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Modern pow-wow keeps tradition alive

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The “pow-wow trail” has been a very popular summer event for many people—and for a very long time.

Almost every weekend, from the beginning of June until the end of August, a pow-wow can be found within the district, with colourful and intricate regalia, drummers that instantly catch your attention, and very generous feasts.

But what is a pow-wow and why are they held?

People travel from all over—whether participating, organizing, or visiting—to see the large celebrations, which can bring hundreds of people to the area for an entire weekend.

Pow-wows have not always been the public gathering they are today, however.

“Pow-wows are sort of a recent development from the '60s or '50s,” said Albert Hunter, a Rainy River First Nations' elder and spiritual advisor at this year's RRFN pow-wow that took place this past weekend.

“Previous to that, we had our own private gatherings, our own private ceremonies,” he noted.

Couchiching's 25th-annual pow-wow will take place June 29-July 1. Allan Yerxa, Couchiching's Lands and Resources co-ordinator, said their pow-wows used to take place at the Point.

He noted pow-wows were just gatherings “of people around some drums just to celebrate life and togetherness.”

Hunter said the pow-wows always have existed to celebrate the Anishinaabe culture. To “celebrate our communities and people, our children, and to pass on those traditions and teachings.”

He wants everyone to know there's a lot more depth than what is seen on the surface of the pow-wow.

“I'm 60 years old and I'm still learning," Hunter remarked. ”You never stop learning.

“There's always layers and layers of stuff to learn.”

Yerxa said Treaty #3 gatherings historically were held seasonally, and would be held by different communities. Because of this, First Nations' groups would travel to these other communities for the assemblies.

The pow-wow would follow these assemblies, celebrating the gathering of the people.

“It's a gathering, a celebration of life, getting together and enjoying one's company,” Yerxa explained.

Many aspects of the pow-wow have evolved from traditional to more contemporary features. An example of this is the arena director, who is responsible for ensuring the circle is running smoothly, adhering to cultural protocols, and is safe for participants.

The position has evolved from a traditional one called the “Whip Man.”

His job was not only to make sure the celebrations continued but that everyone was participating. The “Whip Man” got their name because of the stick they would hold and if you were touched by the stick, you would have to dance.

“The arena director evolved from the position of 'Whip Man' from a long time ago," said Hunter. ”He just made sure everything was going the way that it should.

“And if there was anything that any community member wanted to do, they had to speak to him first to arrange it.”

The centre of attention, though, is the drum.

Without the drum, and the singers around it, the pow-wows would not happen. The drum signifies balance and “the heart beat of our Earth Mother.”

“There is a significance to each song," said Yerxa. ”Some of them are related to healing, some of them are related to honouring the creator.

“A lot of them are related to celebrating the pow-wow.”

Dances like the Jingle Dress, grass dances, or traditional dances could not be performed without the drum and its accompanying singers.

Many of the dances have been practised and passed down to younger generations for decades. The Jingle Dress is an example of a traditional dance still practised today.

According to the Ojibwe, Naotkamegwanning First Nation (Whitefish Bay) is home to the Jingle Dress dance.

A little girl named Maggie White was very ill. Her father had a dream about a dress with cones that jingle hanging off the material. He spent days creating the dress and, when it was finished, put it on the little girl, picked her up to help her dance, and she got better.

The young girl passed away as an old woman in 1992.

To this day, the Jingle Dress is deemed to be a healing dress, and the women's regalia can consist of brightly-coloured fabrics, jewellery, moccasins, and hair ties.

Other aspects of the pow-wow, however, are more contemporary, such as the Master of Ceremonies and the Grand Entry.

The emcee's job is to inform the participants and visitors of the day's agenda, as well as provide entertainment.

“[They] make sure all the ceremonies that need to be done are done on time,” noted Yerxa.

"They're sort of running the clock up there.

“They're pretty much organizing the actual running of the pow-wow on a day-to-day basis,” he added.

“They'll work with elders, they'll work with spiritual advisors, so there's actually quite a bit to try and keep track of.”

Before the pow-wows we experience today, the ceremonies and dancing would begin without an emcee or a Grand Entry to mark its commencement.

Now, the Grand Entry marks the official opening of the pow-wow. All of the dancers participating in the event will enter the circle behind the head dancers and flag carriers, usually to an Honour or Intertribal Song.

“The Grand Entry is just meant as a way to introduce all the dancers to the circle,” said Hunter.

Whether indigenous or non-indigenous, the “circle is for everyone,” he stressed.

“We dance for everyone. We include everyone," Hunter noted. ”It doesn't matter where you're from, what you look like, how you dance, who you choose to love. None of that matters.

“And we want to try to perpetuate that.”

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