Manitoba school's powwow club teaches dance, culture, reconciliation

With music, regalia and a lot of fun, a powwow club in a Winnipeg school is bringing reconciliation into the classroom.

West St. Paul School club is only in its second year but student involvement has nearly doubled

West St. Paul School Grade 8 student Michael Esquash Jr. (left), Weekend Morning Show host Nadia Kidwai, Grade 4 teacher Alyssa Talbot and Grade 4 teacher Billie Cross talk reconciliation and powwow on Saturday morning. (Kelly Malone/CBC)

With music, regalia and a lot of fun, a powwow club in a school just outside Winnipeg is bringing reconciliation into the classroom.

The West St. Paul School club is only in its second year but student involvement has nearly doubled and they will be performing at Manito Ahbee's international powwow at the RBC Convention Centre on Saturday.

"It's been a really successful club in our school. The kids are really enjoying it and it's been very positive," said Grade 4 teacher Billie Cross.

Cross said bringing the idea of reconciliation into schools is very important. She is Mé​tis but said growing up, she struggled with sharing her identity with others.

"My grandmother used to tell me it's easier to just tell people you are Ukrainian," Cross said on CBC Radio's Weekend Morning Show on Saturday.

"I never really understood why until I was older, but growing up in the North End I saw the stereotypes, I saw how people were treated."

To her, reconciliation is about helping students find their identity and helping people understand what it means to be Indigenous.

But in the club, Cross said she's also a student.

"I've learned more about my culture, I've learned teachings," she said.

'It means happiness for me'

Grade 8 student Michael Esquash Jr. can occasionally be the teacher when it comes to powwow culture. He has danced since he was little and was very excited to learn about his school's club.

"It means happiness for me and it feels good to just dance and just get with the beat," he said.

Esquash said it was hard to hear how his teacher felt she needed to hide her Mé​tis roots.

"It's shocking. I never hide my identity. I kept it super open. I was told I was Native, I was Cree, I was Ojibway and it's shocking to me that she had to hide it when she was younger," he said.

Esquash's sister is also in the club and his parents have joined in to help teach dance and sew regalia and moccasins.

Cross said participation from parents is very important to the group's success. Parents have spent at least 55 hours over multiple evenings learning to bead, make moccasins and sew regalia for their children to dance in.

"That's really part of the powwow experience — sharing this with their child, making the regalia for them to dance in is something they can do together and brings them into our community, our powwow community," she said.

"And we really have created a community with our powwow club."

The club's community also includes non-Indigenous students and teachers, like Grade 4 teacher Alyssa Talbot. When she started working at West St. Paul she knew she'd need to learn a lot to infuse Indigenous perspectives more authentically into the classroom.

"I think as a non-Indigenous person my fear has always been it's going to be really gimmicky and not done in a respectful way," she said.

When the club was formed, she said she thought the best way to learn was to become completely immersed. But she said it's important to consult with Indigenous community members to learn protocol and avoid cultural appropriation.

"I think that it's a really great idea if you are curious [to] just jump in, just be part of things and you will learn along the way," she said.