them along the river near my grandparents’ farm when I tramped though the woods and growing tall near the lakeshore. They sounded like water and I found them near water.

This correlation was magical to me as a child. Cottonwoods have always seemed special, significant, set apart.

It turns out I’m not the only one who thinks so. Many Native American tribes have stories about the cottonwood tree.

Earlier this month I did a necklace giveaway for a North Dakota-based company called Suzy Starz. Most of owner and designer Susan Beehler’s necklaces include a tiny cutting from the branch of a cottonwood tree, which contains a perfect, naturally occurring star.


This photo is provided by Susan Beehler. You can see another photo of the branch itself in this post.

I love this and immediately wanted to learn all about it. (I’m kind of a nerd like that.) Since I’m not Native American myself, I wanted to find someone to tell us all the story. And I did.

A wonderful reader named Hillary Kempenich referred me to Denise Lajimodiere at NDSU, who told me a little bit about the role that storytelling plays in Native American culture. It’s customary, she said, for those seeking a story to bring a bit of tobacco or a gift to honor both the storyteller and the story.

As a writer and a creative person, this notion seemed both absolutely right and incredibly beautiful. It’s made me think of my own work in a different way and reminded me to express my appreciation for other storytellers in my life. And it’s made me incredibly curious about the tradition of storytelling among my Native American neighbors.

Denise pointed me towards an incredible storyteller, the incomparable Mary Louise Defender Wilson of Porcupine Village, North Dakota.

Ms. Defender Wilson was raised in a family of Dakota/Hidatsa storytellers on the Standing Rock Reservation. She tells her stories both in English and in Dacotah. She’s one of very few Dakota speakers in the state and her work helps preserve this language for future generations.

In 2015, at the age of 85, Ms. Defender Wilson became the first North Dakotan and the first storyteller to receive a $50,000 United States Artist Fellowship. I can’t wait to see how this fellowship nourishes her work.

And I highly suggest that you listen to her story of the cottonwood star, since she tells it much better than I ever could. I don’t have any tobacco to bring to say thank you. I only have my own simple story and my gratitude to give, but I hope that will be enough.

Which wild things capture your imagination? What stories are important to you and your people? What are the landscapes that live in your memory?

Also, I have some happy news for Juana Esparza. Juana, you’ve won your own Suzy Starz necklace! I’ll email you the details this weekend. The next Prairie Style File giveaway is scheduled for February 9th.

Alicia Underlee Nelson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *