Québec’s Powwow Season, a Summer Tradition, Kicks Off | Québec Guide | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Québec’s Powwow Season, a Summer Tradition, Kicks Off

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Published June 26, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


Wendake International Pow Wow - COURTESY OF RICHARD GEOFFRION
  • Courtesy Of Richard Geoffrion
  • Wendake International Pow Wow

With sweeping movements that sent their regalia's brightly colored ribbons into the air, a troupe of grass dancers stomped their feet to each urgent beat of a large bass drum. The Wabanaki Confederacy drum group sang and set the pace for the dance, raising the pitch and intensity of their voices as the drumming picked up speed. It was just before noon on a blazing hot June day in western Québec's rural Outaouais region, where the annual Kitigan Zibi Traditional Pow Wow — the first and largest of a province-wide powwow series — was about to begin.

Outside the dance circle, a few hundred spectators unfolded camping chairs; a toddler wearing a buckskin jacket handed out strawberries in celebration of his first powwow dance. A jingle dress dancer's metal cone-adorned regalia tinkled as she rushed to find her place in the lineup.

Then the circle cleared and the crowd went quiet. A new, slower drumbeat began, and everyone stood when the MC announced the Grand Entry, the arrival of all the weekend's dancers. Led by flag bearers, they filed into the circle by the hundreds. I spotted the two head dancers, followed by dancers of different styles: traditional, grass, jingle dress and fancy shawl. They, in turn, were followed by the tiny 6-and-unders, who looked wobbly but determined. Only when everyone was inside the circle could the gathering officially kick off.

In a way, the festivities would last until fall. From June to September, Indigenous people from Québec and beyond follow the Pow Wow Trail across a vast swath of the province — from the Cree community of Eeyou Istchee, on the shores of James Bay, to the Mohawk territory of Akwesasne, which straddles the U.S.-Canada border. A handful are within easy road-tripping distance of Burlington. Of the 21 powwows that comprise the trail, no two are exactly alike. Some are competition powwows, in which dancers compete for cash prizes. Others, like Kitigan Zibi's, are billed as traditional, with a focus on social dancing.

In total, some 4,000 people attended the two-day Kitigan Zibi powwow. That number included non-Indigenous Québécois from nearby towns, Cree from northern Québec, Haudenosaunee from New York, and a group of casually dressed diplomatic staff from the embassies of Jordan, India, Turkey, Germany, France, New Zealand, Belgium and the Netherlands. The diplomats had traveled up from the big city, where their embassies sit on the "unceded, unsurrendered territory of Ottawa," MC Beendigaygizhig Deleary noted to the crowd at one point. "That makes me go 'hmmm.'" He was uncharacteristically quiet for a few seconds before continuing: "So glad you're here. And land back!"

The phrase "land back" refers to an international political movement to restore Indigenous sovereignty. As Deleary made clear, however, the Kitigan Zibi Traditional Pow Wow, like each event on the Québec Pow Wow Trail, is open to all who wish to attend. While some charge a small admission fee, others, like Kitigan Zibi's, are free. You don't need an invitation or to know anyone in the community. But there's no mistaking it — visitors are guests on Indigenous land. Even if that feels intimidating or awkward at first, it's not difficult to fit in by simply listening and showing respect, such as by following the MC's directions and keeping quiet during prayers.

Each powwow, insiders told me, provides a venue for Indigenous peoples to come together and practice and strengthen their cultures. These gatherings are a relatively recent part of Native life. Powwows emerged in the mid-19th century, part of efforts to resist cultural assimilation as Indigenous people were pushed from their land and into reserves.

"We made powwows because we needed a place to be together," Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange wrote in his 2018 novel, There There. When Canada's 1876 Indian Act prohibited Indigenous ceremonies and dance, many communities continued to hold them in secret or curtailed their most visible spiritual content to appease authorities. The government didn't lift the ban until 1951.

