Before I dive in I want to clarify something: I am a settler and my family comes from a long line of settlers.
I’m complexionally-challenged, pale, white, however you want to say it. I’ve never done an ancestry test, but I’ve been told I’m mainly British, Irish and Scottish with a tiny bit of German. My heritage is one of suppression, but I’m here to try and learn about Indigenous Cultures. I believe they’re very powerful, beautiful and need to be celebrated. I’m coming from a place of learning. This is only the beginning of my educational journey so if I’m mistaken, screw up or am misinformed, please tell me. If you want to learn more about Indigenous Cultures – great! Keep reading.
This article is meant to educate from the eyes of someone learning alongside you. If you want to know more about why I’ve started on this journey, check out my about page. I should also note that this is coming from a Canadian point of view as I am based in Southern Ontario and I acknowledge I live on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishnaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples. This land was originally inhabited by these First Nations Peoples and was then part of the Haldimand Treaty.
Now without further ado, let’s get to what’s a Pow Wow, some information on these gatherings, tips for the first time you attend a Pow Wow and the most poignant part of this post – why white people should go.
What’s a Pow Wow?
A Pow Wow is a gathering organized by Indigenous Peoples to celebrate their cultures. They are sometimes a single day, occur over a weekend or can even be a week-long depending if it’s in honour of a special occasion. It’s a time when First Nations Peoples come together to dance, sing, feast, visit with old friends and make new ones.
There are a number of stories about how Pow Wows began, however it’s certain that they evolved as reserves were forced upon the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island (North America) in the 1830s. It was a way to fight colonization by maintaining a connection to important Indigenous traditions. The Canadian and American governments didn’t make it easy as they outlawed a number of traditional Indigenous ceremonies which included Pow Wows. Canada’s Indian Act of 1876 restricted Indigenous Peoples rights to perform cultural ceremonies in all aspects. Despite amendments to the act years later, it wasn’t until 1951 that the bill was finally changed so all of the First Nations Peoples living in Canada could celebrate their culture. Up until this point, Pow Wows and other spiritual ceremonies were held in secret. To read more about the history of Pow Wows, click here.
There are several different kinds of Pow Wows and each one will have its own unique characteristics and traditions that relate to the area. Be sure to take note of this when attending Pow Wows in different areas across Turtle Island. However the most common types are traditional Pow Wows and competition Pow Wows. The main difference between them is that competition Pow Wows are exactly as they sound, competitive, with significant prizes for those dancing. Traditional Pow Wows focus more on participation and everyone being able to experience the Pow Wow.
Each Pow Wow will have a schedule which often includes a sunrise ceremony, Grand Entry, dance competitions and closing ceremonies. You’ll also find local artisans selling art, beads, handmade products, supplies, and more along with food vendors where you can enjoy a variety of Indigenous cuisine. It’s important to note that some Pow Wows charge admission which goes towards running the event.
Dancing is a large part of Pow Wows as it’s a form of healing. If you ask someone why they’re dancing, it could be for a number of reasons. Whatever the reason is, the passion shines through with the intensity of their actions as they follow the drumbeat – communicating the heartbeat of Mother Nature. You’ll feel the power resonate through you as the Host Drum group channels their strength and emotion.
There are different types of dances such as traditional, fancy, grass, jingle and more. The outfits worn by dancers reflect this and are known as regalia. It’s a reflection of the person wearing it – their culture, their origins, their beliefs and their experiences. Regalia is handmade and self-designed, becoming an extension of the dancer’s soul. Knowing this, it’s understandable why imitations created by costume makers for Halloween are insulting and why many festivals are banning headdresses for their cultural insensitivity. Regalia and the accessories that are a part of it are incredibly sacred and should be respected, which is why they should never be referred to as a costume.
Pow Wows are an incredible gathering of both Indigenous and Non-Indigenous People. It’s not uncommon for attendees to travel great distances to attend a Pow Wow. I’m the perfect example as I drove 9 hours to attend my first one. In partnership with Tourism Sault Ste Marie and Attractions Ontario, I attended the Batchewana First Nation’s Annual Traditional Pow Wow where I was not only welcomed with open arms but encouraged to participate.
Did I know what I was doing? Hardly. I’m sure I offered some great entertainment for many of the attendees. Despite this, I learned so much not just about Ojibway Culture but also about myself, my relationship to the world, and more. As long as you’re present and you listen intently, you’ll be surprised at how welcomed you are and how much knowledge you absorb. Chi Miigwetch (thank you very much) to Chief Sayers and all of the Batchewana First Nation’s members and Pow Wow attendees who embraced my presence and allowed me to learn so much over the weekend I spent in Bawahting (Sault Ste Marie). If you’re looking for somewhere to experience your first Pow Wow, I can’t think of a better place. I even wrote an article about why you should attend one in Sault Ste Marie.
