Children's Books

THE NIGHT THE GRANDFATHERS DANCED, written by Linda Theresa Raczek, illustrated by Katalin Olah Ehling. Northland Publishing, P.O. Box 1389, Flagstaff, AZ 86002-1389, (800) 346-3257, (800) 257-9082 FAX. Northland also has a line of southwestern design T-shirts and other gifts. Illustrated, author's note. 32 pp., $14.95 cloth. 0- 87358-610-7. Ages 7 - 10

This Ute Mountain Ute tale is told from the perspective of Autumn Eyetoo, who is to dance in her first Bear Dance. She wears her finest clothes and a ceremonial shawl, but she can't find a partner. When she approaches, all the boys her age run away. On a dare, she approaches a group of elders and swishes her shawl to brush one, the Ute way of asking him to dance with her. The absorbing story, accompanied by Ehling's harmonious batik illustrations in yellows and greens, marks a promising debut for both author and illustrator. Grade: A-. Reviewed by Steve Brock

A Second Look: I agree that the illustrations are handsome and the story is absorbing -- yet I feel that there are some puzzling and anxiety-causing features of this book. Why the boys shy away from the young girl, for example. This really isn't the way our kids behave at dances -- where we have drum and dance groups, and where there's powwows that are attended by lots of kids with their families, all the kids dance, they learn the dances and are encouraged to do so by all adults and all their peers. If this book were read by children, some adult explanation might be called for, but I didn't know what to say to a couple 12-year-old girls I asked to read this for me.

In our dances up north, there isn't the tradition (that some southwest tribes, such as Dine peoples) have of a woman asking a man to dance, or male - female dance partners. Everybody just gets out there and dances.

This story seemed to me to foster a certain shyness about dancing, and an emphasis that what's important is having the right regalia, rather than the feeling of joy in dancing that seems so natural to children of all ages in Indian schools or in drum - dance groups for young people. The general idea in this book is that elder men took the lead in showing boys they should dance, overcoming the boys' shyness about this. But this shyness isn't something I've seen in children's dance groups or at powwows except as described below here. I also wonder if the "woman asks a man to dance" tradition (which we don't have around here) is an appropriate one for the very young girl who can't find a "partner" because aren't those pair dances part of the snaggin' tradition? My young reviewers commented "she's too young for snaggin' and so are the boys!" So it seems to me this book would puzzle kids who are already into an Indian tradition of music and dance in their communities, perhaps causing anxieties about dancing.

Of lesser importance, it gives a wrong picture to kids who aren't into that tradition. It seems more like a non-Indian "tradition" where young girls get into dancing and flirting more quickly than boys, because they mature more quickly, so at something like a 6th-grade school (non-Indian) dance, you see the girls all out on the floor dancing, the boys all alongside the walls hanging back. That's not the way it is at dances held at Indian schools, nor general (non-competition) dances at powwows. It's as if the author took a social problem that exists for white kids and imposed an Indian background and art over it.

The book actually caused feelings of sadness, because I've often seen young girls from distrupted families at powwows who don't have any relatives to make dance regalia for them. At school, where all the kids just dance for fun as the drum group sings at the end of assemblies, they're great fancydancers, wearing jeans, shabby tennies and T-shirts which are their everyday clothes. During the powwow dancing, they watch sadly from the sidelines. Boys from such families who at school are vigorous and happy dancers in their everyday clothes are off making trouble and running around. Where this is happening (it happens everywhere, I think) it's important to get a crafts group, making dance regalia for the kids, going, which means raising money to buy materials and items like feathers and jingles -- and danc moccasins (expensive) -- to make outfits for every child, so no one is left out, feeling they can't participate, because their relatives are unable to help them get regalia together. It's also important that elders explain the regalia and the meanings of dances to the kids. All of this is part of the function of community or school drum and dance groups. The book left me feeling sad and upset, that there is a real story behind it -- poverty and family disruptions -- very hard on the kids in every way, including many feeling left out at joyful occasions through lack of supportive relatives. But the author missed that story altogether and told a trivial one instead, with a false solution to a false problem that was overlaid on a real problem: poverty and family disruptions, which affects the lives of the young generations. Reviewed by Paula Giese

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Monday, March 11, 1996 - 11:37:17 AM