There are many ways to celebrate and honour the diverse Indigenous communities in Canada and going to a pow wow should be high on your list of summer to-dos.
Pow wows, which are usually held throughout Canada and the U.S. from spring until fall, are celebrations of First Nations spirituality, culture and community using dance, song, drumming, food, crafts and traditional activities. During a pow wow, the host and guest Drums (which include singers) provide music — often described as the “heartbeat of the drum” — while dancers in elaborate regalia showcase different types of dances. In competitive pow wows, dancers vie for prizes, often travelling on a circuit of competitions throughout pow wow season. Outside of the dancing, there are often crafts and food for sale. Some pow wows also include speakers and educational sessions.
“The lands here are the traditional territory of many First Nations across the province, and the country, for that matter,” says Angela Sault, the heritage and cultural coordinator for the New Credit Cultural Committee, which hosts the Three Fires Homecoming and Traditional Gathering at the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation north of Hagersville, Ontario. “What better way to learn first-hand about First Nations culture than by attending a pow wow?”
If you’re new to the pow wow experience, here are a few things you should know.
Everyone is welcome
Pow wows are important celebrations of culture and spirituality for First Nations peoples across the country, but that doesn’t mean you have to be Indigenous to attend. Guests are welcome — just check the event’s website for any special instructions, like whether you should bring lawn chairs or your own dishes and utensils.
“Come to the pow wow with a good mind and an open heart,” says Sault. “Be prepared to learn new things and don’t be afraid to participate when possible. And don’t leave our event without having some corn soup and an Indian taco!”
Guests are also welcome (and encouraged!) to join in the dancing during inter-tribal dances. Just listen for the MC’s announcement.
Be aware of pow wow etiquette
Pow wows are a lot of fun, but they also have great spiritual and cultural significance, so there are a few rules to be aware of. These vary from region to region, so if you’re unsure about anything, ask an organizer.
- Regalia is very personal, and often represents years of work and significant expense. Some articles are very old, and some are sacred. Don’t touch someone’s regalia or take their picture without asking.
- Listen to the MC for instructions about when to stand, when to remove your hat and when not to take photographs or make audio/video recordings of the dancers.
- If you find an eagle feather on the ground, let an organizer know. There is a specific ceremony to retrieve the feather.
- Children are welcome, but should not play in the sacred circle/dance area.
- Don’t crowd around the drummers.
- Remove your hat when asked, unless your hat has an eagle feather in it.
If you’re not sure what to do, the MC is your friend
A pow wow MC keeps the singers, dancers and other participants on track, letting them know what’s happening and when each drum group gets to sing. He’ll also tell you when photography or video/audio recording isn’t allowed, or when everyone is welcome to participate in a dance.
Pow wows are drug- and alcohol-free events
Pow wows are spiritual as well as cultural gatherings, and there’s no alcohol or drugs allowed at the events. In fact, it’s customary to refrain from using drugs or alcohol for at least four days before attending.
Don’t miss the Grand Entry (because it’s spectacular)
Pow wows officially open with the Grand Entry, where all dancers enter the dance area behind people carrying flags and the Eagle Staff, military veterans or active-duty soldiers, princesses, elders, other honoured guests, and head dancers. Audience members generally stand during the Grand Entry and, at many pow wows, photography isn’t allowed.
Learn about the different dances
Dances vary from region to region, but there are several dances that tend to be common across the country.
- Men’s Traditional Dance:
This dance, which features elaborate regalia that includes a circular feather bustle, is low to the ground and tends not to be as athletic as other pow wow dances. The dancers’ movements are thought to mirror that of birds and animals.
- Men’s Fancy Dance:
This dance is relatively new, and more athletic in spirit than the traditional dance. Regalia tends to be more colourful and includes two bustles — one on the lower back and one on the shoulders.
- Men’s Grass Dance:
This dance is thought to have its origins on the northern prairies. A warrior’s dance, it features long-flowing, fringed costumes and movements that are smooth and balanced.
- Women’s Traditional Dance:
This relatively new dance features steps that resemble a stylized walk, with one foot always on the ground. Women wear regalia that usually includes heavy beading, ribbon work and jewellery.
- Women’s Fancy Shawl Dance:
This is an athletic, whirling dance, often performed by young women. The regalia includes an elaborately decorated fringed shawl
- Women’s Jingle Dance:
Jingle dresses include rows of jingling metal cones, which were originally made from tobacco tin lids. The dresses themselves are often decorated with appliques and ribbon work. The dance is light and nimble.
Remember that there’s more to pow wows than singing and dancing
“There was a time in history when First Nations people were forbidden to gather in groups of three or more, and there was also a time when ceremonial gatherings were also outlawed for us,” says Sault. “Being able to have an annual celebration of culture where many nations from across the country can come and gather and be together for a weekend of traditional dancing, drumming and singing has really brought us a long way. It is important for our First Nations people to be able to celebrate our culture openly and proudly.”