John McComber (Mohawk) leading traditional Iroquois dances at the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory pow-wow
As the trees bud, and the grass grows green, many Indigenous people on Turtle Island are getting their traditional outfits ready and their cars prepped to head out on the pow-wow trail. The term “Pow-wow” has long been used as mainstream slang, meaning “meeting” or “get together”, but what is a Pow-wow exactly? Where does it originate from? These are questions that cannot be answered in one blog post, so we decided to do a Pow-wow Series to explore different elements of a pow-wow. With the help of Veteran Pow-wow Dancer and Announcer Greg ‘Mista Wasis’ Dreaver from the Snake Plains region of Treaty 6 Territory, Saskatchewan, we will begin with looking at the roots of the Pow-wow.
Greg’s home province of Saskatchewan hosts the most Pow-wow’s per season than any other State, or Province. The stories of where exactly the pow-wow originate from vary. Greg was brought up hearing how the first pow-wows in Canada were held in the Battlefords in Saskatchewan and then spread across the rest of the country.
Greg says, the modern pow-wow of today with the competition dancing, indigenous arts and food vendors is a result of the perseverence of indigenous culture. Perseverance against the colonial policies of the criminalization of indigenous cultural practices and the aggressive federal government mission of cultural assimilation of “Indian” people. From the mid 1800’s to the mid 1900’s, the Canadian government Indian Act of 1867 made it illegal for an “Indian” to travel to another community to dance and to engage in any cultural ceremony, dance or festival.
Federal Indian Agents (the Canadian government representative and ultimate local authority on reserves across the country) were directed by their superiors to “suppress any dances which cause waste of time, interfere with the occupations of the Indians unsettle them for serious work, injure their health or encourage them in sloth and idleness.” (Duncan Scott to Agents and Inspectors, RG10, Volume 3826, file 60,51101 Part 1 (August 19, 1915)
For decades, traditional dances and celebration went underground. They were practiced and handed down in secret. According to Greg, this cultural preservation was helped along by exhibition organizations like the Calgary Stampede and Saskatoon Exhibition which invited Indians to come and set up an “Indian Village” to showcase dances and cultural practices. These Indian Villages were huge tourist attractions. Dancers attended knowing that this was the only time that they could wear their regalia and dance in public. These associations would pay dancers who participated which helped offset the ration deprivation the Indian Agents were instructed to do to “Known Dancers”. “Today, native people participate proudly in the Calgary Stamped recognizing how that organization helped us in the past” said Greg.
This summer, when you attend one of the hundreds of pow-wow happening each year all over Turtle Island, understand they are so much more than a “meeting” or “get together”. They are celebrations of culture, family, friendships, and most of all survival. Each dance step and drum beat is an reaffirmation of Indigenous culture. It’s a show of respect to those who have come before and worked so hard to ensure this beautiful and important culture not only survived, but would grow and thrive with each generation.
Stay tuned of the next Pow-wow Series topic. “What is a Grand Entry?”