Pulling into the Rainy River First Nations’ pow-wow grounds June 29, the gravel parking lot lined with boulders featured licence plates from Ontario, Manitoba, Minnesota, and numerous other provinces and states.
The Anishinaabe have come from all over—following the “Pow-Wow Trail” and camping in a different place each weekend.
The campground, which surrounds the pow-wow arena, was sprinkled with small tents and a few campers. Here and there, people were putting on their regalia or having their hair tightly-braided.
The constant drumming grows quieter further away in the camping area, but the smell of cigarette smoke and sweet grass is ever present.
Sitting under the shade of a large umbrella, Sage Abigosis enjoyed a bannock burger with her mother, Delores Chief-Abigosis, all the way from Broken Head, Man.
“We’ve been traveling the ‘Pow-Wow Trail’ for 30 years,” Chief-Abigosis noted, adding that her daughter has been dancing since she was a baby.
The family dances traditional-style dances, but so much of the pow-wow is a combination of old and new.
Abigosis, who dances “old-style jingle,” wears a cloth dress of darker colours, and has cartoon characters tattooed up and down her arm.
The food stand where she got her burger sells French fries and poutine, wild rice soup, and Indian tacos.
Her mother continues to explain the differences in the dances.
“Old-style jingle is more conservative, and closer to the ground,” her mother explained. “Contemporary is more flashy, beaded, and faster.”
“We dance year-round but summer is the height of the trail,” she added.
“It’s a social event.
“We dance for good life,” Chief-Abigosis continued. “We as life-givers, as women, hold that in high regard.
“Or we dance to honour people; that have gone into the spirit world or people who can’t dance,” she finished.
“Here I consider dance is prayer,” said John Daynard of Rainy River First Nations, who had not yet changed into his regalia.
“This is how we pray in this sacred circle.
“It keeps me off drugs and alcohol,” he added.
This pow-wow is his fifth this year after attending 16 last year.
In the past, Daynard would come to watch the sacred fire that burns for four days—until a friend convinced him to dance.
“It was scary, I was nervous,” he admitted, noting he had never danced as a child or young adult.
He added he had a dream that he was dancing “for power,” and this gave him courage to join the dancing circle.
Daynard still visits the fire as soon as he arrives at a pow-wow “to introduce myself, and I give tobacco or food.”
He said sometimes people will place food in a birch bark basket, then burn it in honour, while others pray over the fire.
“The sacred fire is also used to warm up the drums,” he noted.
“The fire tightens up the hide so they sound right.”
Daynard also said he likes pow-wows for the kids.
“They can come here and learn about their history and culture in a fun way,” he reasoned.
It seems the majority of the people attend pow-wows all summer long.
Wearing a paisley green jingle dress and holding a fan made from nine eagle feathers, Whitefish Bay senior Evelyn Tom said quietly that she attends pow-wows “every summer, all over.”
At the other end of the age spectrum, Jaelyn Landon, 10, from Rat Portage, said he dances traditional at pow-wows every weekend.
Landon likes pow-wows “just to have fun, not to compete.”
He then explained that his headpiece is made from “feathers, and porcupine quills with dye.”
“I was brought up on it,” explained Stanford Tom from Whitefish Bay.
His “clouds,” or “pointers,” bob along above his headpiece as he walks, noting they are meant to symbolize the clouds.
“It’s socializing—meeting friends and making new friends,” Tom said of his pow-wow experiences.
“We’re all related through pow-wow,” echoed Shelda Tom of Whitefish Bay as she carefully braided Allison Pawless’ hair into two sections.
“We’re like a whole big pow-wow family.”
When asked why everyone has braided hair, Tom replied, “it goes along with the outfit,” meaning their jingle dresses.
Accepting a smoke from a passing friend, Pawless, who makes her own dresses, said it takes one-two days to complete one.
She first designs the dress, cuts everything out, and puts it together before finally clamping the jingles on.
The pow-wow is filled with colours—each person’s regalia more elaborate than the next.
A song finishes and the male traditional dancers walk off the field.
With his face painted black, red, and yellow, Amos Paypompee of Shoal Lake is representing a vision he had.
“You stay with your colours your whole life,” he noted.
Some people follow their family colours while others choose ones that they dream about.
The dancer held an eagle fan in one hand, which he explains is sacred, while his staff in his other hand represents his given colours.
His favourite thing about pow-wows?
“Getting together with friends and family, and meeting new people,” Paypompee said.