Cheryl is Martin’s ten-year-old sister. She is portrayed as a cheerful, loving little girl, far from adulthood. She has no embarrassment over her great-grandfather’s arrival at their home. Indeed, she seems proud to have her friends meet Grandpa. She treasures her Native American heritage. Grandpa also loves her, but it is clear that he does not value her in the same way that he values Martin, whom he sees as the person who must carry on the family and cultural traditions. Sneve’s portrayal of Cheryl, and of her mother, suggests a pattern of patriarchy; that is, a system in which the male members of the family are more powerful and are responsible for the cultural heritage.
Dad is Martin’s father, and Mom’s husband. He is a white man who teaches at the local college. Although he is white, he clearly respects the Native American heritage of his wife and her family. He visits the reservation with his family every summer, and he treats Grandpa with a great deal of kindness and respect. He apologizes to Grandpa for not thinking to bring him home with them after their visit to the reservation in the summer. Although not a well-developed character, Dad is nevertheless an important influence on Martin, because he models acceptance and respect for the elderly man.
Grandpa, whose real name is Joe Iron Shell, is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, the Burnt Thigh Nation, also known as the Rosebud Sioux. This is the same nation that Sneve belongs to. He lives on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, the same place where Sneve grew up. He has traveled a long distance to visit Martin and his family at their home in Iowa. Martin describes him as an old man, with stringy gray hair. He always wears a tall black hat with a feather in it. In addition, he wears baggy pants, a red satin shirt, and a bolo tie (a cord necktie fastened by a clasp, often ornamented with silver). Grandpa always acts with great dignity, greeting people formally in his own language and shaking their hands. He also seems to have a deep sense of the timeliness of events. It becomes clear throughout the story that the reason he has come to Iowa is because he senses his own death approaching. When Martin’s friends come to visit him, he is patient with the young people and answers their questions. As well, he tells them stories from his heritage. Grandpa has a very strong attachment to the traditions of his people and wants to pass these on to Martin. The medicine bag that he wears around his neck is the physical symbol of this idea. Filled with a small piece of iron, a pebble from the butte, and a piece of sacred sage, the medicine bag belonged first to Grandpa’s father, who made it from elk skin in preparation for a vision quest. Grandpa is a very important character in this story, because he is the one who enables Martin to embrace his own heritage.
Hank is Martin’s best friend. He is a very minor character in the story but serves an important purpose. When he visits Martin’s house to meet Grandpa, Martin is able to see his Grandpa through Hank’s eyes. When he realizes how impressed Hank is with Grandpa, Martin realizes that he has nothing to be embarrassed about.
Iron Shell is Grandpa’s father. He is not technically a character in the story, but rather is a character in a story told by Grandpa within ‘‘The Medicine Bag.’’ Iron Shell was a Native American man who lived in the general region of what is now Montana and the Dakotas. As Sneve wrote ‘‘The Medicine Bag’’ in 1975, and the story seems contemporary with the writing, it is possible to make some guesses, based on the clues she provides, concerning the chronology of events and ages of the characters. For example, since at the time of the story, Grandpa is eighty-six years old, Grandpa must have been born around 1889. Consequently, it is possible to surmise that Iron Shell must have been a young man around 1880, and certainly would have been alive during the last of the great Indian wars fought in Montana and the Dakotas, ending with the Massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890. Grandpa notes that Iron Shell was a member of the Teton Lakota, and that it was in his generation that the Lakota were forced to live on reservations.
Iron Shell’s importance to the story is great, as he is the ancestor who valued the ancient, honored traditions of his people despite the degradation he and his people suffered. He decided to go on a vision quest, a spiritual journey to find guidance for his life. He created the medicine bag in preparation for his vision quest, and while on the quest had a dream of iron. In addition, he found a small shell of an iron pot, which he put in his medicine bag. When he told his dream and experiences to the elders of the tribe, they gave him the name Iron Shell, which he passed on to his son. In addition, Iron Shell is important to this story, because he introduces the topic Indian boarding schools, where young Native Americans were forced to attend to learn English and white customs. That he was able to pass on cultural traditions to his son Joe Iron Shell, Martin’s great-grandfather, suggests that he was a very strong individual.
Joe Iron Shell
Martin is the narrator and the protagonist, or main character, of this story. He is a young man, probably thirteen or fourteen years old, just on the verge of manhood. He is like most other young American boys, and he lives in what appears to be a white suburban neighborhood in Iowa. Although his mother is Native American, his father is white. Even though he visits the Rosebud Reservation every summer, during the rest of the year, he appears to live as a white boy rather than as a Native American.
Although Martin loves his Grandpa, he is very embarrassed by his appearance and odd ways. He does not want his friends to see Grandpa or to be associated with him in public. Most of all, he does not want to have to wear the medicine bag around neck. He considers it a dirty piece of leather, and he imagines how the other boys will make fun of him when he gets undressed in gym class, with the pouch around his neck.
Martin, however, is a rounded character, and Sneve allows him to grow throughout the story. He soon comes to value his Grandpa, particularly after his friends come to visit and he sees how much they respect the old man and his stories. As a result, when Grandpa asks to speak to Martin alone, Martin listens carefully to the story about Grandpa’s father, the first Iron Shell, and he gracefully accepts the medicine bag that his Grandpa gives to him.
In the last paragraph of the story, Martin returns to the reservation and does as his great-grandfather has instructed: he picks a piece of sacred sage and places it in the bag. This act signals that he has embraced the customs and traditions of his Native American heritage, and that he wants to honor the memory of his Grandpa.
Mom is Martin’s mother, and Grandpa’s granddaughter. She is a Native American woman who has married a white man and moved off the reservation. Her character is not well developed. She clearly loves her grandfather, who also loves her, but it seems evident that she is not valued the way a male would be. Nevertheless, she welcomes her grandfather in her home and she cares for him while he lives with the family. In addition, her return to the reservation with her children every summer suggests that Mom holds her Native American heritage precious, and that she wants her children to know their own traditions and background.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.