June 21 is National Indigenous Peoples Day. This is a day where Canadians recognize and celebrate the unique heritage and diverse cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. The Canadian Constitution recognizes these three groups as Aboriginal peoples, also known as Indigenous peoples.
Under normal circumstances this would be the beginning of the summer pow wows. However Covid-19 restrictions have cancelled all that. Which is a shame. Virtual pow wows are being planned where contestants will up-load videos of their dances and competitions will continue. But it won’t be the same.
There’s an energy and excitement of a live pow wow that’s missing in videos. The feeling of drums vibrating from the ground up. The sound of rhythmic chants rising above the crowd. The acrobatic theater of the fancy dances. The drama of the traditional ones. The spectacular outfits rich in history and symbolism.
I can’t replicate the thrill of seeing a live pow wow but to tease your interest, here are a few photos from past events.
Traditional pow wows are gatherings with open dances for all to join. Others, particularly those open to the general public, involve dance competitions with large cash prizes. There is a term “following the pow wow trail” which means travelling to all the events to compete and earn money – similar to rodeo circuits. In fact, many pow wows are held in conjunction with rodeos with riders and dancers competing in both.
In the summer months there’s a regular roster of pow wows throughout Canada and US. When I attended my first pow wow in 2015, it was relatively low key with most of the spectators visiting from surrounding areas and reservations. In 2016, I noticed an increase in the number of tourists and international languages peppering the crowds. None of the pow wows I’ve attended in Ontario compare to the size of pow wows in the US. YouTube videos of those events look massive with thousands of dancers on the convention center floor. I prefer the smaller scale events which are held outdoors, with significantly less participants.
Generally performers are friendly and amenable to posing for pictures (with permission) and talking about their regalia. At the Six Nations Gran River Pow Wow I met Brittney Shki-Giizis who gave me background on her outfit and close-up pictures of her dress.
Called ‘regalia’, Brittney’s outfit had sewn-in symbols of her tribe and clan; flowers for the Ojibwe tribe and her crow ‘helper’ from the Marten clan. The outfit was all handmade, intricately embroidered with millions of tiny beads.
I look forward to the day when live pow wows are restarted. In the meantime, for a more detailed description of the dance styles, their origins and video examples, this Canadian Encyclopedia link is a good resource.
Photos taken at different Pow Wows in Ontario, Canada