Here in Canada we are lucky to have a rich publishing landscape of Indigenous voices, and the numbers are only increasing. In fact, many books on the current and previous bestseller lists are Indigenous writers. I don’t see the same representation in American publishing, and I heard the Native American writer Tommy Orange speak when he was here in Calgary, and he echoed the same thoughts – the U.S.A. publishing industry has a long way to go in properly representing this population. With this in mind, I’m always excited to pick up Native American authored books, so I requested Calling For a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah as soon as I saw it in the catalogue. It speaks of trauma and hope, a common theme in many books by Indigenous folks.

Plot Summary

Written in the style of a collection of short stories, each chapter is written from the perspective of one member of the extended Geimausaddle Family, each within a specific year. The stories are spread cross the generations, beginning with the matriarch Lena in 1976, and ending with her grandchild, Ever in 2013. There is (thankfully) a family tree at the beginning of the book, which I referred to often. This family is of mixed heritage; Cherokee, Mexican, and other indigenous tribes that weave in among these as more people are absorbed into this family’s circle. The majority of the stories take place on reserves, while violence, drug abuse, petty crime and poverty are a common thread throughout. Some kids manage to escape these harmful influences, while others fall headfirst into them. The book ends with a blanket dance. For those who don’t know (and I just looked this up myself) a blanket dance is part of a traditional powwow, meant to raise money for those who travelled there; a blanket is spread out, and people are asked to drop cash on the blanket for the recipient. Ever’s story ends with a blanket dance held in support of him and his four kids; he is a single father struggling to make ends meet, and the generosity of his community is a beacon of hope in his complicated and difficult life.

My Thoughts

Most books by Indigenous authors today deal in some way or another with trauma. This is an un-escapable fact, and I think it’s unfair of us white people (settlers) to expect otherwise seeing how fresh many of these racist laws governing them were. It isn’t until very recently that Native and Indigenous rights have come to the forefront of society’s conscience, and we still have a long way to go. These unfair and destructive policies are reflected in the pain this book’s characters are working through. And like many small towns in America, meth is a problem in this book too, destroying the lives and livelihoods of people of all ages. Despite this sadness, I love and continue to search out books about these populations because even though they depict a horror I can really only imagine, the beauty that is also depicted resonates with all kinds of readers. In this book, hope is found in the overlooked places; the exhausted mother who reads to her kids through her falling eyelids, the adoption of a foster child with violent tendencies, the supportive sister-in-law who does late-night pick ups after work. Kind and loving deeds counteract the harmful situations and destructive actions, even if they are harder to find.

Hokeah’s writing also acts as a balm against these painful circumstances, which help balance out the harrowing scenes depicted in this book. His description of a man struggling with alcoholism is as poignant as the repurposing of salt shakers as an act of defiance:

“A full whiskey bottle was as light as air. Real easy to lift to my lips. An empty? It weighed like a mountain…”

-Calling for a Blanket Dance, p. 33

“…the U.S. government didn’t allow us to practice our culture. The only thing we had were government rations called commodities, and in those commodities were tin salt and pepper shakers. Most looked at them and saw salt and pepper shakers, but we looked at them through Kiowa eyes and we saw gourd dance rattles…When Kiowas danced with rattles made from tin salt and pepper shakers, it was a proud act of resistance.”

-Calling for a Blanket Dance, p. 61

The above quotes were both taken from the same chapter and the same man. Many characters (especially the men) embodied both pain and hope. Women seem to take the brunt of abuse and neglect in this book, left to pick up the pieces and take care of the kids the men abandon, while the male characters are described in often contradictory terms. Ever is an aggressive young man, dangerous even, but he grows to be a stable parent in his own time.

This was a heart-wrenching read that I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed when I came to the end. Witnessing this family’s pain is difficult, but rejoicing in their wins overshadowed the suffering they rose from as well. I highly recommend this book for all those reasons, but especially for my fellow Canadians as we continue on our journey to Truth and Reconciliation.

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