All About Powwows

I have always loved going to the powwow that takes place in my home community on the Lake Helen Reserve near Nipigon, Ontario. Hearing the singers’ voices soar through the sky as the dancers so beautifully move to the beat of the drum, the trees surrounding the circle dance alongside them, and all the birds in the bush come to join, chirping in harmony with the music. After a while, your own heartbeat will find that of the grandfather drum, and it will make your spirit dance even if your feet aren’t moving.

Photo credit – Mia Laframboise

I would like everyone to experience just how amazing powwows are, but I know that sometimes people who are non-Anishinaabeg can be a little bit timid, unsure, or uncomfortable to go and check them out as they may not know what to expect. Well, it’s totally okay to feel that way and I, along with an Elder of my community, are here to help. You see in Anishinaabeg culture, our Elders hold the knowledge of our traditions and teachings, and they pass it down to the younger generations (or anyone willing to listen and learn) so that together, we can keep our culture alive for many years to come. The Elder who I spoke to is one I adore very much. She grew up in the area her whole life and, with a warm smile, she continues to spread teachings and love throughout our community to everyone she encounters. Today and together, we will share some  knowledge of the powwow with you, and with the hope that you will feel comfortable enough to go and experience one for yourself!

What are they?

When I first got together with the Elder, my first question to get us started was: “What are powwows?” and she answered: “Powwows are and always have been a sacred gathering and healing for people.”

She explained that everything about the powwow is very powerful. The songs come from deep within the heart and the dancing right from the spirit of the dancer. All working together, the powwow brings people, friends, and families together.

“They have a lot of meaning in them, right from the heart, it tries to draw everybody in.”

The dancing and singing are a part of the powwow you can sit and observe. Powwows are something you must experience in person to really learn all they have to offer and share. Being an observer can be one of the most powerful things you can do as a learner. In the words of the Elder: “All people are welcome within the circle. You do not need regalia to come, watch, and learn.”

Also, another part of the powwow and, one of my personal favourites, is getting to see and support the amazingly talented Anishinaabeg artists and small businesses. They are usually set up around the grounds selling beautiful homemade jewelry, clothing, moccasins, and so much more! Be sure to buy a little something to support them and their amazing artistry.


How Do They Go?

The next question I asked the Elder was how a powwow goes, as in the order of dancers, singers, etc. She explained that the powwow usually runs for four days and starts at 1:00pm (ish) in the afternoon and ends at midnight. On the first day, it starts with the Grand Entry, which is when everyone enters the powwow to the sound of the entry song. After the entry song, the same drum group does the flag song, and then a song for the veterans.

Then, she says, with the grand entry there is an order to who goes in first and so forth: first goes the chiefs, the ones with staffs, and any royalty; second goes the men’s traditional dancers and the fancy dancers; third goes the ladies jingle dancers, the children, and the shall dancers. During the grand opening while everyone is coming in, you cannot take photos as it is ceremonial (but don’t worry, if you aren’t sure, the MC will let you know when you can or cannot take photos. They are there to help guide you along).

Photo credit – Mia Laframboise

Then you, the public, enter after the chiefs and dancers. As you enter, you might see people at the entrance offering tobacco to the dancers. Pure tobacco is a medicine, and sometimes used as a gift. I highly encourage you to bring some if you have the means to purchase it (tobacco can be found at the local reserve gas station). You see, at the powwow, you can offer it to the sacred fire that burns as long as the powwow is on, or you can offer it to an elder in exchange for any teachings that you may want to learn. My dad always said that in our culture, you give something, you receive something. So, when it comes to elders and our teachings, the knowledge of our ancestors is seen as a special gift. In exchange for the gift of their knowledge, we offer tobacco to honor balance and sacredness of the exchange.

*How to offer tobacco*

* When offering tobacco to an elder, open both of your palms and place your right hand on top of your left hand with the tobacco in the middle. Then, extend your arms towards the Elder and ask your question. If the Elder feels able to share, they will take the tobacco.

* If you would like to give your tobacco to the sacred fire, bundle your tobacco in your right hand and put it up to your heart and say your prayer (this can be anything: giving thanks, hopes for the future, any guidance you feel like you need) and then toss it into the fire. 