"It was the powwow, in many ways, that helped us rekindle the spirit of our dances and songs," Deleary told the crowd just before the Grand Entry. "It was a way for us to hold on to [them] without it seeming like it was ceremony." The government perceived such gatherings as dangerous, he explained. "They gave us our sovereignty, gave us our strength as a people," he said.

A dancer at the Kitigan Zibi Pow Wow - COURTESY OF JEAN-SIMON BEGIN
  • Courtesy Of Jean-Simon Begin
  • A dancer at the Kitigan Zibi Pow Wow

Deleary's voice was a constant throughout the weekend. He spoke in English, with a smattering of Algonquin and French words thrown in. Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation is a majority-anglophone Anishinaabe community whose Indigenous language is Algonquin, a dialect of Anishinaabemowin. For two days, from morning to sunset, Deleary coordinated the powwow's four drum groups, announced each dance and explained protocol. It was a grueling gig that he pulled off with unflagging charisma and confidence. When dead air threatened, he cracked jokes: "I've got a voice for radio but not a face."

A former singer from Kitigan Zibi, Deleary, who looked relaxed in a short-sleeved shirt adorned with floral embroidery, lives in Ottawa and spends his summers traveling from powwow to powwow. He described the lifestyle as "hectic" but "a blessing" for his four children, who have friends and family across North America. With exactly two minutes to spare between dances, I asked him what this powwow means to the community he grew up in.

"It's a revival of culture," he said. "It's saying to our young people that being Anishinabeg, being Algonquin — having an identity and a sense of belonging, a connection to culture, language, song and dance — is important." It's fitting that this event opens the province's powwow season, he said: "Kitigan Zibi has always been a very strong community ... very supportive of the other nations within Québec, within the Algonquin Nation and outside." Then he rushed back to his station to announce the next dance.

While ceremonial dances are the main events at every powwow, they are not the only happening. The field surrounding the dance arena at Kitigan Zibi was crammed with trucks, canopies and tables selling everything from handmade jewelry and moccasins to beauty products and clothes. As soon as the lines thinned, I headed for the vendors. Their wares included "Every Child Matters" T-shirts, honoring Indigenous children sent to residential schools, and, in recognition of missing and murdered Indigenous women, ones emblazoned with "No More Stolen Sisters." The "Indigenous Pride" shirts need no explanation.

I bought a pair of big, geometrically patterned beaded earrings from a local Anishinaabe artist and a second pair made by an Abenaki artist from Wôlinak, Que. Looking over the food vendors, I considered the elk burger, foot-long "auntie's delight" hot dog and "walking tacos," ground beef ladled into a Doritos bag. I settled instead on an "Indian taco," meat filling wrapped in fry bread, from Adrianna's Den, whose white truck is a familiar sight on the Northeast's powwow circuit.

"Looking good, looking good!" Deleary enthused as dancers spun their way around the arena, swinging shawls elaborately decorated with brightly colored appliqué and ribbons to mimic butterflies in flight. The dwindling crowd was sunbaked by then, the second consecutive day of nearly nonstop dancing. Vendors were packing up, but it wasn't over yet.

"Let's fill that dance arena!" Deleary called out over the sound system as he announced an intertribal dance. He meant it. Intertribal dances are open to everyone. "You don't have to be Indigenous. Anybody's allowed to dance," he said. Spectators were rooted in their seats, looking around uncertainly. Slowly, though, the circle filled up. Visitors dressed in shorts and jeans shuffled their feet to the steady beat of the drum alongside dancers in feathered bustles and headdresses, fur hair ties and bone breastplates.

"Everybody can learn and see what happens at a powwow and perhaps catch on to some of the protocols," organizer Robin Cayer told me. Respect for Elders and participants are cornerstones of powwow etiquette, she said, which includes "being mindful of asking dancers if [you] can take their picture" outside the dance arena. "Their spirit is in the regalia," she explained. "If you're taking pictures of them without their permission, it's like taking a bit of their spirit."

