Summers in Canada bring to mind three things: mosquitoes, the end of our ability to walk across water, and powwows. For untold generations, Indigenous people have been celebrating their culture through annual festivals known as powwows. It’s also evolved into a verb, i.e. to go powwowing.
The event consists of many things, but mostly traditional dancing, drumming, a plethora of vendors selling everything from T-shirts, to leather goods, to beaded baseball caps – even to amazing works of art. And then there’s the food … if it can be fried or deep-fried, you will find it at a powwow. Word of advice, if you see the term “Indian steak,” it has nothing to do with the tandoori method of cooking. Quite probably it’s baloney… literally.
But this year, the Year of the Mask, the cultural heritage that is associated with the powwow circuit has taken a severe hit. We’re all feeling it. It’s almost as bad as when the federal government instituted the potlatch ban in 1885, which essentially criminalized any form of Indigenous cultural activity. The difference being this time it was self-initiated, and curtailed instead of outlawed.
Okay, first a tourism lesson – it is safe to say that in southern/central Ontario, there are usually two to three powwows every weekend from late May to early October. Usually. This year, I know of only one. And as luck would have it, it was on the Curve Lake First Nation, my home community, a scant two weekends ago.
Much like a watered-down corn soup, the essence was there but many of the things that make a powwow a powwow were missing. You have to keep in mind, in most communities this is the event many look forward to all year.
Powwows have many purposes in Indian country. For some, they are a celebration of the aforementioned music and dance. Men huddle around a large drum, singing songs born from the very land people dance upon. Male and female dancers from a dozen or more different Indigenous communities gather together to dance their hearts out to those songs. Regalia is on display, each dancer brighter and more spectacular than the previous one. People from a number of Nations show up to represent their communities and heritage. It’s a glorious sight.
But unfortunately, COVID is a nasty and rude host. In the spirit of safety, our powwow was only open to local dancers and audience members from the community. That lone Sunday, there were maybe half a dozen men and women dancing in the once-crowded dance arbour, keeping an easy six feet between each other, when normally the area would have been teeming with dozens of dancers. Like thinning hair on a balding man, it only hinted at what was once there.
Technically in competitive powwow dancing, there are six categories – women’s fancy, shawl and traditional, followed by the men’s fancy, grass or traditional dance. And on occasion, you might have specialty dancers like hoop dancers. No such parade of talent this year. But those who were there to dance did. Feathers were still flying and moccasins were still hoppin'.
Powwows are also a social event. Old friends get together on the bleachers watching the women fancy-dance. New friends compare notes on the talents of the grass dancers. You eat your Indian taco near the sacred fire so that ex-girlfriend (or boyfriend) you spotted earlier by the arbour doesn’t see you.
This year the social aspect of the event was greatly truncated by it being, for the first time in my memory, a drive-through event. As specifically requested by Chief and council, Curve Lake residents drove through the powwow grounds once or twice, and, even though casual honking was allowed, they were discouraged from parking or exiting their vehicles. That really cut down on the social aspect. Same for the feast. Normally, a feast, put on by the community, is held for the participants who have travelled far to participate and, in many cases, also for those who have come from nearby simply to enjoy the festivities. It’s a way of showing thanks. In the age of COVID, it evolved into a drive-through feast where plates were brought to the windows of a long line of waiting cars.
And for those who couldn’t manage to make the drive to the events, it was also a virtual powwow, to be enjoyed on the internet. It somehow lost something.
A few Indigenous people have a problem with powwows, saying they commercialize and homogenize all the trappings and traditions of Indigenous culture into one potpourri of an event. Totally understandable, but I can live with that. The smell of bannock frying, the sound of kids running around playing, the drum beating in the background, bells on dancers' regalia jingling, it is my childhood and my adulthood. I think I can safely say I have been to powwows in almost a hundred different communities across North America; all were different, and all were the same. That spectre of those previously enjoyed powwows haunted me.
These are strange times. All Canadians are making sacrifices to deal with the pandemic. Powwows are no exception. It may sound like I’m complaining. I’m not. I’m saluting the resilience of my community to adapt and persevere. A powwow by any other name ... and so on.
But I’m also allowed to lament the glory days of powwows gone.
But like the potlatch, which was reinstated in 1955, we’re anticipating the glory of the powwow will return.
I’ve already got my “Stay calm and powwow on” T-shirt ready.
Seriously, I need an Indian taco fix.
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