Grand River: Putting the wow in powwow
Event spotlights the richness of First Nations history and culture
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.