Pow Wow Reflections: Beauty and Complexity

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At the first pow wow I attended, on Bkejwanong Walpole Island First Nation, near Wallaceburg, Ontario, I was maybe seven or eight years old. That beautiful, colourful, and lively event was my first experience with Canada’s First Nations people, and I was in awe. I became fascinated with First Nations people and history, and paid close attention when we studied them in Social Studies through my grade school years. 

When I was in my teens, a leader of Walpole Island, Chief Joseph Gilbert, led chapel at my Christian high school a few times. His representation of the strengths but also the challenges in his community and its relationship with surrounding communities started to deepen my understanding of the complexities of living on this land. I started to learn about the racism and negative stereotypes that First Nations people face from us, their neighbours. My initial experience, and the learning I had done since, had been so positive, so you can imagine my surprise to find that there was such strife between the peoples who now share this land. 

I attended another powwow in my early 20s, also at Walpole Island. A leaflet had been left on my car downtown, and I had a chance to speak to the two young men distributing them. Their enthusiasm and good memories of my first pow wow convinced me to go. Maybe because I came alone, I was welcomed all the more warmly and invited to participate in the intertribal dances and to join others for a meal. Needless to say, the whole day was another good experience and a meaningful interaction. 

In mid-September this year, I attended another pow wow, this one at the Museum of Ontario Archaeology in London, Ontario. It was a different experience again from my first two pow wows, because I attended with two friends visiting from Australia. I found myself seeing things in a new way, because of how I imagined they might be seeing things, coming from a different place but with some similarities of situation. I was glad for the excellent announcer, who knew his audience and explained much of what we were seeing—things like how the women’s dresses for the jingle dance were different from those for the shawl dance, or how the men’s fancy dance regalia is different from the men’s traditional. 

There was solemnity and pride in the Grand Entry, when the honourees and dancers enter. Each eagle staff bearer and flag bearer, when they were introduced, dipped the staff or flag towards the east, south, west, and north before planting it in a designated space. When the veterans were honoured, everyone was invited to come onto the field to shake hands and thank them.

After the Grand Entry, there were intertribal dances in which everyone, First Nations or not, is invited to participate. There were competitive dances in various categories, some slow and solemn, others vivid and colourful, all to the beat of the large drum and the voices of the singers. One dance honoured missing and murdered Indigenous women. Some were just for children, who proudly wore their bright regalia.

Around the edges of the event there were potters at work, and several people chipping stones to make arrowheads and other implements or tools, preserving old skills and passing them on to children. I found the setting very meaningful, with a longhouse forming one side of the open area for the dancing, and trees surrounding the whole powwow space quite closely. I found myself imagining what powwows were like here four or five hundred years ago, and what it might have meant to live here when First  Nations were the only nations here. I felt a sense of loss at all that has disappeared and been broken since then.

In another way, the day had something of a family reunion feel to it, and I felt grateful to be present at an important community event celebrating the history and culture of First Nations people. For lunch, my friends and I asked a food vendor what he recommended, and he suggested Indian tacos. This is spiced meat, sour cream, and other taco fixings piled on a bed of frybread, and it was delicious. Other vendors were selling furs, handmade soaps, crafts, art, mittens, and moccasins. People wandered among the vendors, chatted in groups, watched the dancers, adjusted their regalia in preparation for the next dance, traded stories of other pow wows. 

A friend asked me afterward about the spiritual element, since some Christians feel pow wows should be avoided. To be honest, I had never thought of pow wows in that way. I suppose different attitudes on this question are part of the complexity of living on shared land as we do. At the pow wow last month, a grandmother said a blessing as part of the Grand Entry. She addressed the Great Creator, so I felt comfortable praying along. Was she praying to God, the Father of Jesus, in the same way I was? I don't know. But the words she prayed were words I felt comfortable praying to Him. 

We're not to worship God in the same way that others worship other gods, and we're to stand out as different because we follow Christ, but God created every culture, and loves the diversity He has made too. I think He loves the exuberance and dancing of some people's worship, the solemnity and traditions of others...and when First Nations people worship Him as First Nations people, I think He loves that too. There's a lot of complexity around this, and sometimes we need to be comfortable with not knowing the answers.

From other people, from the news media, from well-made (or poorly-made) films and shows about or including First Nations people, we hear and see so many things about them. We hear of the poverty, poor housing, and lower-standard education, the years-long boil-water advisories, the anger when First Nations people are not consulted in land-use conversations, the heritage of land conservation and close relationship with the land, the spiritual elements of the relationship to the land, the distinctive styles of artwork across the continent, the shameful history of European colonization and greed, the residential schools and their legacy, the complexities of land claims, MMIW… I feel like at a powwow, so many things come together, but come into a clearer focus. The difficulties are not ignored, but in the dances, the times of honour, the togetherness of the day, there is a strong sense of pride and community and continuity that speaks to strength. As Christians, we are committed to reconciliation; that is a complex and sometimes messy journey, but a worthwhile journey. If going to a pow wow will help you in your efforts, I would encourage you to find one and go.

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This article is great Anita! I would echo pretty much everything you said here. I attended my first (and only to date) Pow Wow 2 years ago. It was an incredible experience for me. While the memory is unfortunately fading a bit for me now, how it made me feel has not. I was so humbled by the way they respected and honoured the earth, each other, and all people in this time of 'worship' and coming together. I say this because I had come straight from my own worship service at church and marveled at the similarities! I was humbled by their genuine hospitality! I initially felt like a 'stranger' or intruder - because it was my first time and I also wondered/feared they would just see me as a 'nosy white person'. Those fears were quickly put to rest. Hospitality was seen by the way the 'MC' explained what they were doing to the vendors who provided foods and handmade crafts and goods. One of the main reasons I went was because our friend/neighbour down the street is Indigenous and she invited us and I knew this would also lead to a deepening of our relationship as I continue to shine Jesus' light in my own neighbourhood! 

I hope others will share their experiences here in the comments or in their own articles! Thanks again Anita!