Miscast 'begging dance' sparks children's book written in Ojibwe and English

University of Minnesota professor Brenda Child sits for a portrait.
University of Minnesota professor Brenda Child sits for a portrait inside the Kling Public Media Center on Monday, June 4, 2018. Child is the author of a new children's book written in both English and Ojibwe.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Even with a name like Brenda Child, the idea of writing a children's book was out of the ordinary.

As a historian and professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, Child has written three well-received books about Native American history that explore deep topics including the dark history of boarding schools in this country.

But the idea of a lighter children's book came about after her own research into a kind of spiritual dance that has been inaccurately called a "begging dance." The performances weren't about begging but rather were displays of generosity.

"One night, Windy had a weird and wonderful dream about a special powwow." "Aabiding depikadinig, gaa-izhi-bawaadang niimi'idiwin Noodinikwens. Gii-maamakaadaabandam." - Excerpted from "Bowwow Powwow"

In translating one of the songs, she found a passage that referred to the relationship between people and animals, including the lyrics "we are like dogs, we are like dogs."

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That imagery led her to "Bowwow Powwow," a book that tells the story of a young Ojibwe girl named Windy Girl, who attends a powwow with her uncle and dog, Itchy Boy. Wendy falls asleep and has a vivid dream of a powwow composed entirely of performing dogs in traditional regalia.

The book is written in both Ojibwe and English.

Bowwow Powwow, a new children's book by Brenda Child
Bowwow Powwow, a new children's book by University of Minnesota professor Brenda Child, is the story of Windy Girl attending a powwow with her uncle and her dog, Itchy Boy. The book is written in English and Ojibwe.
Minnesota Historical Society Press

There will be a book launch at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 9 at Birchbark Books, 2115 W 21st St. in Minneapolis. There will also be events on June 14 in Rochester, and June 27 in Duluth.

"I wanted to teach a little bit about Ojibwe history," Child said. "I wanted this performative tradition misnamed 'the begging dance' to be better understood and remembered. I also wanted it to be a bilingual children's book to help language educators and families.

"But some of the purpose of doing a children's book is just to have fun."

Not enough materials for Ojibwe for children

For Child, 59, writing a book that helps efforts to preserve the Ojibwe language is also crucial.

She was born on the Red Lake Indian Reservation and grew up there and in Illinois but admitted she is not a prolific speaker herself.

Regardless, she's worked on several efforts around Native American language preservation. There are Ojibwe language programs in Minnesota, and Child said teachers are creative in finding ways to teach, but "there aren't enough materials in Ojibwe for them."

Image from "Bowwow Powwow," a children's book written in English & Ojibwe
An image from "Bowwow Powwow," a children's book written in English & Ojibwe. The book's illustrator is Jonathan Thunder, an artist from Duluth and a member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe.
Minnesota Historical Society Press

Gordon Jourdain, a teacher in the Duluth school district, translated the text into Ojibwe. Jonathan Thunder, a digital media artist in Duluth and Red Lake member, created the illustrations.

While it was Child's project, the work of marrying words and images left a lot of room for Thunder to work, he said.

"I like when you can watch a cartoon as a kid and as an adult and pick up two different kind of frequencies coming out of it," Thunder said. "I tried to put some of that in there."

That means readers should keep an eye out for details in the book that seem minor but which Child said help tell the story of Indian country and especially the Red Lake Nation.

"The script called for an image of a tribal nation's flag [at the powwow]," Thunder said. "And it was left open to my imagination. So do I invent a tribal nation's flag? How does it look? What elements are involved?

"But then I just thought, 'Why don't I go with the source of the inspiration?' So I took the Red Lake flag and then simplified it, so it insinuates this is at the Red Lake Nation without spelling out the words on it."

Child added:

"I was really inspired when I saw what he had come up with."

Other details to look for in the book:

• Windy Girl's dog, Itchy Boy, is based on the dog Child's mom had when she was growing up.

• The mint green truck Windy Girl's uncle drives is inspired by the one Child's uncle drove in the 1970s.

• The license plates on that truck are also Red Lake Nation plates. That's a key part of tribal history — Red Lake was the first Native nation to print its own license plates for its members. Other tribal governments have followed suit, citing a way to assert sovereignty.

• There are Red Lake cameos in the book. Thunder incorporated images of beloved elders Larry "Amik" Smallwood and Anna Gibbs, who both died last year.