The Powwow at the End of the World

Sherman Alexie

‘The Powwow at the End of the World’ by Sherman Alexie is a stunning poem that reveals the apocalyptic price of an indigenous person’s forgiveness.

Sherman Alexie

Nationality: America

Sherman Alexie is a Spokane-Coeur d'Alene-Native American poet and novelist.

He is regarded as one of America's most important contemporary writers.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Forgiveness cannot be given until that which was taken or destroyed is restored

Speaker: An indigenous member of the Spokane people

Emotions Evoked: Anger, Frustration, Optimism

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

This stunning poem reveals the cost of forgiveness in the eyes of an indigenous speaker

In ‘The Powwow at the End of the World,’ the speaker gives a dramatic monologue to answer a demand for forgiveness. Through the use of anaphora, Alexie accentuates the inherent exasperation of being asked to pardon those responsible for destroying one’s way of life. While also conjuring up vivid images that inspire dread and wonder through the application of figurative language.


‘The Powwow at the End of the World’ by Sherman Alexie imagines an apocalyptic reckoning between indigenous groups and a dam that has annihilated their way of life.

‘The Powwow at the End of the World’ opens with a stunning scene of cataclysmic wonder as the speaker imagines an Indian woman pushing down the Grand Coulee Dam. The reason for such destruction? “I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall,” the speaker begins (repeating the phrase at the beginning of each sentence in the poem) before detailing the exact price of one indigenous person’s forgiveness. What or who is being forgiven is never explicitly stated, though it’s heavily implied to be the people and systems that have displaced and harmed indigenous ways of life with such projects as the dam.

The collapsed dam’s floodwaters then devour everything in their path to the Pacific ocean. From there, the speaker’s narrative hones in on a single salmon that starts an impossible journey upstream. In its travels, it passes the flotsam of industry and consumption that once banished its ancestors from the waters beyond dams like the Grand Coulee — as well as the indigenous tribes that relied on them. It’s only once this miraculous salmon arrives at the speaker’s reservation, leaping out of the water to launch a lightning bolt (which ignites a signal fire to “lead all of the lost Indians home”) that such forgiveness can even be conceived.

You can read the full poem here.

Historical Context

Constructed between 1933 and 1942, The Grand Coulee Dam is a concrete gravity dam located on the Columbia River in the state of Washington in the United States. Built without a fish ladder, it prevented the natural migration of the fish that once inhabited its waters, including four species of salmon. The dam led to an end to the spawning grounds upstream from the dam located in the Upper Columbia Basin — a major ecological blow — but also for the Spokane and other tribes that have since been unable to hold their first salmon ceremonies. The creation of the dam also led to the flooding of thousands of acres of land inhabited by indigenous tribes in the area. This not only destroyed settlements and grave sites but also affected crucial fishing grounds used by tribes like Kettle Falls.

Structure and Form

‘The Powwow at the End of the World’ is written in free verse and has no noticeable rhyme scheme. At twenty-seven lines long, its use of enjambment helps retain its prosaic style. Alexie also uses repetition, or more specifically anaphora, to emphasize his speaker’s frustration and anger with those who believe they “must” forgive. So the speaker gives their own set of demands, outlining via their dramatic monologue all the events that would have to take place before forgiveness can truly be given.

Literary Devices

‘The Powwow at the End of the World’ relies on a number of literary devices, but the one that stands out the most is the use of anaphora. Every sentence in the poem begins the same way (“I am told by many / of you that I must forgive and so I shall”), a repetition that serves to underscore the absurdity of thinking that forgiveness needs to begin with a member of the Spokane tribe. But it also serves as the genesis for the poem’s dramatic narrative of events, with each successive repetition crescendoing the speaker’s frustration and anger.

Alexie also uses figurative language and imagery to illustrate the shock and awe of such an apocalyptic vision. The poem’s title mentions the end of the world, and it’s implied that begins with the toppling of the damn — an arresting image that’s also a metaphor for the “Indian” destroying a symbol of their mistreatment and displacement. Images of the tidal wave (“the floodwaters burst each successive dam”) and its devastation (“the flooded cities, broken dams and abandoned reactors”) are some of the most affecting in the poem.

