Indigenous woman tells her story through children’s book ‘Finding My Dance’

Ria Thundercloud was introduced to traditional Native dance at a young age when she traveled around the country to powwows with her family. Thundercloud, who is Ho-Chunk and Sandia Pueblo, followed that path to classical dance and she illustrates her story through the new children’s book “Finding My Dance.” She told KUNM her passion stems from how she feels when she’s dancing.

RIA THUNDERCLOUD: Dancing to me almost feels like another language. It feels like a form of prayer. It feels like a form of connection, connection to yourself, connection to your body, connection to your ancestors, because dance has been a part of us through time and memorial.

And I think it’s amazing to have that connection to Mother Earth and to have that feeling and that drumbeat. Dance has really taken me so many places, not only physically, but mentally and spiritually, when it comes to just moving my own body.

KUNM: Was there a challenge in writing this story when it comes to Native American context of trying to explain what a powwow is?

THUNDERCLOUD: The illustrations were very challenging, because my illustrator was non-Native. But she was very open minded, very patient, very calm, but also, we were writing this book during the pandemic, so there’s no powwow she could go to; she’s never been to one. How do I describe the energy and the feeling and the aesthetic, and just the magic you feel when you’re at a powwow? It’s indescribable, you just have to go and know what it feels like to be there. To hear the drums and to hear the echo and to hear the bells and the jingles. I wanted her to capture the true essence of you know what it is to be on the powwow trail. But I just think it’s amazing that we were able to collaborate and create this piece. And she did an amazing job.

KUNM: In 2021, only 1% of children’s books by US publishers were written by an Indigenous author, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. How do you respond to that?

THUNDERCLOUD: Wow, that makes me feel very humbled and extremely honored. But you’re right, I haven’t seen a lot of children’s books. So it’s amazing to see that these will be in classrooms now. Because I feel like the classrooms are the forefront of whether we understand as children if we have a really good support system, or the cards are stacked against us. You know, you learn that at a very young age, because you become very aware that you could be the only Native, there’s not a lot of representation, you never learned about your people, the only thing you do know is what you know from your own home. So I think it’s amazing that these can reach classrooms now, libraries where students can go into the library and be like what, “There’s a Native there, and a dancer!”

You can also maintain a traditional way of dance but also kind of walk in two worlds you know, and I like to think I merged those two ideals with introducing myself as my Indian name, my Ho-Chunk name, Waką ja haja pįįwįga.

And kind of talking about how I was scared to utilize it, correct people how to say it, and then as I started getting my own voice through dance, and it’s really grounding me and helping with my confidence, you know, and as I got older as a professional dancer, I started correcting people.

So to kind of weave that into the story, I think was really important because now this next generation, they’re going to be proud of who they are, they’re going to correct people, they don’t have to be this shy , timid person. Because when I was a kid, I didn’t have children’s books, or any media at all, not authentic at least, there were non-Natives writing our stories for us.

KUNM: You mentioned in your book how transforming it was for you when you had your daughter, how has she been an inspiration to you? Did she play a factor when making this children’s book?

THUNDERCLOUD: So my daughter, she just turned seven, and she knew I was writing a children’s book, and I would constantly go to her. So I’ve come to realize that like writing isn’t specifically just one thought, it really is a communal thing that happens. And it really brought my family together, because they were supporting me as well.

KUNM: What do you hope children and more specifically Indigenous children take away from this reading your book?

THUNDERCLOUD: I think that the youth will see that you can just be yourself. And that’s enough. I want kids to understand that dancing can happen at any time of your life. If you choose to dance or want to dance. I encourage them to dance. It’s very fun, it’s very healing. It’s very empowering. And it’s a good feeling.

KUNM: What are your plans for the future? Do you plan on making more books? Any dancing projects?

THUNDERCLOUD: I am interested in writing another book, but from an adult perspective, like the real raw perspective, I think that would be really cool. Because there is a lot that happens behind the scenes, and like I painted this really pretty picture of my dance career, but it was a lot of hard work, it would be cool to kind of share that experience. But as far as that goes, right now I’m working on my own production. I’m continuing to dance. I have a lot of projects, going on a lot of dance projects and doing a lot of gigs. So it’s pretty exciting.

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