Families of all backgrounds can share in the wisdom and spirituality of Canada’s first people.
The heartbeat sound of the drum transports me to the world of my childhood. To a place where, high up on my father’s shoulders, I would watch the dancers move in a great circle. All things are formed of circles, my dad would say – all things follow the pattern of nature.
Now, holding my three-month-old son in my arms at the local powwow, I realize he is part of that circle. My son’s new eyes watch the dancers go past in celebration. His new ears take in the ancient songs of the First Nations people. I hold him tightly and smile. I know for him the world is wondrous and alive.
My powwow memories go back to the late 70s and early 80s. My family often participated in various events throughout Ontario and northern New York State, including powwow ceremonies at Six Nations on the Grand River, near Brantford. My parents, who are non-native, met many friends on this reserve while my dad was photographing models for his work as a fine artist. The people he met immediately welcomed him and taught him that the ancestry and legacy of spirit belongs to people of all backgrounds. As a result, I too was steeped in First Nations’ spirituality, along with my family’s own traditions and beliefs.
The word powwow means gathering. It’s a time to visit with old friends and make new ones while rejoicing in a culture that embraces the sacredness of the natural world and its people. It is a celebration of First Nations’ dance and song.
The dances are based on a circle, with the drummers gathering around the dancers, who move in a clockwise pattern around the arbor. Facing east is the entrance to the circle, where dancers and dignitaries perform the Grand Entry. During this ceremony, spectators are asked to stand, as flags and staffs (representing nations, families and communities) are brought forward.
Elders, veterans, youth and dancers of every type are each announced upon entering the circle until the area is filled with the participants and honourees of the powwow. The experience of watching a Grand Entry is incomparable – for adult and child alike – as the participants express unmistakable respect for each other. I want my son to have this quality – to know that by honouring others he is honouring himself.
My favourite thing to do at a powwow when I was a kid was to just watch and take in the movements and sounds. I would see windblown hair with feathers dangling from braids and dresses adorned with jingling tin spinning dreamlike around me. The arms of drummers flailed and dance-worn moccasins pivoted gently on the ground.
I remember my dad snapping photos of all these things – but asking permission prior to doing so. Photos are not permitted during several of the dances. Usually the master of ceremonies will tell the crowd when to put the cameras away. My father taught me that, in addition, it’s always best to ask before taking photos of any individuals outside the circle.
I learned that many of the songs and dances are based on histories, hunting techniques, healing rituals and even the movements of animals. There are traditional dances where the regalia (ceremonial wardrobe) is rooted in the Nation’s ancestry as well as more contemporary styles. These include the fast-moving and brightly coloured “fancy dances”, a jingle dance where women and girls attach hundreds of tin “jingles” to their dresses, and a shawl dance by female dancers, inspired by the butterfly which withdraws into a cocoon before beginning life anew.
What is immediately noticeable at a powwow is the openness of the people. Adults and children alike take part in the celebration, all seemingly uninhibited by the crowds of onlookers and fellow dancers. The children, while playful and carefree, have a surprising level of maturity. They are treated as equals, and respond in kind to their elder peers. Even the toddlers are encouraged to dance, moving around the circle holding the hand of either their mom or dad.
Outside of the circle at a powwow there is usually a space set aside for craft and food vendors, many of which make their living during the summer by attending multiple events. I still have a leather bracelet my father bought for me from an artisan in 1979 – I consider it a keepsake and a wonderful reminder of a childhood adventure.
My son, it seems, enjoys the sound of the drums and singing the best. Although he’s too young to grasp the meaning of what he is experiencing, the atmosphere of the event just feels good to him. My only concern is to protect him from the hot rays of the sun. Thankfully, there is a covered area where spectators can get out of the heat to sit for awhile. I’ve discovered in the past that the covered area also comes in handy for the inevitable hour of rain that hits our local powwow – to the minute – each year.
Ultimately, what feels best about being at this powwow with my son is knowing that I am giving him an experience of substance. A powwow is truly a family event. One where families of all backgrounds are invited to share in the wisdom and spirituality of Canada’s first people. An opportunity to celebrate creation and honour its presence in nature. And for me, personally, a chance to reflect on the warm summer days of my childhood.
- Pay attention and listen
- Never refer to a dancer’s regalia as a costume
- Never touch a dancer’s regalia
- Use courtesy and respect when taking pictures
- Do not enter the arbour after it has been blessed
- Stand during the Grand Entry