Powwow story for children will dance into your heart

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Review by Deborah Locke

The young Ojibwe girl, Josie, wants more than anything to dance for the first time at the summer powwow. This sweet picture book, “Josie Dances,” explains the way Josie’s aunty, grandmother and mother create her powwow outfit while Josie practices the shawl dance.

Persistence and belief pay off. That summer day, Josie steps into the dance arena and is broadly welcomed by her people. She swirls and almost seems to fly, a new and graceful participant at the powwow under the proud gaze of the family that loves her.

I have a great fondness for beautifully illustrated children’s books. Some of the pictures from books in recent years are so striking that they could stand alone as a framed wall hanging. This is one of those books.

Also, I have a fondness for good story telling that teaches American Indian culture and history with its emphasis on strong families, respect for all, caring and preserving natural resources, and the handing down of tradition.

“Josie Dances” hits those marks for excellence as a story that has played out countless times in American Indian families. For those readers who remember their first dance outfit and first powwow arena, expect a triggering of sweet memories.

The book is a good general introduction to powwows for children, showing them that hand-crafted clothes require diligence and work, that when families work toward a common goal, good things happen and that the best parts of Ojibwe culture remain meaningful and even fun. When Josie’s Indian name is spoken from the dance arena, people line up to shake her hand. Her grandmother whispers: “Listen to the drum, the heartbeat of Aki (Mother Earth). You are dancing for the ancestors and all the people that you see.”

The story has a ring of truth because author Denise Lajimodiere (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) based the book on her own daughter’s first powwow dance.

Artist Angela Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) is a pediatrician and started painting with watercolors in high school. Her illustrations are rich with detail, familiarity and nuance.

Take a look at that arena director and you’ll agree that he looks exactly right, from his boots to his beaded vest to his hat. The illustration of Josie about to tuck into an Indian taco will nudge your appetite. In one stunning depiction, Grandma Greatwalker sleeps beneath her star quilt, and we see the objects of her dreams – a family of winged and four-legged creatures who will help Grandma determine Josie’s Indian name.

If you don’t have a child to read this book with, borrow one. Go see your niece or your cousin or the neighbor. Ask the kids to put down their phones and prepare to be dazzled. Let them hear and see and imagine how Josie learns to dance.

“Josie Dances” by Denise Lajimodiere and Angela Erdrich is published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. It will be available in May, 2021 and is ideal for children age 3-7.