Dancing to a heartbeat: A visitor's guide to powwows
Powwow season is a chance to gather with other families, honour tradition and perhaps try a dance
At the Oromocto First Nation, grass dancers are stomping the ground, clearing the grass of sticks and rocks while their fringed, bright regalia sways to a beat, like grass blowing in the wind.
Summer on Turtle Island means powwow season. All summer long in Canada, drum groups, dancers and spectators have been clearing their weekend schedules to get to the nearest gathering.
"Powwow to me is a time when families get together and share the teachings and culture and have a good time," says Gilbert Sark of Lennox Island First Nation, a Mi'kmaq reserve in Prince Edward Island.
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Until 1951, powwows were banned by the Canadian government under the Indian Act, but then the tradition, with origins on the western plains, spread to the East Coast.
Now, many First Nations hold powwows, and they're open to everyone.
Each is as different as the dances and drumming, but here is some help following the action.
Getting the ground ready
The grass dancers' role is to prepare the arena for the grand entry parade, when the flags of First Nations in attendance will be carried in.
"The grass dance is a beautiful dance that represents the people that went first — not just the people who went first to be ahead of people, but to dance," said Possesom Paul, a Wolastoqey of St. Mary's First Nation, a grass dancer and the head male dancer at Oromocto First Nation's third annual powwow.
Grass dancers were also the scouts.
"They went ahead of the tribe, the people, the community," Paul said. "They would lead the nation whenever the nation needed to migrate."
Different kinds of powwows
There are two types of powwows. Traditional powwows are usually smaller and put more emphasis on teachings and culture.
Competition powwows are more about who is the best in a particular style, and dancers train all year to win the top prizes in their styles.
And there are a lot of dances and styles.
Among the more common dances are the men's traditional, which tells the story of a hunt of victory, and the women's traditional, a slow, elegant dance that may include scrubbing — staying in one place but turning to the drumbeats — or walking in baby-like steps, as if massaging the Earth.
Men and women's fancy dances are thrilling to watch. The men's fancy dance is fast-paced, incorporating cartwheels, back flips and other acrobatic moves as the dancers twirl staffs and shake the feather bustles on their backs.
In the women's fancy, the steps are intricate, emulating a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. The dancers appear to float around the arena, twirling and spinning their frilled shawls.
Styles also vary depending on the region. Some dances may be accompanied by their own drum songs, such as double beat, crow hop, duck and dive.
On the powwow trail
Some people travel across the country to get to the best powwows, dance their styles and sing their nations' songs.
"I've been doing this since '92," said Gilbert Sark of drum group Hey Cuzzins. "There has been days where to get to the powwow, I had the drum on my back with my pack sack, and I was hiking."
For Sark and others on the powwow trail, the gatherings are a way of life. "Live by the drum" is tattooed on one of Sark's arms, "Sing for my people" on the other.
"Being a part of the powwow, singing and dancing, it's a good feeling for me," he said.
For others, powwow is also a way to connect with their Indigenous roots.
"I had a tough path in life," said Parker Larkin of Hey Cuzzins. "I didn't grow up on reserve, so in public school I got teased and beat up for being native. I started drumming when I was 13 years old. My older brother introduced me to it. It's pretty fun."
Your mother's heartbeat
An integral part of the powwow is the drum, a wooden frame with a hide skin that makes a thunderous boom when struck by the four to six drummers gathered around it.
"The beat of the drum represents the heartbeat of Mother Earth," Larkin said. "When you're a baby in the womb and you hear your mother's heartbeat, that's what it represents."
"What's been taught to me is the drum is already singing a song. We're just accompanying it with our voices. Every song we sing, regardless of what it's for, is a prayer. The songs aren't meant for us, they're meant for the people."
Regalia tells stories
Each dance has its own attire, called regalia, commonly adorned with elaborate beadwork and eagle feathers on soft leather or fabric applique.
Some dance styles incorporate other accessories, including feather fans, staffs or shields.
"Some people work on their regalia their whole life," said Amanda Reid, a Dakota jingle dress dancer from Woodstock First Nation. "Some of the pieces get passed down but the dress can take up to a year to make."
The jingle dress is about healing. At the Oromocto powwow, Reid wore a blue dress with silver jingle across the lower half. Parts of it were inspired by a dream, said the registered nurse.
"The jingle dress is one of those things where I can engage in people healing in my personal and professional life. It symbolizes holistic healing, so it's a very special dress to me."
Possesom Paul, who teaches dance to children said his regalia was made by four women over two weeks.
"Every dancer, their story is different, so their regalia is different. It's all up to the dancer. Sometimes they have stories right down to the last needle point."
Everyone welcome at powwow
You don't have to be Indigenous to attend a powwow. They are open to everyone of any race or culture. There are even dances called inter-tribals, where spectators are invited to enter the arena and join in and dance.
"Intertribal means 'coming together of people,'' Paul said. "Inter means coming together, tribal means coming from a drum.
"If you go back in time, every single person or society, culture, comes from a drum. Because we all come from a unified beat of our mother's heartbeat. So we acknowledge that and that's why we invite everyone to come dance during inter-tribals.
Summer may be winding down, but there are still a few more powwows in New Brunswick. If you're looking for something to do with your family, come out and celebrate Indigenous culture.