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Powwow - a healing experience


Marie Burke, Windspeaker Contributor, Slave Lake Alberta








A powwow is a celebration that centres around dance, song, and family. Traditionally it is a celebration presented by one tribe or band of Native people to welcome and honor others.

Powwows are usually three-day weekend events and people often travel great distances to attend them. The main powwow season is summer. All people, including non-Native people are encouraged to attend one.

The experience of attending a powwow can be a valuable and fascinating cultural experience for a non-Native people, particularly those unfamiliar with the first peoples of this country, said Ron Walker.

Walker, from Sucker Creek First Nation in northern Alberta, is an apprentice arena director. He has also been dancing in the powwow circle for more than nine years.Walker is learning all aspects and responsibilities of being a "arena director at powwows and other celebrations like round dances. While Walker follows the direction of the main arena director at a powwow, he had to earn the right to be in such a position. Walker follows the direction of Larry Kootnay of Alexis First Nation, Alta.

"I remember an Elder telling me that there was a need to reach out to the kids and youth, because they were losing our value systems, beliefs and language. That's another reason why powwow is a well supported event by most communities. It is because of all the healing that can take place within that circle. It is unfortunate that many of us are losing our languages, however that does not mean that anyone should be shunned or turned away," said Walker

There are several different kinds of powwows, though the two most common are known as the traditional powwow and the competition powwow. In traditional powwows, everyone participates in the dancing or singing. While there is a degree of competition in the dancing events, it is not a formal competition. Walker points to the ceremonies as a big part of traditional powwows - honorings, giveaways, "first dances" or "coming out" dances, and adoption ceremonies.

A competition powwow, on the other hand, has significant prize money for the dancers, depending on the hosting band. Everyone can still compete and dance, but only the dancers who place near the top of the competition receive prize money. Drum groups also compete for prize money.

"Over the years I've seen many dancers and I still think it's important to tell new dancers that it's about making friends, seeing new friends and family. It's not about money," said Walker

He has followed the advice of Elders when they talk about the meaning of the powwow. He was told when dancers go to a powwow for money, they lose respect for other dancers.

The powwow is usually organized by the powwow committee, a dedicated group of members of the hosting band. This involves bringing together the drums, dancers, entertainment, food, craft booths, and the management of the powwow grounds. Once the powwow begins, it is run by the master of ceremonies, and the arena directors, who are sometimes called the Stickmen.

#Different emcees have different styles, and the choice of an emcee greatly influences the feel of the powwow. The emcee gives a running commentary on events, announcements, and most importantly background information about the dances, ceremonies and the spirit of the powwow. They also bring into the proceedings humor that is appropriate to the atmosphere and people.

The arena directors keep the events moving and manage the flow of activity in the arena. They may tell the drummers who will play next or what kind of song they are to have ready. The arena director also serves the judges or organizes the dancers. They have extremely active and important jobs.

Judges are chosen for their knowledge of the dance style and drum songs. They judge dancers on the style and form, regalia and ability to stay in time with the drum and stop on the final beat, said Walker.

"Knowledge of any Native ceremony is sacred. The people [must be] given that knowledge by a Elder. For the arena director and the people who are learning how to run the ceremonies, it is a right that has to be given by an Elder," said Walker.

"Tobacco, blankets, and other gifts are the means of payment to arena directors," he adds.

The powwow begins with the Grand Entry. All spectators are asked to rise as the flags and eagle staffs of the host and visiting bands are brought in. The arena directors lead the way by burning sweetgrass. The eagle staffs and flags represent nations, communities, and families.

The drums begin a Grand Entry song. The chief of the host tribe and the visiting dignitaries enter the arena. They are followed by other honored members and the color guard of veterans. The people who have been elected by their home communities to honor and represent the different bands follow next. The dancers are lead by the Elders, with the men dancers first, generally in the following order: men's traditional dancers, men's chicken dancers, men's grass dancers, and the men's fancy dancers. Then the women enter led by the Elder women, and in the following order: women's traditional dancers, jingle dress dancers, and the fancy shawl dancers. The teenage boys enter next, followed by the teenage girls, the younger boys and girls, and then the tiny tots.

The dancers are announced by the emcee as they pass the announcer's stand. Finally, the arena is filled with all the dancers, each dancing in grand regalia. The drummers are responsible for maintaining the Grand Entry song from drum group to drum group until all the dancers are in the centre of the circle and dancing. The prayer song and honor song for veterans usually follow.

The Grand Entry is a impressive sight filled with beauty, pride and excitement.

The dance clothes worn in the circle of a powwow are called regalia or outfits. These outfits are never referred to as costumes.

The regalia of a dancer is a very personal and artistic expression of the dancer's life, feelings, spirituality, famiy and interests, says Walker. Often, parts of a dancer's regalia are gifts from Elders or special people who are part of the dancer's life. The regalia evolves and changes as the dancer evolves and changes in life. The feathers worn by a dancer are considered sacred - especially eagle feathers.

Walker explains how much consideration is given to eagle feathers or the fans made out of feathers that traditional dancers carry.

"When a feather falls down at the powwow, it is considered a warrior who has fallen in battle. It is respect for our veterans; that is why so much respect is given for a fallen feather," said Walker.

"Special ceremony is necessary to pick up a feather of a fan at the powwow, and no pictures or recordings are allowed during ceremonies. The arena director makes sure order is kept while ceremonies are being performed," said Walker.

If someone is unsure of what protocol is required, don't be shy about asking, Walker encouraged.