Grand River: Putting the wow in pow­wow

Event spot­lights the rich­ness of First Na­tions his­tory and cul­ture

The Hamilton Spectator - - LO­CAL - JEFF MA­HONEY jma­honey@thes­ 905-526-3306

The 37th an­nual Grand River Pow Wow does a great job of pulling peo­ple into Six Na­tions ter­ri­tory, but if it’s your first im­pres­sion of the place make sure you re­turn another time for the rest of the pic­ture.

The pow­wow, at Chiefs­wood Tent and Trailer Park, has a loose, eclec­tic car­ni­val feel, part kitschy, part classy, but al­ways fun.

It gives a hint, a fore­taste of the rich­ness of First Na­tions his­tory, cul­ture and so­ci­ety in the area and, one hopes, an ap­petite for more. Cu­rios­ity about what lies deeper will be re­warded by fur­ther vis­its.

On the week­end, the dancers came decked out in big and colour­ful ea­gle bus­tles (back feath­ers), elab­o­rate feath­ered head­dresses and war bon­nets, bone or hair-pipe breast­plates, jin­gle cones, fancy side drops and an­i­mal pelt stream­ers.

This does not nec­es­sar­ily make for great his­tor­i­cal or cul­tural fi­delity — the First Na­tions of cen­tral and eastern Canada didn’t dress in such re­galia — but it does have ter­rific dis­play value, es­pe­cially dur­ing danc­ing com­pe­ti­tions and cer­e­monies.

As pow­wow chair Char­lene Bomberry ex­plained, “Mostly these (the dances and dress) are from the west­ern and Plains na­tions.”

This is true of most “mod­ern” pow­wows where prac­tices and dress of­ten de­rive from the war­rior so­ci­eties of the Plains In­di­ans.

Se­bas­tian Alexan­der, 16, of Hamil­ton, wore bright red and gold re­galia, with lots of feath­ers, an ea­gle bus­tle, sev­eral side drops, a feather cap, an ea­gle fan and moc­casins with raised beads.

“The dance has to tell a story,” he ex­plains. “Ei­ther a bat­tle or a hunt. There are two steps with the feet but a lot of up­per body mo­tion.”

Jesse Kewageshig, from Grand Bend, was danc­ing in a group with Se­bas­tian, rep­re­sent­ing the Kane­se­take of Que­bec. He wore a bone breast­plate, leg­gings and bells on his moc­casins.

Vicki Mon­tour was vis­it­ing from Kah­nawake, near Mon­treal, and

com­pet­ing in the jin­gle dance cat­e­gory.

“You dress and dance in your own in­ter­pre­ta­tion,” she said, so the form might be tra­di­tional but the ex­pres­sion isn’t. “As long as you are on the beat (of the drum) and stop at the last beat, you do what you feel.” The same with the dress. “But it’s hot to­day. When I was danc­ing, three times I couldn’t breathe. ‘Ooh, where are you, air?’ I was ask­ing. But you keep go­ing.”

Mike Carnegie, non-na­tive and the coach of the An­caster Bliz­zard fast pitch soft­ball team, came be­cause four of his young fe­male play­ers this year are from Six Na­tions.

“My first time to the pow­wow, I’m ashamed to say,” he told me, adding that he’ll be back.

He was im­pressed with the food, the crafts and the danc­ing.

“It is fas­ci­nat­ing, learn­ing about the cul­ture, the his­tory, the spir­i­tu­al­ity.”

Aside from the danc­ing and singing, the pow­wow fea­tured many crafts ta­bles and ven­dors. The event drew 10,000 over the week­end last year and Char­lene was hop­ing at­ten­dance would hit 12,000 this past week­end. Vis­i­tors came from as far away as Ok­la­homa.

Many of the par­tic­i­pants, in­clud­ing Bomberry, were plan­ning to at­tend the “so­cial danc­ing” event at the Cale­do­nia end of Six Na­tions af­ter the pow­wow ended.

It fea­tured dance and dress more tra­di­tional to the Mo­hawk, Seneca, Tus­carora, Oneida, Onondaga and Cayuga (the Six Na­tions).

It is fas­ci­nat­ing, learn­ing about the cul­ture, the his­tory, the spir­i­tu­al­ity. MIKE CARNEGIE


The grand en­trance at the Grand River Pow Wow in Oh­sweken on Sun­day. The an­nual event at­tracts dancers from all over North Amer­ica.

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