POWWOW: IMAGES ALONG THE RED ROAD, Photos by Ben Marra, text by the people portrayed; Harry N. Abrams Company, 100 5th Avenue, NYC 10011; New York, 1996; 112 pages, many color photos, $16.95. 0-8109- 2680-6 (Also available from Ben Marra, via his website or call 800-624-1940.)

A review should on some occasions cut to the chase. Buy this unique and beautiful book for your school library (any age), yourself, gifts. You can see some photos and some of what the dancers said on Ben Marra's powwow web page. With his permission, I chose a few of young people and what they said for my Fancy Powwow Outfits beadwork section page.

These give a good idea of the wonderful contents, so here I'll say a few other things. First, a book of portraits of people in full powwow regalia: close up, clear, relaxed, and talking (or a grandma does for a little one) about the meanings of it and their culture is unusual, unique. We've all probably got little collections of photos we took ourselves of Uncle leading the Grand entry, Sister in her jingledress, etc. Nobody has any like this, though. These are the work of a lifelong pro photographer, who -- together with his wife -- was able to put people at ease and capture character and meanings that work with what the people say to create an integrated work of art: this book that is accessible to anyone from little children to busy city folk, who don't really know what a powwow is.

Linda Marra told me almost all the portraits were taken within a 5- minute set-up period, in improvised "studios", set up somewhere close enough to the dance arenas for the dancers to move on, but a little out of the way. The portraits are all against a plain brown backdrop/floor. All attention is on the people. Linda interviewed the people for the moving, interesting, and culturally informative statments by each (or parents or grandparents of the littlest ones). Help -- introductions to the people, encouragement, philosophy -- was provided by Bernie Whitebear (Colville), Executive Director of Indians of All Tribes; the staff of Iw'asil Youth Program in Seattle (who put on a number of the powwows over the years), and Bob Eaglestaff (Lakota), principal of the American Indian Heritage High School.

Tuscarora Richard W. Hill, Sr. (Native American Studies, State University of New York, Buffalo) contributes an interesting preface, which is a good content for most of this review. He explains "I almost came to resent the powwow" as a sort of tourist fabrication, a "minstrel show" put on mostly for white culture-consumers. "But the power of the drum is just too much for me to resist....The powwow has now spread from coast to coast, and while some see it as a pan-Indian fabrication, I now see it serves as a vital catalyst for cultural renewal."

"Magic happens when individuals take the time to make the beadwork and bustles, learn the songs and steps, and personally step forward to express themselves through their dances....The powwow has become our light in a very dark world."

"These photographs are a testimony to those individuals who make the powwow magic. They are the human element behind the tradition, the real people who keep it all going. They may be construction workers, computer operators, students, or blackjack dealers during the week. On weekends, the ageless drum calls again, not to help them relive their cultural past, but to celebrate their real existence in the world. It is the dancers' faces in these photographs that speak to me the loudest, despite their quiet demeanor. They tell me of themselves, determined and honor-bound to keep the dancing traditions alive."

Another preface, by Nez Perce elder Horace Axtell, leader of the Seven Drum Religion on the reservation, is more philosophical -- and practical, too:

"We try to follow in the footsteps of our elders, who cleared the way for us with clean minds, hearts, and bodies....They prayed for our welfare, but their foresight could not cover such problems of today as drugs and alcohol. So, in order to keep the Red Road clean and good, we must be strong followers of our Indian ways. We must help all concerned in the war against drug and alcohol problems, which threaten to destroy our youth today. That is why our powwows are kept free of drugs and alcohol....We can enjoy the Red Road with dignity as it was intended."

Marra attended his first powwow 8 years ago by chance -- seeing some dancers while biking, and later arranging to improvise portrait photos at a school powwow. "When we looked at the results of that night's work, we discovered I had recorded more than just colorful images or fabulous outfits. I had recorded a sense of a people's spirituality, dignity, and proud identity...a glimpse of history and heritage. We had been allowed to make art in response to it."

And so he was, and so this is. There is little for the reviewer to say, here, beyond declaring that this book is a must-have for anyone of any age who has any kind of interest in Native American people. (Marra has some pretty nice photo calendars too.)

--Paula Giese

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Last Updated: Saturday, September 21, 1996 - 6:58:34 AM