As we talked, the jingle dress dancers gathered in the arena and prepared to pray for an ailing community member. "That's what the jingle dress dance is about," Cayer said. "It's about healing." The dancers say their prayers into tobacco in their hands, which they then offer to the sacred fire.

You might come for the color and energy of the dancers and drummers, but the spectacle goes deeper than mere performance. The jingle dress dance, for instance, had been organized on the spur of the moment in response to the needs of someone in the community. These kinds of spontaneous acts, Cayer told me, are the soul of a powwow. "If visitors come and listen, they'll learn those kinds of things," Cayer said, "just by paying attention."

How to Powwow: A First-Timer's Guide

Drumming at the Wendake International Pow Wow - COURTESY OF AUDET PHOTO
  • Courtesy Of Audet Photo
  • Drumming at the Wendake International Pow Wow

Know when not to take photos.
Photos are strictly verboten during the Grand Entry and Opening Prayer, which are considered sacred. While it is generally fine to take photos of dancers while they are in the arena, there may be particular moments that should not be photographed — the MCs will let you know, so pay attention to their announcements.

Say "regalia."
Dancers at powwows wear handmade attire, called "regalia," that holds deep significance and may have been passed down through generations. You'll see many different designs at a powwow. They reflect the diversity of Indigenous cultures, "especially in Québec," Deleary said. In the Algonquin territory of western Québec, for example, he said, "you'll see more woodland features — floral works and birch bark." Just don't call it a costume.

What to bring (and not).
If you wish to talk to an Elder or ask them questions, Cayer suggests bringing tobacco to offer as a sign of respect. Alcohol, drugs and pets are always prohibited on the grounds.

Browse the vendors.
A powwow is a great place to buy handmade Indigenous arts and crafts and talk to artisans about their work. And spending money is a mutually rewarding way to make a positive impact — purchasing from artisans supports Indigenous families and their communities.

Don't be afraid to ask questions.
You may not always understand what's going on at your first powwow. If you're unsure of what to do, follow the lead of others around you. If you have any questions, just ask.

Powwow Now

A dancer at the Kahnawake Echoes of a Proud Nation Pow-Wow - COURTESY OF AUDET PHOTO
  • Courtesy Of Audet Photo
  • A dancer at the Kahnawake Echoes of a Proud Nation Pow-Wow

Ready for a road trip? You can reach these five upcoming powwows in five hours — or less — from Burlington.

Wendake International Pow Wow
While at Wendake's powwow, visitors can spend the night at the Huron-Wendat-owned First Nations Hotel-Museum and explore the Onhwa' Lumina multimedia night walk. June 28-30, tourismewendake.ca/en/pow-wow.

Kahnawake Echoes of a Proud Nation Pow-Wow
Held in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake on Montréal's South Shore, this big powwow includes a smoke dance competition — a dance form that originated with the Haudenosaunee. July 13-14, kahnawakepowwow.com.

Odanak Pow Wow
Marking 65 editions this summer, Odanak Pow Wow celebrates Abenaki culture and is known for its food offerings, including smoked fish and the corn stew called sagamité. July 20-21, powwowodanak.com.

Manawan Pow Wow
In the Lanaudière region northeast of Montréal, the Atikamekw community of Manawan offers powwow travel packages that include staying in a teepee on an island on Kempt Lake. July 26-28, canadianpowwows.ca/events/pow-wow-manawan.

Kanesatake Annual Pow Wow
Located at the confluence of the Ottawa River and Lake Deux-Montagnes on Montréal's north shore, Kanesatake's powwow offers an opportunity to explore the artistry of the area's small Mohawk community. August 31-September 1, facebook.com/kpowwow.

Bonjour Québec logoThis article is part of a travel series on Québec. The province's destination marketing organization, Bonjour Québec, is a financial underwriter of the project but has no influence over story selection or content. Find the complete series plus travel tips at sevendaysvt.com/quebec.

The original print version of this article was headlined "When Nations Gather | Québec's powwow season, a summer tradition, kicks off"

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