It recalls Sharon Butala’s love of the prairie, reverence for the land.
It brings to mind Lee Maracle’s focus on relationships between women, love and friendship and sustenance.
And it reminds me of Louise Erdrich’s unflinching consideration of violence against women and the world.
But Alanda Greene’s Napi’s Dance has a spirit all its own. Her prose is controlled and measured; it is like a slow intake of breath, hopeful and restorative.
The novel begins with voices close to the land (not all of them two-legged creatures either, one no-legged even). They are unconnected to time, and the reader knows the people are Napi’s people, but there is little else to root them in the reader’s experience.
Some of these early passages are fable-like, but characters begin to reappear and a narrative takes shape. This extract, although rather long, gives a sense of the tone and pace of the story.
“Windmaker rippled the grass that rolled on and on. This backbone of the world rose to the west. How huge was this great spine, the western boundary of the land Napi gave his people. She looked up in each direction and felt beneath her the circle of earth, truly a great lodge floor whose walls were the sky that met in the center where she looked above. She understood it now, felt it in her body s when she was a child, felt all this move through her, felt her own self move through it. The People and the land – Napi’s body – moving through each other.”
Section Two introduces a new set of characters, has a distinctly different feel, and readers can begin to assemble a map and a timeline.
Medicine Hat, Alberta. Women in long dresses. Settlers moving into the west.
(I’m pulled back into memories of Social Studies classes, with reproductions of those posters advertising the land and the settlement opportunities on it.)
This family — readers will cozy up to Eleanor, the fifteen-year-old daughter — came west for just that reason:
“Does it appeal to you to be part of a great enterprise? You can be part of opening the west. You can turn its land to good use, grow food to feed the hungry world. It’s a glorious future that awaits the man who can grasp the vision, put his shoulder to the wheel of a great cause, and civilize the western lands. It’s land for the taking, if you have what it takes.”
(In my classes, they never mentioned that the land was not really there for the taking either, that it was another people’s homeland. That was overlooked — or concealed.)
And this family doesn’t question anything overtly either, although an Uncle seems to have some unconventional ideas, and Eleanor has an eye for detail that suggests she has an appreciation for irony, as the next thing she observes is this: “Another skeleton lay in the grass.”
Eleanor’s attachment to this new land is immediate and visceral.
“But that was not this sky. This is where the stars are truly themselves, she thought. This is where they reveal what they are. Here, in this great and empty land. This is where I will also be truly myself.”
And the reader does not need to have an artificial construct of time and date on the earlier segment’s main character to understand that both girls experience this bond in their own way.
“Snake Child rolled on her back, and the current spread her hair out, the water like fingers that pulled the strands. She spread her own fingers and stretched them through the thick tendrils. Her skin had accepted the coolness and now the flow across her body was like a caress, like the strokes of a gentle hand, or the feather-light drumming of tiny fingers tickling every part of her. Inhaling deeply, she lowered her face beneath the water and her entire body felt the current, like unending laughter.”
But the story is not all stars and water, not all feather-light and self-realization.
“Snake Woman leaned her forehead into the palms of her hand. ‘Why have they come here? They have to be stopped, Grandmother. For the life of us all, the People, the wolves, the buffalo, the dogs. Shaggy Bull was right when he called for war.’”
(To be fair, those social studies classes did include talk of hardship for the “Indians” and horrifying statistics about smallpox, but nobody ever hinted around a word like ‘genocide’, and if something “unfortunate” happened way back then, it was out of ignorance not greed.)
Though even within Napi’s people, there is disagreement about which path to take.
“The old woman nodded. ‘They are a mystery and a problem, yes. They do not know the ways Napi gave to us that teach us balance and harmony. We have our Bundles, our ceremonies and medicines to do this work. Here in the Otter Lodge too, we have our Bundle, standing just there outside.” Mountain Horse waved her hand to the west.”
One of the most satisfying elements of this story is that there are complex characters of all sorts, White and Blackfoot: no simple dichotomy, no ready-made solutions. And, yet, there is a persistent awareness of the systemic injustice perpetrated against the Plains Peoples.
When Lily Hamilton arrives and speaks with Eleanor’s family, she does not appear as either a one-dimensional villain or hero.
“You’re part of a time of rapid change, which relates to what brings me here. I represent the Royal Ontario Museum, which has a great interest in collecting evidence of the Plains Indian way of life, a life that so rapidly disappeared.”
She is neither a parasitical opportunist nor an idealistic conservator, but neither is she excused for being unaware that this way of life hasn’t simply disappeared; there is no overt soap-box moment, but she is not conveniently demonized either.
This complexity is evident, too, in the other characters in Napi’s Dance. (For me, however, Snake Child — who becomes Snake Woman – is at the heart of it.)
“How many stormy nights have the four of us sat like this together? Snake Woman wondered. She wanted time to stop, a rope thrown around it and tied to the trunk of the great earth tree, their days and nights together secured.”
Alanda Greene has thrown her rope around time in this novel, securing the days and nights of her characters with equal amounts of delicacy and determination; the storytelling is organic and the characters are credible.
(This is a story that I wish I had been given to read in school,with another layer of truth to put alongside the stories of brave missionaries and unruly rebels and noble savages.)