The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich, describes a year in the life of Omakayas, a Ojibwa girl living on Moningwanaykaning, an island in Lake Superior.
In the prologue, a crew of men find a baby girl, the only survivor of a smallpox epidemic, on Spirit Island. The main story begins by introducing Omakayas as a seven year old girl living with her family: her mother, Yellow Kettle, her beautiful old sister, Angeline, and Grandma Nokomis. She also has an annoying younger brother, Pinch, a sweet baby brother Neewo, her father, Deydey, and family friend, Old Tallow.
It is summer and Omakayas has responsibilities around the house, including building the birchbark house and scraping and tanning the moose hide for makazins. One afternoon she is able to avoid her daunting chores by picking up a pair of scissors from Old Tallow, an important woman in the community. Old Tallow treats Omakayas differently than the other children and ensures her safety against her vicious dogs. As Omakayas heads down the path towards home, she encounters two bear cubs and a mother bear. The mother bear does not hurt her, and Omakayas believes they have communicated and understand each other somehow.
Omakayas loves Baby Neewo and hopes to be the one to name him; the people on the island who can give names have not dreamed up a name for him yet. Omakayas spends time with Baby Neewo, as her mother and grandmother head into the village to listen for news about Deydey. Omakayas takes him outside, shares her candy with him, and gives him a stick to play with. She believes that this is the best day of Neewo’s life.
In the fall, Deydey sits with his friends Fishtail and LaPautre to discuss how the white people are moving farther and farther west into Ojibwa land. The men disagree about whether they should move; Deydey believes the white men will never be satisfied.
It is time for the family to harvest the wild rice in Kakagon. They return home with a small portion and now need to prepare other foods to eat during winter; the family guts and dries fish, corn, and venison. Nokomis prays and blesses the food before the rough winter. Nokomis shows interest in Omakayas and asks if the plants are talking to her. When Omakayas says no, Nokomis encourages her to learn to listen to them.
Winter, even in the cabin, is very cold. The grownups discuss travel routes west and others come to visit almost every day. One visitor enters the dance lodge and shortly after arriving, dies of smallpox. The next few days everyone watches for signs of the sickness. Six days later, Angeline gets sick. The family is divided up in an effort to contain the disease. However, Yellow Kettle, Neewo, and Deydey become sick too, and Omakayas goes back into the house to help Nokomis take care of the family. Omakayas holds Baby Neewo through the night and continues to hold him as he dies. Her father, also sick, wakes in the middle of the night, ready to wander out into the cold. Omakayas hits her father over the head with a piece of wood hoping this will keep him alive.
All except Neewo recover from the smallpox. Omakayas comes down with a different fever and becomes depressed over the death of her brother. The brutal winter continues as the family consumes all of the food they had stored in the fall. The family is recovering so slowly and Deydey did not have strength to hunt. Grandma Nokomis dreams of a deer and sends Deydey to find it. The next day Deydey finds the great buck and kills it with one shot. The family is finally able to eat a good meal.
Omakayas leaves to collect wood and sees her bear brothers. She warns the bears of danger from humans and asks them to teach her about their medicines. She returns to tell her grandmother who is very pleased and proud of Omakayas. Later Old Tallow brings Nokomis deer bones to share. While the bones are cooking, Tallow sits with Omakayas and tells the story of Omakayas when she was very little. Old Tallow tells her that she rescued Omakayas from a different island and gave her to Yellow Kettle and Deydey. It is apparent that Omakayas is the baby girl from the prologue. Old Tallow believes that the purpose of Omakayas being with her family was to help nurse them when they came down with smallpox.