Originally published in 1996, the children’s picture book Powwow Summer by award-winning poet, playwright and performance artist, Marcie R. Rendon, a White Earth Ojibwe – with photographer Cheryl Walsh Bellville – was rereleased this year in a paperback edition.
The book follows the Downwind family (Ojibway) who live on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota as they attend a series of weekend pow wows.
It is a true story about how parents Sharyl and Windy and their ten children – five natural children and five foster children –pass on their heritage by participating in festivals that include singing, dancing, visiting relatives, and celebrating the circle of life.During the year-long story, the family goes through several ups and downs: Coping with the loss of Windy’s mother, welcoming the birth of a friend’s child, and celebrating the title of “princess” given to their daughter at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school.
ICTMN interviewed Rendon about the rerelease of Powwow Summer.
ICTMN: Did you know what the subject of the book would be before you started and did you know the Downwind family?
Cheryl Walsh Bellville and I knew that we were going to follow a family on the pow wow trail for a year and just tell the story of their life. We didn’t know all the different bits and pieces of it.
I knew Windy and Sharyl, and I knew that they were really active in going to pow wows and that they had this whole family of children that they also took around to all the powwows. So, it was sort of a ready-made mix there.
ICTMN: It’s interesting how many different aspects you were able to bring in because of the family and the foster children.
The foster care piece is one of the things that [made the story] relevant to today. This whole thing that happened with Baby Veronica, and just the whole importance of the ICWA [Indian Child Welfare Act] and how the Downwind family modeled what it’s like to be a Native family caring for Native children and involving the biological family. I could have never thought of that back in 1996.
ICTMN: Is this a book to be read to children or read by them?
One of the things that I try to do with my writing is try to create a picture or a mirror for Native children to see themselves.
At a reading of the book a month ago…a family came in, and they had children probably 4 or 5 years old up to 11. They came to the table and the look on their faces when they saw the book – it was a family from the Mille Lacs Reservation – the little ones were going through the pages saying, “Oh, it’s a grass dancer” or “I did this.” This is why I wrote this book; to get this reaction from the Native children.
I did a talk at my granddaughter’s school about the book, and she’s in fifth grade. At that talk – it’s not just Native students – they were reading it and really getting information about how Native people are today.
ICTMN: You were able to weave in different cultural aspects – traditional and modern – into the story. It seems like it all came together so naturally.
That was one of the reasons that we choose this family because I knew that they participated in ceremonies. There are people who think, “Oh, I dance at powwows. I’m traditional.”
With the Downwind family, there was this involvement in the much larger traditional practice. Not just dancing at pow wows, [but they incorporated] the ceremonies, the feast, the understanding of what you do when somebody passes on, what you do when somebody is born; as we went through the year, those things happened and I got to include them in the story.
ICTMN: Have you spoken to the Downwind children with this new paperback version?
Shian, the princess at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school, is now an adult and I think, right now, [she and her husband] have seven children and not all of them are theirs. There are foster children in there – and so, they continued this whole tradition of bringing in other children to be a part of the family.