Fiction Review by Alana Sayers

Bawaajigan: Stories of Power, edited by Nathan Niigan Noodin Adler and Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith (Holstein: Exile Editions, 2019). Paperbound, 257 pp., $21.95.

BawaajiganAs editors Adler and Smith researched stories for this collection, Bawaajigan: Stories of Power, they found that no Indigenous anthologies yet exist on the theme of dreams. I find this fact interesting, as dreams are so central to many Indigenous cultures, and Indigenous languages often have many words for dreams as well as dream interpretations. In his Introduction, Adler writes that reading is like a communal sort of dream, as reading a story is similar to the way that we fall into sleep and dreams: we watch stories unfold and our minds create images and fill in gaps. I was therefore excited to see what this anthology had in store, and it did not disappoint. Reading the stories in Bawaajigan allowed me to experience many forms of dreams, as each story is an experience in and of itself. The collection as a whole takes us to and through many worlds and states of being, revealing the interconnectedness of all of those places as well as the power from and within them.

The range of stories in this anthology is remarkable, and so are the many themes explored: discovery and recovery, whether of oneself or of ancestral knowing and ways of being; journeying to other worlds; experiences of residential school; the fates of murdered and missing Indigenous women; and gifts that were once commonplace and are now misunderstood or misused. Autumn Bernhardt’s “Bead Dreamer,” for example, tells the story of a beader whose relationship to other worlds can be seen in his bead work and the dreams he shares with us. Karen Lee White’s “Ahnunggokwan” uses beads in a different way, telling us about a man addicted to drugs who sells his beaded regalia made by his grandmother as well as his grandfather’s pipe to buy drugs. This man struggles with knowing that it would break his grandparents’ hearts that he sold the regalia and the pipe, but he needed the drugs more. Other individual and shared hardships are also addressed in the stories. Richard Van Camp’s “The Truth between Us” tells of the women in a Dene family who awaken a being from another world to protect them and their town from the men stealing and killing Indigenous women; the women give the being a list and ask her to kill and eat the men and free the girls. Gerald Silliker Pisim Maskwa’s “Ghost Walk” focuses on a man who goes back to his residential school, where he walks through faces, memories, and ghosts, and when he leaves is free from “him.” Links between worlds can be seen in several stories, like Sara General’s “Where They Dwell,” the story of Imogen, who, cursed when bitten by a snake, has to trust her ancestral knowledge to lead her back to the same place and find the cure before it’s too late. Editor Adler’s “Silk” tells about a woman following a spider’s silk between worlds: the star world, the spirit world, and the living. She sees many interconnected strands where she goes, and follows the thread to find out which world she now belongs to. Francine Cunningham’s “The Death of Him Came to Me in My Dreams” is about a woman who discovers upon her grandfather’s passing that he has played a role in the spiritual world that she has now inherited, while editor Smith’s “Dream Medicine” is about a girl who struggles with her spiritual gifts and being institutionalized for them.

Just as the stories in this anthology weave together multiple states of being, they also reveal a variety of perspectives and forms. A story may be told through a person dead or alive, or through an eagle or the trees, beadwork, or journal entries that are also part of dream-worlds. The stories chosen allow us such an extensive experience of these worlds, and reading them can’t help but expand your definition and understanding of dreams.

To allow you to taste a little of this expansion, I offer here a few quotations about experiencing dreams. Dreams can get you thinking about the nature of reality, as in Katie-Jo Rabbit’s “Ipapaino: White Buffalo Womyn”: “I wonder, in the moments before I drift off to sleep, if this is the last time I will be able to exist in my reality.” Dreams can also get you thinking about their power over you, as in Bernhardt’s “Bead Dreamer”: “Sometimes, you can tell when a dream is a dream, even mold it, while you are dreaming it, and other times you wonder if you have any control over anything that goes on in your head.” Dreams can even get you thinking about the difference between waking and sleeping, as in David Geary’s “Jumpers on Both Bridges”: “‘Who’s to say when dreams start and end, and what it is to be truly awake. Except now you got another problem—now you’re talking to Trees,’ said Cedar, and all the Trees cracked up. Ha aha aha clak clackey clickety clack.”

These quotations show how this collection explores the meanings of dreams and the many places they are connected to. As Smith writes in her Afterword, “Dreams give us power, because without our dreams, we lose our realities, and our ability to imagine our futures.” The characters in these stories reach out and pull you into multiple states of being from multiple perspectives and often ask you to judge what is real and what isn’t, while simultaneously asking you why it can’t all be real. This collection shows the wealth and the depth of our understandings, relationships to, and interpretations of dreams and worlds and how interconnected dreams are to the past, the present, and the future of many worlds—worlds that all need one another to exist. This dream collection is itself a dream and not to be missed.


—Alana Sayers

As in The Malahat Review, 210, spring 2020