Pow Wows 101 – Everything You Need to Know!

ByKate Pocock February 24, 2016

“Hey, want to go to a Pow wow today?” I asked my daughter as we tucked into pancakes at Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre. The ladies at the next table had announced that the Zhiibaahaasing First Nation, the small reserve on the western end of the island, were holding their annual community celebration that afternoon. And like any Pow wow, visitors were invited to join the fun!

Visitors Welcome

We had taken our kids to other Pow wows in Northeastern Ontario’s such as the grand Wikwemikong Traditional Pow Wow, so my daughter was excited to see the colourful dancers in splendid regalia and hear the sounds of the jingle dresses. We had even danced at Pow wows, to the strong beat of the drums representing the heartbeat of Mother Earth.

And then there was the food: bannock (fried bread) slathered with jam, Indian tacos (thin dough filled with meats) and corn soup, as well as the arts and crafts booths selling silver jewelry, sweet grass boxes, and beautiful beaded items.

“Sure,” answered my daughter with a quick lick of maple syrup. So we set out along the island’s scenic country roads to find the Zhiibaahaasing First Nation. Special attraction: despite its small size, this reserve was home to the world’s biggest Peace Pipe, world’s largest Drum, and a giant Dream Catcher, intended to catch any wandering nightmares and thus create peaceful, beautiful dreams.

Natalie pix Manitoulin pow-wow-15

photo by Natalie Sacks

As we approached, helpful signs guided us along the route, and friendly kids pointed the way. By the time we pulled into the parking lot, we could hear the music, and see dancers stepping enthusiastically around the Pow wow circle. So after a few photos beside the jumbo dream catcher statue, we headed over to hear the drums, watch the dancers in their colourful regalia, and even dance in one of the dances open to visitors.

A visiting mum from Britain and her kids danced along happily beside us, a big smile on her face. “I can’t believe that I’m doing this. It’s been a dream of mine for years,” she said as she bounced along the circle, holding her children’s hands.

Pow wow Etiquette

As with other Pow wows, when the drumming stops, we stopped too. In fact, there is a certain etiquette during Pow wow. No alcohol, drugs or pets. Special dances, such as Honour Dances, may not be photographed without permission. Pow wow garments are not “costumes,” they are called regalia, often taking months of hand stitching during long winter nights. So ask permission before touching or taking photos.

If an eagle feather drops to the ground, it represents a fallen warrior and must not be touched without ceremony. Visitors should not expect to pose in Pow wow regalia (never call them ‘costumes’; it would be akin to suddenly asking an unknown person in Church or Synagogue if you could try on their suit jacket.)

Other than that, it’s totally OK for anyone to visit, and take part. Listen to the Master of Ceremonies for instruction. The atmosphere is friendly, and fun. Finally, learn to say “Thank you.” In Algonquin it’s, “Miigwetch,” literally translated as, “It is too much.”

Unexpected Treats

Pow wow Jinlge Dresses 00022741Then, as with many Pow wows, an unexpected treat: the showing of an historic beaded belt, borrowed from the Royal Ontario Museum. My daughter and the British kids listened intently as we heard about the treaty of 1862 (where almost all native land was given over to the British), and admired the replica of the belt depicting figures.

“The aboriginal peoples did not comprehend the principle of dividing land,” instructed a Chief who was visiting the reserve. “To our people, it was like dividing the air we breathe, or, dividing water that is flowing through a river.” The original citizens of our country simply did not understand this concept. The result: almost all land east of the Rockies was handed over to the British.

Manitoulin’s nearby reserve of  Wikwemikong, however, we learned, never ceded their territory. And this special reserve held a three-day Pow wow celebration every year during the August long weekend, now the largest spectator event in Northeastern Ontario.

But for us, the drums and singing soon began again at our smaller Manitoulin Pow wow. It was the Women’s Fancy Shawl dance. The beat was on, and the fringes of bright purple and green shawls were weaving colours in the wind as the female elders and young girls danced and swirled around the circle. We took photos. Time, too, for devouring some warm bannock, and a chance for my daughter to buy some beautiful bird feathers to adorn her bedroom.

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped by a small waterfall, just one of the natural gifts revered by First Nations. We talked about Pow wow, our Ontario history, and hiking the Cup and Saucer Trail the next day. From all reports, we would get spectacular views of the landscape which the island’s First Nations peoples had known and admired for thousands of years. We were lucky to be invited to participate in these traditions of Pow wow and native stewardship—even if it was just for one memorable day. As one Pow wow dad said, “Pow wows represent a bridge into our world. It’s a good time for everyone, and a natural high.” Miigwetch!

Pow Wow Dates in Northeastern Ontario

There are many Pow wows in this region and all welcome visitors of all ages. For more information before travelling, visit Great Spirit Circle Trail; call 1-877-719-3211, or email circletrail@circletrail.com

In the meantime, below are some major ones.

Manitoulin Island:

  • Sheguiandah First Nation Traditional Pow wow:  July 1 – 2, 2017
  • Wikwemkoong 57th Annual Cultural Festival and Traditional Pow wow:  August 5 – 7, 2017
  • Sheshegwaning-Zhiibaahaasing Pow wow:  Aug 26 – 27, 2017
  • M’Chigeeng First Nation Traditional Pow wow:  Sept 2 – 3, 2017

Other parts of Northeastern Ontario:

  • Massey: Sagamok First Nation, July 7 – 9, 2017
  • Temagami First Nation Annual Pow wow: July 8 – 9, 2017
  • Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation Pow wow, Whitefish Lake:  July 29 ­– 30, 2017
  • Annual Mattagami First Nation Pow wow, Gogama: Aug 19-20, 2017
  • Wahnapitae First Nation 22nd Annual Pow wow: Aug 19-20, 2017 
  • Whitefish River First Nation Wawaskinaga Annual Traditional Pow wow:  Aug 26 –27, 2017
  • Nipissing First Nation Traditional Pow wow, Sturgeon Falls:  September Sept. 2 – 3, 2017

For more Information: http://calendar.powwows.com/events/categories/pow-wows/pow-wows-in-ontario/

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