home | full list  
search for in  
    Family Travel Ink
Canada: It's Powwow Time for Families!

Powwow! It'a the annual native celebration that's happening all over the province this summer and everyone's invited.

Our family first attended a powwow when our boys were two and three years old and we were vacationing on Manitoulin Island. They were mesmerized by the drums and the kids their age dressed in feathers, beadwork, and regalia. We adults loved the artwork on display and the food. We've been travelling to these giant fests ever since.

The word Powwow comes from the Algonquin word "Pau Wau," used to describe medicine men and spiritual leaders. The first settlers thought the word referred to the entire coming together of many peoples and so it stuck.

Today, hundreds of native people still journey all over North America travelling the powwow circuit. Sometimes people camp on the reserve where the powwow is taking place. Wanda Brascoupé, a Mohawk woman, recalls travelling to powwows with her family when she was a kid. "I remember lying there at six in the morning and hearing the drums," she relates. "People were coming around saying, 'Get up! It's Powwow time.' It was so exciting." Today she works for the Canada Tourism Commission helping to promote aboriginal tourism. She notes that requests for attending powwows are increasing, especially from visitors from other countries. We're lucky. Nearly every weekend during the spring and summer, there are numerous gatherings within a day's drive from Toronto.

Though the activities may be linked spiritually to each tribe's past and though the circular area set aside for dancing may be considered sacred, non-natives are invited to join all but the most traditional powwows. At these weekends, we've tasted specialties such as corn soup made with white corn, Indian tacos (thin dough filled with chili-like meats and rolled) or bannock (fried bread) with jam. We've toured the kiosks set up around the dancing area - as many as 50 booths - and bought dream catchers, moccasins, jewellry, and T-shirts. There's always arts and crafts for sale - carvings, paintings or textiles. And of course, we've watched and listened to the performers in their multi-colored powwow regalia - feathers and beads, fringed shawls and the jingling of bells. As our kids have grown, they've eagerly participated in the Intertribal dances open to non-natives; to the beat of the drum representing the heartbeat of Mother Earth, they've circled the arena along with hundreds of others. It's a sharing of cultures and an education too. At a time when the Disneyesque version of native culture is packing them in at the theatres (à la Pocahontas), why not experience first-hand authentic native traditions still practised today?

Some powwows attract thousands of visitors and hundreds of dancers, singers and drummers. Others are smaller and may have a special focus such as the celebration of native contribution to the fur trade at the gathering in Thunder Bay. "Each powwow is different," says Claude Latour, an Algonquin artist who hits the powwow trail every year with his family. "It varies from place to place. Each territory has a different flavour." For instance, the Mohawks dance counterclockwise; others move the opposite way.

Nevertheless, some customs remain constant. Each ceremony begins with the Grand Entry, the Flag Bearers leading the procession of dancers. Respected elders, veterans who fought in World War II, and tribal dignitaries arrive with the Eagle Staff and flags - the Canadian and American and other nation flags. Songs are sung, a prayer is said, and the Eagle Staff is hoisted in a place of honor. "The Grand Entry is a great coming together," says Rita Root, chairperson of the culture committee of the Saugeen First Nations band in Southampton, Ontario who are hosting their powwow in two week's time. She likens it to the prayer said at the beginning of a church service. The Master of Ceremonies then introduces the Head Dancers and the Host Drum, a task that continues all weekend as he makes announcements, answers questions, and calls for the different performers to come to centre circle.

But the highlight is the dancing and drumming competitions open to all ages. Tots as young as two or three perform. When the kids are about six years old, they can enter the fancy dance competitions to show off their elaborate footwork or try the more traditional dances where they can interpret ideas in an individual way. Everyone, even the elders of the tribe compete for prize money that is awarded at the end of the weekend event.

Certain rules, however, also apply to the spectators. Because neither alcohol nor drugs were ever part of aboriginal life, no beer or wine is served; drugs and alcohol are strictly forbidden. Special dances, such as honor dances, may not be photographed or video reproduced; it may be a good idea to ask permission before taking pictures. If an eagle feather drops from a dancer, it represents a fallen warrior and must not be touched without ceremony. And of course, visitors should not expect to pose in powwow regalia; it would be like asking to try on someone's blazer while in Church or Synagogue.

Questions from the public are always welcomed. But it's a tradition to give something in return for the enlightenment. Elders will often accept a pinch of tobacco, considered sacred. Even among native people, the interest in all aspects of powwows is growing.This spring, the First Nations Saugeen band set aside nights for regalia making. The old songs are being passed from powwow to powwow. The young people are being encouraged to learn the old languages. "Powwows represent a bridge into our world," sums up Latour. "It's a good time for everyone and a natural high."





  home | full list  
Site Copyright © 2003-2023 The Travel Files
All rights reserved.
The Travel Files is a creation of
the Pocock / Sacks family.