From the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, March 10, 1997

Grass Dancer
evokes past, present

Hodder Fellowship provides for a humanist "with much more than ordinary intellectual and literary gifts"

By Caroline Moseley

When Harley saw his father, Calvin Wind Soldier, and his brother, Duane, in dreams, they were wearing crowns of glass. Drops of blood trickled down their foreheads, beaded on their black lashes, and slipped into the corners of their mouths. Four weeks before Harley was born, his father and his older brother were killed in a car accident.

So begins The Grass Dancer (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1994), a mesmerizing tale set on a North Dakota Indian reservation -- the first novel of Susan Power, this year's Hodder Fellow in the Humanities.

Established in 1941, the Hodder Fellowship provides "studious leisure" for a humanist "with more than ordinary learning and with much more than ordinary intellectual and literary gifts." The fellowship is designed "to identify and nurture extraordinary potential rather than to honor distinguished achievement." The first Hodder Fellow was literary critic Richard Blackmur; last year's fellow was poet Khaled Mattawa.

Standing Rock Sioux

Power is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Her mother, also Susan (or Gathering of Stormclouds Woman) is a Dakota Sioux who, says the novelist, "came to Chicago from the reservation at the age of 16 as a housekeeper and worked her way up to being editor of the University of Chicago Law Review ."

Power's late father was "a new Englander, a salesman for a publishing house." Politically liberal, he was "quiet about his opinions. My mother, who founded the American Indian Center in Chicago, was much more of an activist." Power was "raised on sit-ins and civil rights protests--not just for Indians, but for everyone."

Home was decorated with photos from both sides of the family, "with the Indians on one side and the WASPs on the other. My great-great-grandfather, who was governor of New Hampshire during the Civil War, faced my great-great grandfather Chief Mato Nupa (Two Bears)."

Named Miss Indian Chicago at 17, Power went to Harvard-Radcliffe, where she majored in psychology. Though drawn to the arts, she went on to Harvard Law School because "my mother always wanted to be a lawyer, and we needed Indian lawyers."

Two summers in law offices, however, convinced her that "to enjoy law practice, you have to love playing the game. Justice wasn't something you couldn't worry about, and I did." She also felt that "if I couldn't express myself in some artistic medium, I would burst."

Though Power turned her back on a potentially lucrative legal career, she has found her JD "a valuable degree," she says. "My training in legal writing helped my creative writing. I had been undisciplined before I went to law school, all inspiration and passion. In law school I learned the craft of dealing with language. Then I had to get past the stifling aspects of legal writing to be creative again; there wasa period of recovery."

For three years after earning her law degree in 1986, Power worked as a technical writer and editor, writing poetry and short stories in her off hours. Then she mustered the courage to apply to the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she spent the next three years, earning an MFA in 1992 and publishing numerous stories in literary journals.

Ghost Horse, Red Dress

The Grass Dancer , which won the 1995 Ernest Hemingway Award for best first work of fiction, presents interconnecting tales of several generations of North Dakota Sioux. The numinous power of the spirit world illumines the novel; the narrative flows forward and backward in time, and dead forbears--such as the 19th-century lovers Ghost Horse and Red Dress--are vital presences in daily life.

The title refers to a traditional dance. There are "two kinds of grass dancing," a character explains. "There's the grass dancer who prepares the field for a powwow the old-time way, turning the grass over with his feet to flatten it down. Then there's the spiritual dancer, who wants to learn grass secrets by imitating it, moving his body with the wind."

The book originated with "an image," says the author. "I blame anesthesia a bit. I was recovering from an appendectomy and had an image of a Dakota woman in a beautiful traditional buckskin dress dancing on the moon.

"I cannot tell you where characters come from," she continues. "They come before themes; they come before action. And they sometimes take me places I don't want to go. Red Dress, for instance, was supposed to be evil, but as I wrote in her voice, I realized she had reasons for what she did. She became a heroine, the heart and soul of the book, even though she killed some people who did not deserve to die."

When The Grass Dancer appeared, it was greeted as "captivating" by the New York Times . "This is not magic realism, which consciously alters the world in order to expand its circumference, but a factual representation of reality as it is perceived by the characters," wrote the reviewer. "The Grass Dancer offers a healing vision that goes to the core of our humanity."

"Strong Heart Society"

The new novel Power says she "will be able to finish thanks to the Hodder Fellowship" is titled "Strong Heart Society." Set in Chicago, which is now home to "approximately 25,000 Indians," the book examines the city's history--including major events such as the Chicago Fire of 1871, the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929--through Indian eyes. It also explores the city's "ghost geography, the tribal maps that underlie our present Rand McNally charts."

Power does considerable research before writing, she says. "You rely on your imagination--and I certainly don't want to write a history text--but how can you be convincing if you don't know street names, what the clothes were like, what birds and plants were there?"

While she asserts that she is "proud of being a Native American," Power eschews the label "Indian writer."

"I think of myself as an American writer who happens to be Indian," she says. "Look at Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club . If you regard it only as a Chinese-American novel, you lose something. It's about mothers and daughters. Focusing on exotica can distract us from what we all have in common."