If you find yourself between July and September in North America, know that you are in full season for Powwows. But in fact what is a Powwow?
A little History … just a little, promised
A Powwow is, first of all, a celebration around the ritual dances of the Native Americans. It can take two forms. The first, more traditional, is originally a religious and inter tribal meeting which can gather hundreds of dancers and musicians. The second (which will be discussed in this article) is in the form of a Native American ritual dance competition, often with less dancers. To tell them apart, on most websites or flyers you’ll have to look for the “powwow contest” mention indicating that the event will be of the second category.
You might not know this, but many repressive laws were set up between the late 19th century and the 1950s in Canada for instance. The Natives have actually been forbidden to speak their native language, wear their traditional costumes (Regalias) and even practice their dancing… It took a touristic craze for this culture and loads of negotiations between the government and tribal leaders to achieve the recovery of part of their liberties, and thus the proliferation of the Powwows we know today.
The common mistake
Unfortunately because of this difficult History, many people still assume they must come from one of these ethnic groups to be able to check out the powwows. Do not make the same mistake! Now that you master the subject, let’s go to practice …
So naturally, being in Canada in September, I decided to seize the opportunity to attend a Powwow. Since I was in Ottawa, the closest one was in Akwesasne, at a one-and-a-half-hour drive towards the southeast. So we hit the road for Cornwall, where you’ll be able to rent a hotel room for a reasonnable price. It’s just 15 minutes away from the reserve and you’ll get a chance to run into various chieftains and dancers that came a long way and couldn’t find accomodation in the reserve. This Mohawk reserve lies astride the States of New York and Ontario, do not forget to bring your passport if you want to get out, customs are quietly waiting for you at the exits (no problem for getting there).
And that’s how I found myself at the counter of the Powwow. Once the $8 entry fee paid (the price is the same whether you pay in USD or CAD), here I am treading upon a large grassy area. You will find many stalls selling various traditional products like jewelry, pipes or dreamcatchers, most of it is handmade. I even got to buy an authentic functional peace pipe! And there are also beautiful garments with modern cuts and prints of ethnic inspiration. I also invite you to visit the stand of Jordan Thompson (here is his Facebook page), an amazing artist who sells his drawings framed or printed on mugs and T-shirts. It’s beautiful, affordable and the artist is really nice! Of course you will also find many lunch stalls offering you a wide choice including the famous chili con carne, corn cobs and hot dogs.
Back to basics
So this is fun and all but we’re not here to just eat and rob souvenir stalls! So do yourself a small place on the bleachers set up for the occasion and let the show begin! At first you will see all the participants, the chieftains and their wives walking along the bleachers to be presented to the public. Although not very impressive, this appetizer you will let you admire the work done on the Regalías . Indeed it takes several years to manufacture a Regalia, each step being respectful of fauna and flora. For example, the bark of the tree is levied at a certain time of the year. Needless to say, therefore, that these attributes are priceless for the community and provide great charisma to whomever wears them. The first songs are now beginning, closely followed by various percussions, all enhanced by hundreds of “bells” inlaid on the costumes of some dancers, beating time with their every move. Such harmony, from a thousand-year-old knowledge cannot leave you cold, and it is safe to bet that you will feel all that energy going through your body and deeply move you. One of those little magical moments, like frozen out of time. The dancefloor is emptied and the first dancers are starting to clash with each other. Each song, each dance and costume are bound to a specific meaning. There will be a dance of the transition to adulthood, friendship, hunting etc, each time with attributes of its own. You will get to see a lot of different dances throughout the day. Ending with the more modern dances. During these, the participants are dressed in contemporary clothes but always very colorful. And finally you will be asked to dance … Yes, you, dear audience member !! At the end, everyone is invited to the dance floor to dance, or rather try to, and give some Natives a good laugh here and there! A great time of sharing, complicity and good vibe, which I invite you all to take part of!!