Tips For The First Time You Attend a Pow Wow
Whether it’s trying something new, stepping outside your comfort zone or attending an event you’ve never been to before, doing something for the first time can be nervewracking. Trust me, I was nervous attending my first Pow Wow but I’m here to tell you not to be. As long as you are respectful, polite and supportive, you’ll have a wonderful time. If you’re not going to be these things then don’t go. It’s as simple as that. Here are a few tips based on my experiences so you can enjoy your time to the fullest!
Don’t Think You Can’t Participate
I can’t stress enough that Pow Wows are open to everyone. By attending you’re showing support for these incredible cultures. Do you want to join in a dance? You sure can! Just listen to the emcee and when they announce an intertribal song, that means you can join in. Don’t want to dance? That’s okay too. There are plenty of vendors at Pow Wows where you can support local artisans and businesses by purchasing handmade goods, food, art and more.
Attend with an Open Mind and Heart
Whether you’re religious or not, spiritually inclined or a non-believer, I still suggest attending but do so with an open mind and heart. Remember that not everyone thinks the same and that’s okay. Whether you believe or not, I guarantee you’ll leave the Pow Wow learning something new about yourself, Indigenous Cultures and the world as long as you allow yourself to experience everything with no preconceptions. Remember, you are a guest so be on your best behaviour.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions
Have a question about something you saw during the Pow Wow, about the traditions you’re witnessing or just about Indigenous Culture in general? Ask! The majority of attendees are happy to share their knowledge if you’re willing to listen. However, know that they do not owe you an answer, so if they don’t have the emotional capacity or choose not to, accept that and carry on. There are a number of resources online that can probably help.
Listen to the Emcee
Throughout the Pow Wow, the emcee will commentate and give insight into what’s happening. They have an important role as a guide for both the dancers and spectators while keeping the day’s program moving along. You can learn a lot from the emcee as they talk about the dances being performed, origins of the songs, and more. There might even be the odd joke thrown in, too!
Don’t Take Photos Without Asking Permission First
The Pow Wow grounds are sacred and at certain times like Grand Entry and the Closing Ceremonies, photos are not permitted. At these times you’re meant to observe with your eyes only, to be truly present in the moment so that these memories stay with you. These times will also be signified by a whistle or fanning of the drums. If you’re still unsure, look around you. If you don’t see anyone with their cell phones or cameras out, chances are you shouldn’t have yours out either.
As for the dancers, their regalia is a part of who they are. Mentioned earlier, it relates directly to their identity and because of this, some dancers may wish to not be photographed. While further out, more general shots are often accepted at times other than those mentioned above, be sure to ask any dancers ahead of time before specifically taking their photo.
Follow Your Heart
If at any time during the Pow Wow you start second-guessing yourself, there’s probably a reason for it. A good rule of thumb is if you feel like something’s not okay chances are it isn’t. Trust your intuition and if you’re still unsure, ask. Otherwise, let your heart guide you throughout the event.
Why White People Should Go
I’m about to get incredibly honest here. The following section may be a bit blunt and have some profanity thrown in, but I encourage you to read on. I want to re-iterate again. I’m new to Indigenous Cultures and experiencing them. I’ll make mistakes, but I want to learn and will learn from them.
When I write this, I don’t mean that only white people should go. Everyone should attend a Pow Wow, but I mean that white people specifically really should attend. Why? These Indigenous Cultures have been suppressed by many of our ancestors. We owe it to the Indigenous Peoples of what is now Canada to attend their Pow Wows and learn about their practices.
Since Pow Wows are meant for everyone, this is a non-intrusive way to begin experiencing and learning. These traditions date back thousands of years, long before European settlers came to Turtle Island (North America). While the First Nations Peoples had their disagreements, they still lived peacefully for a long time. If it wasn’t for the backhanded tactics and ‘interpretations’ of treaties and agreements by the Europeans, the Indigenous Peoples of what is now Canada would be better understood. A prime example is how we learn about the Fur Trade in school. It’s made out to be full of handshakes and that the Indigenous Peoples were voluntary participants. It’s very much the opposite. The turmoil between the British and the French in Europe came to their lands and disrupted their way of life, causing so many casualties for the Indigenous Peoples. With the Dominion of Canada’s formation, Indigenous rights were desecrated and are still being disrespected by the Indian Act to this day. This is barely scratching the surface but it conveys my point. While we can’t change the past, we should be ashamed of it and looking for ways to rectify those wrongs.
