Indians and Wannabes: Native American Powwow Dancing in the Northeast and Beyond, by Ann M. Axtmann, Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2013.
Note: This book won NEPCA’s 2013 Peter Rollins Prize as the best book on a popular/American culture subject.
In Ann M. Axtmann’s first published book, she explores Native American powwows, specifically in the Northeast. An independent scholar and trained dancer who performed with dance companies such as the Joffrey Ballet and the American Ballet Theater, Axtmann spent 14 years doing field work by attending powwows in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, and Washington, D.C. Her approach to powwows through a lens of dance and movement studies is novel, thorough, and complex. She breaks new ground in this area of scholarly inquiry by asking larger theoretical questions dealing with power and by studying how moving bodies create knowledge. Axtmann’s research seeks to “acknowledge the importance of what we viscerally live and express through the body” (5). She does this through explaining the historical practice of powwows as ways to celebrate cultural traditions and connects it to how powwows are still enacted today as a means of creating community. She also weaves in references to representations of powwows in popular culture shown through songs, television, novels, photojournalism, and film.
Through utilizing multiple methods including fieldwork, archival research, and analysis, Axtmann is able to provide a descriptive picture of the history and current performance of powwows by Native Americans and spectators. Specifically, she deals with how “dance is present in the history of powwow, space and time, transcultural exchange, and performances of race” (162). Axtmann explores the varied dance styles of powwows. She details the construction of powwow dancing through describing the arenas in which powwows are located, the formation of the circle to the relevance of the performance space, the physical elements of powwows, and the focus on the center of the arena. She claims powwows are “distinguished by the combined forces of circularity and exposed space, whether they are inside or outside” (57). Additionally, Axtmann explains the differences between male and female dance styles and how these relate to gender roles in Native American culture.
A key strength of Axtmann’s book is her discussion of participants and spectators of powwow dancing and how both work to create the performances as well as define them. Axtmann keenly describes the experience of watching powwows through a non-Native American lens recognizing that she will never be more than a temporary visitor to these events. She also works to clarify how non-Native American spectators become a part of the powwow culture. Through an explanation of the use of a front region, or an area open to everyone, and back region, or a space reserved only for Native Americans in the performance arena, Axtmann paints a clear picture of how people are both welcomed into the performance while at the same time held at a distance. Axtmann explains, “Even the casual visitor or tourist engages in exchanges with other powwow participants. And all powwowers act, interact, and give and take while together producing a ‘new phenomenon, original and independent’ in Indian country and the United States” (87-88). She tackles the question of what it means to “perform Indian” with fervor and sensitivity while exploring contemporary wannabes and hobbyists who are non-Native Americans seeking to be a part of the culture
The usefulness of Axtmann’s book for scholars in popular culture and American culture is multifaceted. Obviously, individuals teaching in areas of dance, movement and performance studies will benefit from the incorporation of such a thorough and engaging text in their classes. However, even those unfamiliar with dance but who study or teach in the disciplines of cultural studies, Native American cultures, and those exploring the enactment of race and race relations will find this text of great use. In order to be accessible to all readers, Axtmann does an exceptional job defining terms related to Native Americans and dance. Much like powwows of today cross the borders from Native Americans to spectators and from one tribal unit to another, Axtmann approaches powwows in a way that crosses disciplinary boundaries thus allowing readers to utilize this book in a variety of settings.
Andi M. McClanahan, Ph.D.
East Stroudsburg University of PA