Bellegarde’s Native American family history is told through stories handed down to the author by her grandmother.
In Bellegarde’s debut collection, she intertwines her grandmother Equay’s tales with lessons and historical context: “By audio recording, we recorded the stories of her life, including the stories that her mother and father gave to her.” The book follows a chronological line from the author’s great-great-grandmother to Equay’s death. Equay’s kokum (grandmother) Willow had two daughters, Bella and Nokum. After the girls’ father dies, Willow takes up with One Heart, a man who beats the girls. One Heart and Willow abandon them in the wild, but they are rescued by an old couple from another tribe. The girls eventually return to their mother, and One Heart’s death is predicted by four hoots of an owl. (Bellegarde, a descendent of the Saulteaux, Cree, and Assiniboine tribes, notes that the number four is a powerful cultural symbol, and it occurs throughout the work.) Nokum marries Raindancer, another victim of abuse and a skilled medicine man. Their first child is Chickendancer, and two years later, Equay is born. While traveling to another tribe, an old man puts a deadly hex on Raindancer. At a feast before he dies, Raindancer predicts four more deaths after his own, including those who cursed him; all die. The author relates several tangential accounts before we learn Equay’s story, which includes her forced attendance at a residential school with cruel priests and nuns, two abusive marriages, the deaths of loved ones, and her late-life rediscovery of the traditional dancing of her father. She tends toward repetitive explanation of Native traditions and beliefs, but Bellegarde’s style is easy and straightforward: “The marriage ceremony preparations kept everyone in our family, Sunshine’s family, and the tribe busy and excited, and everything went as planned.” Throughout, the author details Native American culture and recounts the systematic ill-treatment by whites while maintaining a narrative free of animus.
A cleareyed, inspirational look at one family’s perseverance in the face of internal and external difficulties.