Saturday, November 11, 2006

Secret of the Dance by Andrea Spalding and Judge Alfred Scow

Picture a man whose life’s work has been to uphold the law. Picture that same man with a childhood secret that could have sent his family to jail. Now picture Canada in 1935 when Aboriginal cultural practices like the Potlatch were forbidden. Award-winning children’s author Andrea Spalding and Judge Alfred Scow, a Kwakwa’ka’wakw Nations elder have teamed up to tell a story based on the judge’s childhood, Secret of the Dance. It is beautifully illustrated by Darlene Gait whose blend of high realism and native motifs enrich every page.

“Many years ago, when the world and I were younger, my family defied the government.” begins Judge Scow’s story. The narrator, Watl’kina tells us that in 1935, an Indian Agent (government representative) warned his parents that the Potlatch and the dancing that were a part of a Potlatch ceremony were illegal. Watl’kina’s family knew that the Potlatch was an essential part of their cultural identity. They used a fishing trip to disguise a visit to family in a nearby village hosting a Potlatch. They were careful to keep the reason for their visit secret even from their children. Their attendance at a Potlatch ceremony could result in the adult members of the family being jailed and their children being taken away. As the oldest child, Watl’kina was charged with looking after his younger siblings while his parents attended the village long house. But, the drums from the long house called him and Watl’kina could not resist. He crept through the night to the long house where he witnessed not only the unforgettable ceremony, but a familiar figure dancing. It was his father.

The great joy in reading quality picture books lay in the many levels that they can be read at. Secret of the Dance definately resides in this quality picture book category. A young child could simply enjoy the adventure of a trip and sneaking out at night to witness something special but forbidden, while the more experienced reader will understand the historical and cutural importance of bearing witness and yet having to hide that knowlege. Furthermore, First Nations readers can take tremendous pride in being part of a cuture able to withstand repeated and often times brutal attemps to destroy it.

While Secret of the Dance is fictional, the danger of being caught at a Potlatch would have been all too real. It created a blanket of silence during Judge Scow’s childhood and a climate of secrecy. Secret of the Dance is another step in throwing off the blanket of silence over a shameful chapter in our history, and one that nearly destroyed the rich cultural heritage of Coastal First Nations. Healing can only happen when a wound is exposed and treated. Stories like Judge Scow’s are a long needed medicine for wounds too long covered up. It is a compelling story that brings recent history to life.

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