Another important symbol is the salmon, whose return to the waters above the dam heralds the return of “all of the lost Indians” and signifies a restoration of a lost piece of life. Alexie also uses personification when the speaker describes the salmon as throwing the “lightning bolt,” or when they all gather around the fire, it starts to hear the fish tell them “three stories.” It’s this final scene that contrasts the ruin that opens the poem, with the powwow serving as a symbol of the hopeful reunion of the indigenous diaspora.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-10

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall   

after an Indian woman puts her shoulder to the Grand Coulee Dam   

and topples it. I am told by many of you that I must forgive   

and so I shall after the floodwaters burst each successive dam   


and so I shall after the first drop of floodwater is swallowed by that salmon   

waiting in the Pacific. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall

The first ten lines of ‘The Powwow at the End of the World’ deal with the destruction of the Grand Coulee Dam (along with every dam downriver from it) and the reunion of its waters with the Pacific ocean. It’s there that the waters are swallowed by a solitary salmon.

The poem’s first line — repeated throughout in an example of anaphora — is the reason for the ruin of the dam. The entirety of the poem is the speaker’s answer to when forgiveness will be given for all the ways the dam has destroyed their way of life. It starts with the toppling of the Grand Coulee (both a symbolic and tangible source of strife for the Spokane tribes) and the restoration of the natural flow of water to the region. But it also continues with the rising of the Pacific — a bit of situational irony given that melting iceberg via climate change is usually the main culprit — but also an allusion to the way the Grand Coulee caused indigenous lands to flood.

Lines 11-22

after that salmon swims upstream, through the mouth of the Columbia   

and then past the flooded cities, broken dams and abandoned reactors   


which will lead all of the lost Indians home. I am told   

by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall   

after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon

The salmon begins its journey upstream, passing all the detritus floating in the floodwater’s wake. Soon its destination becomes clear as it arrives on the speaker’s reservation inside a “secret bay.” Then in a miraculous moment, the salmon jumps out of the water and “throws a lightning bolt” at the grass near the speaker’s feet. Starting a fire that burns large enough or bright enough to “lead all of the lost Indians home.”

After the destruction of the dam, the image of the salmon (a symbol of what was displaced and lost) becomes the dominant topic of ‘The Powwow at the End of the World. Swimming past the ruins of “flooded cities, broken dams and abandoned reactors” (symbols of the industries the speaker is being asked to forgive) emphasizes the cost of forgiveness to the speaker. Alexie then personifies the salmon as being able to throw lightning in a stunningly magical scene that alludes to the return of the first salmon ceremony, as the fire it ignites becomes a literal symbol with which to draw all the scattered members of the tribe back for the celebration.

Lines 23-27

who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will teach us   

how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;   


with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.

After gathering everyone for the celebration, the salmon sits everyone down to tell three stories. The speaker says each story will be told with a specific intention: the first will teach them “how to pray,” the second will cause laughter “for hours,” and the third a “reason to dance.” All of it is an allusion to the powwow — which is exactly what Alexie leaves the reader with as the poem’s final image. The speaker dances with their reunited tribe “at the end of the world.” Apart from the anaphora, there is a dramatic contrast between the imagery of the poem’s first line with its last. In one, a symbol of cultural and environmental decimation is toppled. The other sees a tribe brought together in such ardent revelry that it feels like it’s very much the end of the world.

Though it’s not exactly the apocalypse — one interpretation could see it as the end of the world that allowed dams to be erected with such callous disregard for people or ecosystems. This explains perhaps why the salmon must finish its stories by sunrise, before this new world dawns and the old one is washed away. It’s a stunning revelation by Alexie that puts into perspective the irreversible damage inflicted upon indigenous groups and the environment. Reaffirming with that final repeated line that the speaker’s forgiveness is about as easily given as toppling a dam, surviving obliterating floodwaters, or restoring a tribe.


Why did Sherman Alexie write ‘The Powwow at the End of the World?

Alexie, who was part of the Spokane tribe, probably wrote the poem to answer the very question of forgiveness his speaker is being asked to give.

What is the theme of ‘The Powwow at the End of the World?

One of the main themes of the poem is forgiveness: how it’s given, its cost, and how deeply complicated it can be. The speaker’s repetition shows not just their anger and frustration but also a willingness to forgive that’s predicated on drastic but not unreasonable demands of their own, which starts with the destruction of the Grand Coulee Dam itself.

Why is the first salmon ceremony important to ‘The Powwow at the End of the World?

The Spokane people have reverence for both the Spokane River and the salmon that swam in it. The first salmon ceremony celebrated the catch of the first fish of a particular run, a ritual that expressed the tribe’s gratitude and also promised future abundance. The construction of the Grand Coulee Dam ended this tradition by displacing both the salmon and tribes that relied on them.

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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.
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