The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour by Dawn Dumont

It’s 1975 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (Canada), and John Greyeyes, of the Cree tribe, is just trying to live his life. He has his dog, his horses, and his solitude. But John’s brother, Chief of their reservation, lets our protagonist know that the Prairie Chicken Dance troupe has all come down with the shits after eating some sketchy food. But they can’t miss the big European tour scheduled, for the Chief has made promises to the National Indian Brotherhood and has his sights set higher than Chief. Though he hasn’t danced in over a decade, John agrees to his brother’s pleas for help. But who will make up the rest of the dance troupe?

In one way, Dawn Dumont’s (she/her) novel is like a humorous quest. Step one: gather some passable dancers, even if one is a boy-crazy teen, one is an arthritic and crotchety woman approaching forty, and one has experience but keeps disappearing. Step two: hit all the stops on the tour on the correct dates, including dance festivals in Sweden, Germany, and Rome. Step three: make enough money to fly home. Of course, all of these steps are mixed up and challenged — a hijacking to protest the imprisonment of Angela Davis, old sex affairs, impersonations, taking stole goods out of the country, and a high chase from the troupe’s actual manager, who is damned if she’s going to miss her own tour, even if she spends most of it nearly crapping her pants.

Although the book is funny, it’s also about how other cultures view the Cree dancers. In Germany hoards of white people not that far in the future from Nazis dress up as Natives as seen on television. John and others are revered, though not in a good way. In Rome, tugs on their braids and questions about scalping plague them, even as they’re swarmed like The Beatles . And John is just trying to hold it together while leaving a good impression:

Lucas came along willingly enough though John had no idea how his peyote-laden charge was going to dance two solos and take turns at the hand-drum without making a fool of himself, the Prairie Chicken dance troupe, and all the Crees in Saskatchewan.

Because I grew up with Ojibwe (or, Saginaw Chippewa) people, I saw powwow dances frequently and had been taught about the varieties mentioned in Dumont’s novel, like fancy dancing and straight dancing, shawl dancing and jingle dancing. I could picture the regalia (not clothes), too. The hand-drum is familiar to me, as is the sound of the singing Dumont describes in her novel. If you haven’t see these dances or regalia, consider search for some images or videos online; while the author describes the twirls and beats, it’s best to see dancing in motion.

Given the year in which the novel is set, there is also an undercurrent of Canada’s shameful history: tribal children taken away to residential schools. While most folks remember the humiliation and fear, one member of the Prairie Chicken dance troupe believes the regimented Catholic training made her a better person, and arguments ensue about the role of Christian missionaries in tribal people’s lives, past and present. Dumont’s novel isn’t about the residential schools, but is smart to include their influence on her characters.

It’s a little over the top, but The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour is both meaningful and funny as seen through the eyes of different narrators whose diverse perspectives bring something unique to the novel.

21 comments

  1. Sounds like quite the entertaining novel. My dad used to take me to powwows all the time when I was young and I loved every second of it. I don’t remember anyone being butt holes but I was also probably not paying attention at that age.
    Rob is supposedly Native American but his family makes stuff up so much, we’ll have to do a DNA test to find out. (Which, Dani got me a DNA test for Christmas but that one is for me damnit!)

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  2. This sounded interesting when I read Anne’s review and I’m even more intrigued now, hearing about it again. When I visited Germany I noticed a weird fascination there with Native American history. Not that it’s weird to be interested but the things they focused on seemed very stereotypical and borderline racist, as if Indigenous people were mythical creatures.

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      • The dressing up thing felt weird to me because that would never be acceptable where I live. It felt like honest enjoyment and admiration but expressed in a way that we’ve agreed in North America is not ok. I will have to read this.

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  3. That would be interesting to go to a pow-wow. I don’t think I’ve seen one except in a cowboy movie when I was a kid (and that was probably all white actors in paint).
    Australian Lit Bloggers over the last decade, as you will have seen of course, have been trying to represent Indigenous writers respectfully, and as they would wish. I’m interested that you don’t say Dawn Dumont is a Cree woman – and perhaps of such and such sub-group or location.

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    • I don’t know if you’re familiar at all with the music genre dubstep, but they definitely remind me of dubstep in rhythm. They’re also incredibly loud! (you can YouTube Ojibwe powwow for an example). The dancing is so cool. People aren’t always in step together, but you can see how the moves are similar. I’m simply speaking as an observer, of course, but I enjoy the way it’s not so straight-as-a-pin perfectly coordinated like the Rockettes, or something, which I find slightly terrifying it its uniformity.

      As for not writing that Dumont is Cree: I think it was around 2019 that I stopped giving an author’s nationality, race, etc. because so many authors have multiple identities or have moved. I started to feel like I was more interested in demonstrating that I read non-white authors as opposed to just focusing on the author’s book. I added Jhumpa Lahiri as an Indian author once, and someone called me out in this because Lahiri was born in London and has lived in the U.S. since she was three. Her parents are both from India, but there I was, called out for saying she’s Indian. Thus, I don’t track or label authors in that way anymore.

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  4. This sounds like a lot of fun (though I am with Liz in being disappointed that it’s not available here! Maybe I’ll put it on my interlibrary loans list. They seem to be able to find pretty much anything).

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  5. I love that you contacted Freehand to get the ability to read this book -huzzah!!! I’m so excited you read it and enjoyed it. It is over the top (the hijacking definitely made me roll my eyes) but I think that’s why I enjoyed it so much. I like that you pointed out the residential school references too. Although it’s not the point of the story, from what I understand, it does play a role in every Canadian indigenous person’s life somehow, and to leave it out would seem inaccurate in a way.

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    • Yes, the schools aren’t the point, but the affect all the adults characters, which I enjoyed seeing played out. The way the aunt was appreciative for the school whereas the main character was not and saw them as abusive. Sometimes I forget that a situation that seems like a no brainer to me is more complex that I allow.

      The highjacking of a plane to free Angela Davis actually happened! She was a fugitive and then the FBI found her. They were trying to say she was part of a murder because guns belonging to her were used in a murder. She was in prison, like, 18 months while held for trial.

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