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.