Nahnda Garlow is a writer, powwow dancer and regalia artist from the Onondaga Nation Beaver Clan Dehatgahtos family at Six Nations of the Grand River, Ontario.
Video courtesy of Shutterstock
I was about 10 years old when I attended my first powwow. The women dancers were so beautiful, they took my breath away. As the fancy shawl dancers’ soft moccasins crushed the dry summer grass beneath their feet, a feeling of pride rose in me and I fell in love: with my people, with our incredible stories and with our resilience. For many Indigenous nations, dancing is a ceremonial responsibility, a living emblem of thanks and demonstration of national dignity.
Finding the strength inside of me to dance was another story. I was in my late teens when I started powwow dancing and I felt like I was trapped in a bubble of shame and self-consciousness. Our dance classes were held in the basement of an old residential school, the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont. The school my dad went to. Maybe it was the history of the building, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional challenge powwow dancing presented to me. I wanted to dance, but my spirit was resisting. Each time I began, I would freeze.
My teacher explained it to me. “It’s like we’re carrying generations of shame for our culture,” she said. “When you dance—especially for the first time—you are working through that grief. But, push through it. Dance through it.”
So I did. I danced past my wounds, beyond the trauma of our collective intergenerational pain and forward to the hopes of a good future for my people. It was an empowering spiritual victory. Now, whenever I dance I know how important it is to bring my spirit along. And, how powerful it can be when people bring that energy together at the same time. This is the power of powwow.
1. Listen to the emcee
The emcee has a deep understanding of powwow protocols, ceremonies and traditions and will announce the contests and explain protocol to visitors—such as when to join in and dance.
2. Photo protocol
In general, taking pictures of the dancers during competitions is allowed, but, during any ceremonial portions, put your camera away. If you see dancers around the powwow grounds, always ask permission before taking photos—many dancers will gladly strike a pose.
Dancing attire is referred to as regalia. Many dancers are proud to show off their feathers and beadwork. But resist the urge to touch. These items are ceremonial and touching them without permission is considered impolite.
Powwows are family-centred events. You’ll often see children running free around the powwow grounds and busting their own moves on the edge of the arena.
Some powwows will have sacred fires for people to make offerings of tobacco and cedar or other traditional medicines such as sage and sweetgrass.
There are various dancing styles, with each region and nation sharing its own origin story and description. Within each style, dancers are divided into age categories such as golden age, adult, teen, kids and tiny tots.
Traditional Dances: Men’s and Women’s Traditional
These are the original dance styles. Men’s Traditional dances are exciting and tell the story of a battle or hunt, whereas Women’s Traditional dances symbolize one’s feet massaging the earth, never completely leaving the ground to show their connection with Mother Earth.
The Medicine Dances: Men’s Grass and Women’s Jingle
Some say the Men’s Grass style imitates grass swaying, symbolizing nature’s healing potential or of preparing a new village by stomping down tall prairie grasses. The Women’s Jingle dance has light footwork. It is said the dance and dress design were given in a vision to help heal a young girl.
The Fancy Dances: Men’s Fancy Feather and Women’s Fancy Shawl
A contemporary expression of traditional dance genres, Men’s Fancy Dance is energetic and includes flips and cartwheels. The Women’s Fancy Dance may have emerged as women wanted to dance fast like the men, with the cloth-fringed dance shawls signifying the wings of a butterfly.
These bring out some of the best dancers, drummers and singers from across the country who train year-round and invest thousands of dollars into their regalia to compete for top titles and prizes.
See it: Winnipeg’s Manito Ahbee’s International Pow Wow (held in May) is one of the festival’s signature events and the Calgary Stampede powwow (July 11 to 13, 2019) draws visitors from around the world.
These are usually smaller community celebrations with dancing, games and ceremonies—much like a family picnic, but with drumming and dancing, storytelling, and a community feast.
See it: The 15th annual Opikihiwawin Traditional Pow Wow (September date TBA), takes place just south of Winnipeg.
Individual pieces of regalia often tell the story of a dancer’s journey through life, with items earned in honour of special achievements such as a high school graduation or to mark a person’s first time entering the dance circle.
Feathers are almost always incorporated into dancers’ regalia. Eagle feathers are most commonly used in the headdress and are given as a gift of honour along with hawk, macaw, owl or turkey feathers.
