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Pow Wows in Literature: Books That Offer a Look Inside the World of the Pow Wow

A roundup of pow wow books for those who want to know more.

Those interested in learning more about pow wows during the off-season might like to do a little reading on the subject during the dark months. Books on the contemporary pow wow range from children’s primers that explain the basic elements of and reasons for pow wows, to coffee-table books that showcase dancers. Here are some standouts that could make good last-minute gifts.

Long Powwow Nights / Mawio’mi Amasiwula’kwl: Iskewsis ... Dear Mother/Iskewsis ... Nkij (Red Deer Press, 2009) by David Bouchard and Pam Aleekuk, both Métis; illustrations by Leonard Paul, Micmac; music by Buffy Sainte-Marie, Cree, with a CD in English and Micmac. Micmac translation by Patsy Paul-Martin (Micmac). Also in French.

It’s the rare writer who starts out with the assumption that the reader knows about pow wows and dives directly into participants’ lives. One may not know going in that it takes great physical stamina to be a fancy dancer or that the dance imitates a butterfly, but he or she will come to understand this during Long Powwow Nights. Every woman, regardless of culture, wants to be like the mother in Long Powwow Nights, and every boy wants to grow up as her son did: From his single mom he learns humility, perseverance, strength, courage and trust while he drinks in the thrills and magic of pow wow.

“We lived for the pow wow,” her son says. We learn that for 20 years his mother was the best fancy dancer, and that he watched and learned from the male dancers through those long pow wow nights.

The narrative unfolds fairly slowly because of the refrain after each verse—not unlike the repetition in beloved, 10,000-year-old stories. Repeated stanzas and rhymed verses add comfort and familiarity, lightening up this melancholy tale. A bonus: The lead author, a 2010 recipient of the Order of Canada for his literacy work, reads the book on David Bouchard’s Channel 99 (YouTube) as the camera lingers on each illustration. Bouchard also teaches a bit of Micmac. Words like mawio’mi and migwitch (“thank you”) hark back to the basic human need to gather with family and friends as well as express gratitude as a way of healing. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s eerie pow wow song comes in at the end; her vocals summarize and accentuate the boy’s feelings.

Mildred Noble (Ojibwe) may be best known for Sweet Grass, about several contemporary Native women in Massachusetts. But after retiring in the 1990s, she penned this now out-of-print (though worth hunting down) little gem, Jason’s Story, illustrated by Russell Peters Jr., Mashpee Wampanoag. Jason explains that he is 12, that his parents moved east to attend college, and that their work as a nurse and a computer programmer, combined with their student loans, have kept the family from moving back. Jason writes about “going home” for pow wow, a familiar pilgrimage for millions of Indian people in the United States. For context Jason tells us, “Mom gave us history lessons as we drove along ... so I am just passing this information on to you guys.”

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Drumbeat ... Heartbeat, a Celebration of the Powwow (Lerner Publishing, 1995)was written and photographed by Susan Braine, Assiniboine/Hunkpapa Sioux, as part of the “We Are Still Here: Native Americans Today” Lerner series for young readers. “If you gain nothing more from this book than an appreciation that some things in life are good, I will consider it successful,” Braine writes.

Drumbeat takes readers through everything pow wow, explaining why people dance, the meaning of the word pow wow, the dance styles, the purpose of the honor guard, the order of the people in grand entry, the purpose of giveaways, the sacredness of the drum and even the meaning of “49’ers” songs. Great for a beginner or anyone who wants to learn about Northern Plains pow wows.

Jingle Dancer (Morrow Junior Books, 2000) by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Creek, is like Braine’s book, but with a curriculum guide—a boon for teachers frustrated by the dearth of Native studies materials.

Ben Marra’s well known photographs have come to define the contemporary look of pow wow and are now in Faces from the Land: Twenty Years of Powwow Tradition (Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2009). Linda Marra’s text, a personal look at each dancer, keeps this classic vital.

In Heartbeat of the People: Music and Dance of the Northern Pow Wow (University of Illinois, 2004), Tara Browner, Oklahoma Choctaw, interviews members of two pow wow families—one Lakota and one Anishinaabeg—to bring the technical descriptions to life.

Interest in the intergenerational effects of residential schools is surging, making The Art of Tradition: Sacred Music, Dance and Myth of Michigan’s Anisinaabe, 1946–1955 by Gertrude Kurath et al. (Michigan State University Press, 2009), a collection of recordings and photos of the Ojibwe and Odawa at pow wow, worth a look.