Byline: Barbara Blower
Letter To The Editor The Standard Newspaper Port Perry, Ontario. 2020
As the COVID virus continues to effect our lives, many events we enjoy with family and friends are cancelled or postponed. Browsing CBC Radio on line, I came across an interesting podcast when Drew Hayden Taylor was interviewed by Candy Palmater in 2016. Ojibway author Drew Hayden Taylor has been attending powwows his entire life. “Summer is powwow season across the country. But many Canadians have never been to one and don’t know much about them”. he says. “Powwows are a celebration of Aboriginal culture in many different forms,” he ads. The author’s even set two of his plays at powwow events.
During the conversation with Candy, Drew suggested that every Canadian should attend a powwow and the interview continued with his reasons why this was a good idea. What caught my attention was his suggestion that attending a powwow shows none-indigenous visitors First Nations people as they are. Happy to be greeting family members and friends to celebrate weddings and births that have happened since they last saw each other and to show something other than the stereo typical images often reported in media.
Hearing Drew and Candy’s conversation reminded me of the powwows I attended at Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation. After being told that when First Nations say “Every one welcome” that they do mean everyone, and that includes settlers like me. My decision to go to the first powwow needed some thought and emotional preparation on my part. All concern evaporated as I approached the admissions gate and a First Nations woman looked right at me and said “You Are Welcome Here”.
I remember being nervous as I walked among dancers waiting eagerly to perform. I had learned the word regalia, refers to what dancers wear to perform and had seen photos in magazines and news video coverage but nothing prepared me for the real thing! Vivid colours, intricate beadwork and many feathers! The voice of the Big Drum and the announcer asking everyone to acknowledge “All Veterans” as they entered the circle first as the Grand Entrance began.
Performers outside the circle chatted with visitors mostly about their regalia. My conversation with a performer telling me that he first knew of his First Nations family in his mid 20’s still gives me goose bumps. He told me he had learned to bead as tribute to his Grandmother. His intricate regalia had thousands of beads sewn onto red and yellow fabric.
It’s always respectful to ask permission before photographing people and I had permission slips ready. Every person who gave permission asked where the photo’s would show up. That they will be posted on Maamawi Collective’s web site was fine and almost everyone signed my permission slips. One conversation became a memorable teaching/learning moment for me.
After asking and receiving verbal permission to photograph someone I offered my permission slip for signature. I was gently informed that permission had been given. I think that I again offered the pen and slip for a signature. Again! I was gently reminded that permission had been given. Finally! I understood! I took a tobacco tie from my pocket, offering it with my left hand, I said Chi-Miigwetch – Thank you for your teaching!
Watching from a distance at first, but then understanding that questions were welcome, I summoned the courage to ask questions also! For each person I approached I asked if it was OK, to ask about something they were wearing. The response was always Yes, followed by something like “happy to share our culture with our visitors”. I chatted for some time with an elder from Nova Scotia who wore an epaulette from a WWI Army uniform, she told me she wears it to honour her Great Grandfather, who fought in that war. I began to notice many Remembrance Day poppies and I asked about them. I learned the poppy was worn to honour a relative, but a number of men who wore them said it was also because they were or had served in Canada’s Armed Forces.
A young woman whose regalia included a bowler hat explained that she wore it to honour her family connections in South America. As a professional photographer, carrying the tools of her trade, she deftly hid her camera and tripod for my photos.
I learned that the jingles on the regalia of Jingle Dress Dancer’s have a very significant role. A young girl with a huge smile was so happy to tell me that she sewed more than 100 jingles on her dress. She wore it to show pride in her ancestors and to encourage healing. She mentioned she worked locally and may be the one serving your coffee next time you are at a local restaurant drive-through.
I noticed another Jingle Dress Dancer wearing knee high yellow leather boots with wrap around strips of leather holding them in place. She told me how comfortable they were and cleaning with a stiff brush was all that was needed. Imagine how surprised we were when we discovered that she and my daughters had been members of a competitive swim team where I lived and she has kept in touch with the swim club coaching staff. We chatted by phone in August this year and I was so pleased to hear she is well and living in Ottawa after graduating from university with a teaching certificate and now working for a Federal Government Agency.
Becoming a little more comfortable, I asked two women if I might take their picture! I’d noticed that they looked very much alike and was not surprised to learn they were sisters! They spoke of their community and listened as I spoke of my grandchildren. Delighted to find the common ground of grandmothers everywhere, my next question was “How many do you have?”. They answered in unison “Between us, thirty six grandchildren… and one sister added that she had great-grandchildren too.
At a previous powwow, I was given permission to photograph a grandmother and grandfather who just happened to be holding their tiny granddaughter. It became my most favorite photo and the first time I had noticed a Remembrance Day Poppy worn on regalia. Next year, when I attended the powwow, I took with me a print of the photo, hoping to see the grandparents and offer the print with my thanks. Grandfather was so happy to accept and his wife told me “You have given a gift of great value, judging by the care he is taking to put it in a safe place”. Our conversation continued with her request that I take another picture, which I was most happy to deliver.
Conversations via e-mail continue and I’m happy to see messages from people I met at Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation powwow such as Ben Benson, a young man who dances with his father and uncle. They are known as the Benson Boys – Chippewas of Rama First Nation. He Graduated Fleming College with a diploma in Outdoor Adventure Education, Ben’s happy to be living close to “Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands Provincial Park” to keep himself active on the land and I understand when he says, “I miss powwow season so much”.
Additional Link about Powwow:
This link is from July 12 – 2016.
Why every Canadian should attend a powwow: Drew Hayden Taylor explains the spirit of the gathering: “Summer is powwow season across the country. But many Canadians have never been to one and don’t know much about them. Ojibway author Drew Hayden Taylor has been attending powwows his entire life. “Powwows are a celebration of Aboriginal culture in many different forms,” he said. The author’s even set two of his plays at the events. He talks to Candy about what powwows mean to his culture and why it’s important for all Canadians to attend one.