“This was indeed an extraordinary and bizarre day!”, I wrote in my diary on the 8th of August. Diane, a half-native Canadian woman we befriended four years ago, had taken us to our first ever Pow Wow. A Pow Wow is a ceremony of North America’s Native people to repeat the traditional rituals of their ancestors, and is a festivity to celebrate their liberty to do so. The fact that this ceremony was taking place was not indicated in any of the touristic booklets, and without Diane we would never have had the opportunity to experience this unique and incredibly interesting happening.
The Pow Wow took place rather deep inside the forest. After a short drive on a gravel road we arrived on the festival ground, filled with parked motorhomes from the aboriginal people. According to Diane this particular pow wow was considered to be a rather small gathering, even though the number of people at the site surprised us. Diane pointed out to us that the natives in Canada are called by a variety of names: First Nations, indigenous people and even aboriginals. However, calling them Indians is considered offensive. Many of them were wearing traditional clothing. Diane also told us that the clothing worn by them should not be called ‘costumes’, but rather ‘regalia’.
Everyone wore yet another regalia, the one very elaborate such as a man with a painted black face and a bearskin around his neck, the other less extensive with only a scarf around the hips. There were people of all ages, young children to elderly in mobility scooters. We also noticed quite a few people without teeth and excess weight. Unfortunately, many Native Americans live in poor health and social conditions still.
There were a number of stalls selling indigenous items at the site, such as dream catchers, foxtails and natural creams, as well as food stalls selling bizon burgers and Indian Taco’s. At the back of the grounds was a sort of ‘arena’, with an inner circle in which a number of musicians were sitting behind drums and an outer larger circle for people to dance in. We arrived just in time for the Grand Entry. This started with two Grass Dancers, who danced to traditional music in a way that they pound the ground with their feet. They flatten the grass in order for other people to dance in. I thought this was absolutely fascinating to see, as I love different styles of dancing and had never seen these types of movements before. It was also the first time we heard this kind of music; pounding music to the rhythm of the heartbeat accompanied by throat singing. Next, it was the turn for the Jingle Dress Dancers, women wearing skirts with hundreds of small tin cones on them, enabling you to hear them from afar. Afterwards, everyone participating in the ceremony joined inside the circle and started dancing as in a parade. This Pow Wow was named AllNations, as it welcomed different groups of people who represented themselves with different flags. Now and then someone with the name of ‘Fast cloud’ or ‘White bear sobriety’ gave a short speech or honored the head dancers or head grandmothers. One song was also completely devoted to honouring women. The ‘Firekeeper’ told us that in the past, women were not allowed to dance along, but that this song invites them to join. Nowadays everyone dances together, but he pointed out to us that the eldest people were dancing in a ‘softer’ way, almost as if they weren’t really moving.
I was impressed by their respect for nature. I personally found this a brilliant statement of the head eldest, who pointed to the grass and said: “This is my mother (earth), please don’t put cigarettes in her hair.” What I also found wonderful was that everyone was very welcoming. They mentioned a few times in their speeches that color or bloodline does not matter here and that everyone has to be nonjudgmental: “If you think that someone is not dressed appropriately, know then, that we invited them here. If you think that someone doesn’t dance correctly, know then, that we invited them here. If you think that someone doesn’t behave the way they should, know then, that we invited them here.” After the opening, there was a chance to dance yourself. My mum even joined in! I was a bit embarrassed in the beginning, but I must admit, it’s pretty cool to dance with aboriginals! She also took part in a cleansing ritual. In her left hand, she had to hold tobacco, and while they blew smoke at her with a feather, she had to think of a wish. To complete the ritual, she had to walk around a circle and throw the tobacco in a sacred fire.
We didn’t stay for the evening feast, but came back the next day for the sunrise ceremony, a.k.a. the weeping circle. That’s a whole story on it’s own… Pow Wow part 2.