What is a powwow, anyway? Contrary to a common, and ignorant, idiom, having a powwow is not participating in an informal meeting at the office. But they aren’t the same as they used to be either. Prior to 1876, powwows were a ceremony to mark alliances with other tribes or to celebrate a good hunt. They typically occurred once per year, where people would drum, dance, eat food, and heal. But with the introduction that year of the Indian Act—a piece of legislation widely recognized as racist—various Indigenous ceremonies (as well as the potlatch, ghost dance, and sun dance) were outlawed. This lasted until 1951 with the removal of some of the discriminatory sections. Today, powwows are acts of reclamation that help maintain connections to traditions, songs, regalia, and community.
And you’re welcome to join in! It doesn’t matter if you’re non-Indigenous. If you’ve been hesitant to go because you’re worried that you might say or do the wrong thing, don’t overthink it. It’s okay to make mistakes—just be open to being corrected. Nobody’s going to yell at you. Promise. There really aren’t any hard and fast rules, as there are in traditional ceremonies such as the sweat lodge.
For the most part, it’s just about being respectful. But here are a few basics to get you started. Don’t bring alcohol. Do pack a lawn chair or a blanket. Being comfortable is allowed! If there’s a circle that’s been cleared by a crowd, walking through it is considered rude. There’s probably dancing going on in the middle.
Keep in mind that we aren’t there to perform for you, so ask permission before you take pictures. And even if you are allowed to, don’t stop dancers and ask to take a selfie with them, and don’t call their regalia a “costume.” Regalia is traditional clothing worn by Indigenous people for ceremonies like powwows. Stand for the Grand Entry, where an Elder will lead dancers into the arena. If an eagle feather falls on the ground, don’t pick it up. It’s guarded until it can be properly retrieved and returned to its owner. When in doubt, watch the crowd. Do what they do. Oh, and bring some cash so you can try some food. If I ate meat, or gluten, I’d start with a bannock burger or a bannock taco. Really, anything with bannock.
Powwows aren’t hard to find either. Search online for sites that publish the powwow trail. Communities have set dates so that dancers can do a tour across Turtle Island, and they try hard not to overlap with each other. Hope to see you there.
This story was originally published in the May 2022 issue of Cottage Life.