Powwows take place across southern Canada although its origins are with the Plains cultures. In southern Ontario they grew out of other types of gatherings in the 1960s. Powwows were introduced in the eastern provinces in the 1980s. Today’s powwow in Halifax will not differ too greatly from one held in Vancouver. Some powwows are competition events where dancers come from many areas to compete for cash prizes. Others are traditional powwows where men and women dance for pleasure rather than prizes. Like all living traditions, the form of the powwow has changed over the years and many areas now also include some of the local cultural influences. An excellent example of this is the Annual Children’s Powwow held by the Odawa Native Friendship Centre in Ottawa. Along with the usual big drum and singing that accompanies the Plains style dancing, Iroquois drummers, singers and social dancers are an integral part of the event.
The powwow draws people together and is a forum for First Peoples to express their solidarity and cultural heritage. Anyone can attend a powwow and may choose to participate in the “Intertribal Dance”. This dance is an opportunity for Indigenous peoples and non-natives to dance together. A variety of other specific dances for men and women are performed.
The following description of a powwow is synthesized from several sources. Typically, a central area is reserved for the drummers. Often this area is a specially created temporary structure that provides a focal point for the powwow. This is especially true if the powwow is being held outdoors. This structure also provides shade for the drummers and singers.
Food vendors, artisans and service providers set up their booths outside of the designated central area.
All powwows begin with the Grand Entry. The dancers, led by people carrying the Canadian and American flags and the Eagle Staff, enter the dance area referred to as the Dance Arbour. Important guests, elders, powwow officials and other dignitaries usually enter directly behind the flag and staff bearers. The flags are always brought in as a tribute to all Indigenous veterans who have served in the armed forces.
The dancers enter in a specific order. First to arrive are the men’s traditional dancers. These men wear elaborate eagle feather bustles and can be recognized by their high kicking steps. The men’s fancy dancers are next with their very elaborate and colourful regalia, followed by the grass dancers whose regalia have long fringes to imitate the movement of long grass blowing in the wind. The younger males follow the senior men in their specific categories.
Then the women enter, led by the women’s traditional dancers in their elaborate regalia. Their movements are majestic and poised. The female traditional dancers wear eagle feathers in their hair and are always carrying an eagle fan in the right hand. The women’s fancy dancers follow, wearing long fringed shawls and can be recognized by their rapid swirling movements. The jingle dress dancers enter next. These women wear dresses covered with tin cones that jingle in time with the music. The cones used to be made from the tin covers of snuff cans. Originally from the Ojibwe nation, the jingle dress dance is considered a healing dance. The women dance to heal the people of all nations. As with the men, the younger girls and smaller children follow the senior women in their respective categories.
After all the flag bearers, dancers, special guests, and elders are in the sacred circle, a Flag Song is usually sung followed by a Victory Song. An opening prayer is offered in the local Indigenous language or in English. The powwow proceeds with dances in various categories, special honour songs and presentations to Elders and many other activities. If the powwow is a competition powwow the dances and judging are done throughout the day.
All participants and visitors are asked to follow a number of protocols and basic rules of etiquette during a powwow. Remember that the powwow is more than just a social event; it is also a sacred event. This list of rules is by no means exhaustive or complete and there will be variations from region to region. Some of these protocols are:
- All Powwows are drug and alcohol free events
- Pictures should not be taken during the Flag and Honour songs, during the opening prayers and at any time where an activity of a spiritual nature is happening.
- There will be times when all are asked to stand and remove your hat for specific songs, If you have an eagle feather in your hat, you do not have to remove it as eagle feathers are sacred.
- Always show the greatest respect for chiefs, matriarchs and elders.
- Never make recordings without asking first.
- Do not crowd or disturb the drummers as they are performing a great service to the people and are fulfilling a sacred duty.
- Children (who are our futures) are always welcome, but should not be allowed to play in the sacred circle (dance area).
- All participants should always pay attention to the master of ceremonies and the head male and female dancer.
- Always heed the advice of the security people, organizers and other “officials” of the powwow as they have put a lot of effort into making the event a success.
Our children are beginning to see the value of our traditional ways again. A great flowering of our cultures is happening as our young people begin to take up the drum, learn their languages, the songs and the traditions of the people. That great pan-Indian phenomenon known as the powwow has helped many to find pride and their way back to their own cultures. The rhythm of the drum has made it possible for us to sustain our identity during difficult periods. We still have much to relearn; much to put right, but with the help of the drums we shall rebuild, preserve and celebrate our traditions.