I’ve seen comments online from ignorant people and heard stories direct from members of the First Nations community that made my blood boil. Previously I’ve read a comment online that they didn’t want to attend a Pow Wow because “that sh!t’s voodoo” and other garbage. One of the stories I heard? People were commenting while an Indigenous Person was performing a ceremony, presenting an offering along the shores of a lake to the spirits near and far. Some ignorant prick decided to comment “I thought your kind didn’t litter.” I hope in reading that you’ll see how many things are wrong with it. One of the biggest things here is if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Apparently, these people’s mothers didn’t teach them that. Shame on them.
Just because someone’s beliefs don’t align with yours doesn’t give you the right to pass judgement. I bet that voodoo idiot has never been to a Pow Wow or in the presence of Indigenous Culture. What could that ignorant individual have said instead of his awful comment? He could have asked about the practice in an attempt to learn. We are taught to be open to trying new things and learning new skills, what makes learning about someone else’s culture any different? It may not be taught in a classroom (even though it should be, but that’s a whole other topic), but this journey on Earth is about lifelong learning. You won’t learn anything by sticking your head in the sand or knocking something before you try it.
If you’re not exposed to Indigenous Cultures, you may be hesitant to learn. You may think it’s weird or different, but I’m sure you think that way of other cultures and religions too. Just because it’s different, doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong. Your way of thinking isn’t necessarily the right one. I want to reiterate – we are not entitled to attend Pow Wows. We are guests and it is a privilege to be in the presence of these traditions.
I’m not asking you to come out of a Pow Wow as a full believer, but I’m asking you to take the time to listen. By doing so with an open mind and heart, you’ll be surprised by just how much you learn. If everyone just took a little bit of time to do this, we could change the future. I mean, it’s been proven that learning a new language means learning new ways of thinking and behaving – how is learning about a new culture any different? Plus who says you won’t pick up a new word or two of an Indigenous language by listening to those around you? Not only this, but you’re supporting a culture that is continuously being suppressed. This support will allow members of the Indigenous Community to harness their strength and feel free to be who they are.
Let’s face it, the relationship between what is now Canada and the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island is broken. It’s not up to the First Nations of Canada to prove their worth, it’s up to us white folk to prove we’ve learned from our past mistakes. Indigenous researchers have written about the importance of Indigenous education philosophies, but it’s difficult to do so in the constructs of colonial post-secondary institutions. Our institutions are fundamentally run in a different way, and Indigenous learning philosophies are based on applying teachings to real-world situations while promoting lifelong learning. That’s why we need to take it upon ourselves to learn outside of the constructs of our institutions and dive headfirst into these situations. Otherwise, no change will ever happen.
If you’ve made it down to here – thank you. I appreciate the time you’ve taken to read this. By now you may think I sound naive, but I’m being sincere. I’m doing my best to use words to describe the energy, passion and importance of Indigenous Cultures, Pow Wows and more, but if you don’t believe me – attend one. As soon as you go, you’ll understand. You’ll want to learn more, and that’s the point of this article. If I convince just one person to be more accepting of Indigenous Cultures and then they can do the same for another person and that person gets someone else to listen… it snowballs. Humans are afraid of what we don’t know, so let’s take the steps to know it. People say Canada has no culture, that we’re a mishmash of everything. Hell, I’ve said it before – and I was wrong. What is now Canada has an incredible culture, it’s just been suppressed by colonialism and needs to be empowered again.
Looking to Attend a Pow Wow?
While Pow Wow season is mainly in the summer months, these events happen throughout the year across Canada and the United States. If you’re looking for a Pow Wow calendar, PowWows.com is a great resource. While it focuses mainly on the USA, it does include some Canadian Pow Wows as well!
If you’ve never attended a Pow Wow because you’ve been too nervous or felt like you weren’t allowed, I hope this article has changed your mind. Again, I can’t stress enough how Pow Wows are open to everyone and settler descendants need to take the time to learn about Indigenous Cultures. Looking to get involved in other ways? Here’s a great article on steps you can take to learn more about and support Indigenous Cultures. Reconciliation begins with understanding and it is up to us to take the opportunities given so we can work towards it.
SOMETHING TO NOTE: I was recently asked why I singled out white people as this could be seen as alientating to others. I’m in no means saying everyone but white folks shouldn’t go. I’m saying that white people specifically should go as our history has been incredibly hostile and destructive towards the Indigenous for far too long – and even until this very day. It’s up to us white people to take a step in the right direction and educate ourselves about First Nations, Inuit and Métis culture. A Pow Wow is just one way to do that and it’s an easy, non-intrusive way to do so. I think every single person who lives and visits North America should attend numerous Pow Wows across the continent.