About the Dancing

When I asked about the order of the dancers during the powwow, the Elder said they go about the same as when they enter. Each group of dancers gets four songs each along with the drum group who sings the different dancing categories. Everything surrounding the powwow goes in fours to represent the medicine wheel. Our medicine wheel is what we follow to create balance in our lives. It has four colours to represent all people; four directions to represent all directions of the land; and it is in a circle to represent the earth. The Elder said that here in our area of Opwaaganisiniing, we dance clockwise around the circle because it represents dancing for life. If we ever dance counter clockwise, we are dancing to honor those who have passed on.

Photo credit – Mia Laframboise

Then, at the end of the powwow and after the children’s dancers, the MC will announce the intertribal dance which means anyone can go into the circle and dance. When I was young, I think it was my very first powwow, my dad was holding my hand and we danced around the circle during this time. It is one of my favourite memories when I look back on the experience and it was also one of the first times I connected to my culture. It is very special to be able to dance with your friends and family like this, together, in the circle with the drum!

About the Regalia

A regalia is a ceremonial traditional wear that we put on during cultural occasions. They usually always represent an animal, more specifically, the animals of our seven sacred teachings. The seven sacred teachings are those I remember beginning to learn at a very young age. Each teaching, according to the Red Rock Indian Band website, is simply a code of conduct we use to interact with each other and with ourselves. From the seven sacred teachings, the Elder explained that this is where we get our clans, the sacred animal that we identify with, like our family group.

Now, when it comes to the regalia, usually the dancers wear the animal that represents their clan. Therefore, you will see some dancers wearing the skin of an animal like, for example, a bear on their back or eagle feathers on a headdress. These things are extremely sacred to us, especially eagle feathers. Eagle feathers are earned through our life for different reasons. This is why a traditional Chief might have a big headdress of feathers. It is recognition of experience and leadership. Sometimes in the middle of a dance, an eagle feather will drop on the ground. No one can simply go and pick it up because, according to an Elder I heard tell this to me a long time ago, the eagle feather that dropped belongs with someone else now. The person who dropped it cannot pick it up either, an Elder at the powwow must so that it can be gifted to someone else, and the gift of an eagle feather is one of the most special.

Photo credit: Philip Wawia

What can YOU do?

At the end of my visit with the Elder, I asked what non-Anishinaabeg people can do when they come to the powwow. When it comes to wanting to learn, of course, there are the Elders but sometimes before the powwow starts, they will hold little seminars on different things. These things can be learning how to bead or how to make dream catchers. Or the seminars might be on different teachings like learning the Anishinaabeg language, or maybe even teachings about the powwow itself. This is an amazing opportunity to listen, learn, and support our culture.

The other thing she said you can do is donate! Our powwows hold donations that go towards the powwow so we can keep it going every year. Every little bit of contribution helps tremendously! Sometimes, a special dance will go along while some Anishinaabeg youth go around to collect whatever donations people may have.

There are other things you can do, the Elder said, when it comes to general respect for the ceremony of the powwow. Here are some things to remember if you are going to go:

  • Everyone, men, and women, who attend are in their traditional clothing. You do not have to be in traditional clothing but respect the idea around what you wear.
    • wear longer pants and regular t-shirts or long sleeves. If you are going to watch and learn, make sure you are respecting the traditional rules that surround our ceremonies.
  • when you are in the circle, you cannot pick up your children.
    • If they ever find their way over to the grandfather drum, let them find their way. She said that sometimes if there are children who wander over to them, the drummers and singers will embrace their curiosity and give them a drumming stick. No matter who they are, the learning of children will never be stopped. “Never stop a child from learning,” she said to me.
  • Lastly, no animals are allowed on the powwow grounds. This includes any pets you might have like dogs, cats, etc.
Photo credit – Mia Laframboise

And Off You Go!

Before I end this article, I would like to say that the information you see here is the information of powwows that take place by the Anishinaabeg of Opwaaganisiniing. Because there are many different Indigenous groups across Turtle Island, there will be different ways in how they run their powwow. I have always been taught that there are no right or wrong ways to celebrate culture, and to ensure if we are ever visiting a powwow in a different place, we will respect and observe the way they do theirs.

I know this seems like a lot of information to take in, probably because it is. You can read about powwows all you want, but to really learn you must go to one yourself. My parents always told me that our culture is hands on and oral, this is how we teach and learn. The experience of the powwow is one you will never forget, so remember to go in with an open mind, respect with an open heart, watch with learning eyes, and, of course, have fun!

From the Elder and myself, miigwech for reading and actively wanting to learn more and more!