Taking back tradition: Alberta First Nation opens powwow dance classes to adults

The Samson Cree Nation is reconnecting its people with their culture one step at a time.

'There are a lot of people my age ... who've never been able to participate in a powwow'

'We want to bring it back'

5 years ago
Duration 2:08
Dance classes at Samson Cree Nation provide the opportunity to 'repatriate our culture.'

In a small room at the Howard Buffalo Memorial Centre on the Samson Cree Nation reserve, Tiffany Rain watches jingle dance instructor Katherine Swampy's feet carefully before trying to retrace the steps.

The two women are only seven years apart — Rain is 29 and Swampy, 32 — but they were not afforded the same opportunities to learn about tradition while growing up. 

While Swampy's mother introduced her to powwow dancing, Rain didn't have a stable home life. 

"I've always wanted the culture part in me and I've never got to really embrace it," said Rain, who wants to learn jingle dance because of its associations with healing. 

"That's what I really want to do, is to heal." 

Over the past year, Swampy and fancy dance instructor Karlene Cutknife have heard from dozens of adults, who, like Rain, are interested in learning the steps to reconnect with tradition. 

While Samson Cree Nation has held introductory powwow dancing classes for children and youth, they're now open to people of all ages. 

At 29, Tiffany Rain is learning to powwow dance so that she can join the Samson Cree Naiton powwow circle. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

"I'm hoping that we can grow our powwow circle, that we can encourage people to start participating in their own culture," Swampy said. "It is repatriation and reclamation of ourselves." 

Rain will be initiated into the powwow circle at the Samson Cree Nation's annual event from Aug. 9-12. 

Legacy of cultural oppression

Powwow dancing, as a customary practice and display of culture, was illegal under the Indian Act until 1951. 

After the law changed, other barriers remained. 

Katherine Swampy's Facebook post about opening up powwow dance classes to adults on the Samson Cree Nation reserve. (Facebook)

The impact of the Sixties Scoop, during which many First Nations children were put in the care of non-First Nations guardians, compounded with the widespread operation of residential schools, knowledge of Indigenous traditions, including powwow dancing, was lost. 

'There's a lot that older generations have been deprived of," Swampy explained, noting the trickle-down effect on her generation.

"There's a lot of people my age ... who've never been able to participate in a powwow, who've never been able to enjoy themselves as a dancer," she said. 

'We want to bring it back'

Christie Saddleback, also 29, grew up off reserve. 

Like Rain, she hadn't powwow danced before joining the classes offered by Swampy and Cutknife — even though she attended events with her husband. 

"I'd sit there and watch," Saddleback said.

The couple now has a one-year-old son and want him to be able to experience the powwow circle with his family. 

"I want him to be comfortable and if he seems them comfortable dancing, then I'm sure he will be," Saddleback said. 

Powwow dancing is about more than fancy footwork, said Cutknife, who has been teaching fancy dance for years.

Dancers at a powwow in Victoria, B.C. in 1951. (CBC Archives)

There's meaning behind it and protocols to follow, she said, acknowledging it can seem intimidating. 

"It's not exclusive. Anybody can join," Cutknife said. 

That's why there are always intertribal dances at powwows, she added. 

"There's always an announcer who's going to do their best to inform people: 'OK, this is an intertribal. Now is your chance to come out. Anybody, everybody, come dance!' " Cutknife said. 

'This is who we are'

If a non-First Nations person had a genuine interest in learning powwow dancing, Cutknife and Swampy said they'd have no problem teaching them.

Rain and Saddleback agree, welcoming the opportunity to learn alongside others interested in the meaning behind what they're doing. 

Twenty-nine-year-old Christie Saddleback, right, follows instructor Karlene Cutknife's lead. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

"This is a ceremony for us," Saddleback said. "This is something that if you're going to get into, you have to respect everything about it. Don't jump into it and make it a joke. It's not being silly. This is who we are." 

"If you learned it out of respect, that would be very appreciated," Rain said. 



With files from Trevor Wilson