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Pow Wow with the First Nations on the Bruce Peninsula

Driving up the Bruce Peninsula with two kids, an auntie and an uncle, I stopped talking long enough to hear a friendly invitation. “Bring your family to discover the traditions of the Nawash First Nation,” welcomed the voice from the car radio. Time for the local weekend pow wow. For two full afternoons, the Chippewas at Cape Croker, just north of Wiarton, Ont., would be singing, dancing, playing the drums, eating and just plain celebrating life with friends. And everyone passing through, native and non-native, was invited.

“Why would we go to a pow wow?” asked uncle. That was enough to postpone beach and picnic plans and make a detour to the spectacular setting of the Cape Croker Indian Park on Georgian Bay.

When our kids were preschoolers, we began introducing them to pow wows, the annual get-togethers hosted by our native peoples. As tots, they were fascinated by the dancers in full regalia of feathers; they tried to copy the circle of drummers beating out the heartbeat of Mother Earth. As they grew older, they danced in the intertribal dances open to anyone, moving around the pow wow circle to the music of the drums and songs. Over the years, we’ve all feasted on corn soup and fried bread (bannock) with jam, browsed through the booths of T-shirts, jewelry and mocassins and talked to native people about their dress and customs.

Some of the larger pow wows, such as the Wikwemikong Pow Wow on Manitoulin Island each August first weekend, attract hundreds of spectators. Pow wows, like large family reunions where you don’t necessarily know all the cousins but everybody has a good time, have always presented an opportunity for education and fun. It was time for us to introduce uncle to these native fests.

Arriving at the sight, we paid our admission fee ($5 for adults, $2 for our teens) and each had our hand stamped—with a dinosaur? Surely, it should be a totem or a teepee, I suggested to the native man stamping us at the gate. “Well, this was the first animal we hunted,” he laughed, reminding me that yes, the aboriginal peoples were here long before us. We had arrived for the Grand Entry, when the Flag Bearers lead the procession of dancers, the flags are raised, the Master of Ceremonies asks for a moment of silence as one would in a church. Then the rhythmic dancing began, starting with a Veteran’s dance honoring all those Natives who have fought and died in battle, including one man from Cape Croker who had served in the recent Desert Storm.

Uncle was impressed with the regalia—the dress, often handmade in painstaking sessions from leather, feathers, beads, died porcupine quills and other traditional materials. Most colorful were the bright blue and purple dresses covered in cone-shaped bells worn by the women for the Jingle Dances. He was also surprised that money could be won in the dancing competitions. Auntie and I almost won $50 in a spot dance when we were only two dancers away from the winner—a beaming teenage visitor not in costume.

Each of the dances—such as the Women’s Fancy Shawl showing spinning and graceful footwork, or the Hoop Dance respecting nature—was introduced by the Master of Ceremonies, who also explained the significance of certain elements and introduced important visitors. We loved watching the kids as young as three years old, proudly showing off capes or bandannas and small leather pouches filled with arrowheads or sage or sweet grass, twirling and dancing to the beat and the singing. “Listen to the drum,” instructed one mother to her son as she showed him how to place each foot on the grass in time to the beat. We needed to be taught that too. But we also learned how to say thank you to the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation. Chi Miigwetch!

Each pow wow is a bit different depending on local traditions. But if you are a visitor, there are some common rules of etiquette: because neither alcohol nor drugs were ever part of aboriginal life, they are strictly forbidden. Men must remove their hats during the Grand Entry and certain songs. If you want to take photos, ask permission. Most important, don’t let your kids touch anyone’s dance regalia without their permission—the clothes are sacred possessions, not costumes— and don’t let the kids run into the pow wow circle unless they are dancing. Finally, no pets are permitted on the pow wow grounds. We saw some unhappy doggies tied up to trees nearby.

If your family would like to attend a pow wow, here are some upcoming events: On Sept. 10 to 13 at Ohsweken, Ont. (near Brantford), Six Nation’s Annual Fall Fair and Pow Wow with native crafts, food booths and midway rides (519-445-0733); Sept 26 and 27, Curve Lake, Ont. (near Peterborough), Curve Lake Pow Wow with native regalia, drumming and native arts (705-657-5444). Also on Sept. 13 in Milton at Crawford Lake Conservation Area, an Indian Summer Festival with bead making, discovery hunt with prizes, wagon rides and corn husk doll making as well as tours through the impressive longhouse (905-854-0234). Cape Croker also offers campsites on its beautiful grounds starting at $18 per night. Call 519-534-0571.





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