Some dancers are covered from head to toe—every inch decorated with colourful, intricate beadwork adorning soft buttery leather or by fabric appliqué designs with layers of satin expertly stitched into starbursts or hummingbirds. The beadwork designs on moccasins, leggings and wrist cuffs are unique and associated to specific nations, clans or families.
Worn on the back, the bustle consists of a string of feathers attached to a board or harness. The feathers are said to represent battles won and battles lost.
Geometric designs reflect Western nations like the Lakota, Crow or Dine, whereas floral motifs are found on the regalia of Northeastern Woodlands nations like the Potawatomi and Haudenosaunee or the Métis people.
Pick up a pair of beaded earrings similar in style to the ones worn by the dancers—the bigger and brighter, the better—and browse the books, pottery, wearable art and silver jewelry made by Indigenous artists. Indigenous beadwork made with glass beads is a beautiful representation of what happened when Indigenous women first met settler women and traded what was fashionable between cultures. Indigenous women from nations in Eastern Canada are said to have used white beadwork on a black background to replicate the lace worn by the wives of British soldiers, and would also incorporate Scottish silver heart-shaped Luckenbooth brooches into the decoration of their outfits while adding an Indigenous twist.
Where to experience it: Eskasoni Powwow, Cape Breton Island
Eskasoni Powwow (June 29 to 30, 2019) is known for its authentic Indigenous art. Its organizers, the Mi’kmaq people of Eskasoni on Nova Scotia’s eastern Cape Breton Island, are recognized artisans whose ancestors are noted for the historical petroglyphs seen across the East Coast.
Toronto area Powwows with great food
The nations that make up the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois people of Six Nations—Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, Tuscarora, Oneida and Seneca—host the 40th annual Grand River Champion of Champions Pow Wow (July 26 to 29, 2019) at Six Nations, located about an hour southwest of Toronto. Try a bowl of Haudenosaunee Corn Soup, made by simmering shelled Iroquois white corn, kidney beans and salt pork. Enjoy the soup with a slice of fried ham and a buttered scone, a fried buttermilk biscuit found on most Iroquois dinner tables. Follow up with a glass of strawberry juice, a ceremonial drink made from mashed and sweetened strawberries, and don’t leave without tasting the popular Indian Taco—a frybread topped with chili-seasoned meat, kidney beans and taco toppings. When it comes to powwow food, find the longest line and join it.
Na-Me-Res Traditional Pow Wow
Foodies should also hit up the Na-Me-Res Traditional Pow Wow (June 22, 2019) at Fort York National Historic Site in downtown Toronto. Seek out the food booth of the Pow Wow Cafe—a Kensington Market restaurant—where Ojibwe chef Shawn Alder serves up a delicious mix of traditional powwow cuisine.
Drumming and Singing
The drum is the heart of a powwow, and the sound of the drumming is referred to as the heartbeat of Mother Earth. Every drum is handmade—usually from moose hide and cedar wood—and each has its own unique thunder or sound. Drum groups consist of men singing as they beat the drum often with women standing and singing behind them. The combination of drumming and singing creates a powerful energy and the drums resonate through the air, creating a dynamic and mighty sound. Both expressions have changed over time, yet they remain rooted in history. Within the span of a three-minute song, connections are made with ancestors, the earth, each other and the faces yet to come.
Where to experience it: Kamloopa Powwow, Kamloops, B.C.
This year marks the 40th annual Kamloopa Powwow (August 2 to 4, 2019) in Kamloops, B.C. Hosted by the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc people it is one of Western Canada’s largest powwows. Kamloopa’s powwow arbour is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains.
The powwow is a great place to learn about each host nation. Often the powwow organizers, also called the powwow committee, will invite local elders to come and share teachings. In between competitions, community elders share stories with the crowd. Sometimes, the stories tell the origins of the dance styles, or the roots of how the people came to be in that area. These stories can’t be found in books or on the Internet. Sharing oral history is an expression of welcome from the community’s elders to the guests in attendance—it always feels like a gift.
Where to experience it: Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival, Ottawa
Ottawa’s Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival includes a powwow (June 20 to 23, 2019), and sees oral stories brought to life through theatre and puppet productions.
[This story appears in the June 2018 issue of WestJet Magazine and has since been updated]
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