Toronto’s Pow Wow

Patricia Cleveland-Peck visits an annual festival of North American history and culture.

North America's largest Aboriginal event, the Canadian Aboriginal Festival and Pow Wow takes place annually in Toronto. Pow Wows are among North America's oldest public festivals; the term was used by the East Coast tribes to describe medicine men and spiritual healers but early Europeans thought that it referred to a whole ceremony and the word passed into general usage.

Nowadays the event provides a colourful occasion for First Nations peoples to meet and celebrate their culture. It is no secret that these peoples have been badly treated.
‘The legacy of Canadian colonial relations has wreaked havoc on indigenous peoples and continues to do so.’ says anthropologist Dr Jane McMillan, of St Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia. ‘The return to the drum, to singing and dancing is not just a solace but a form of resistance.’

Gathering like this was once banned – just one of a catalogue of injustices. Over the years the First Nation communities have been dispossessed, their tribal lands taken from them, as were their hunting and fishing grounds. Canada’s notorious Indian Act of 1876 and subsequent legislation seemed to offer protection and benefits but in fact acted as a form of social control regulating every aspect of the lives of what had effectively become a colonized people. Their traditional celebrations were banned, their languages forbidden and their children taken away to Christian boarding schools.

It was not until 1948 that the UN Declaration of Human Rights forced the Canadian government to begin to re-examine these issues, since when things have been improving – but very slowly. Among First Nations peoples the proportion of alcoholics, drug abusers and unemployed is much higher than among non-aboriginal Canadians.

Today, though, there is a greater sense of optimism surrounding the Pow Wow. Moves are afoot to increase the self-esteem of First Nations people. The Pow Wow is preceded by an Aboriginal economic development conference aimed at mobilizing young people to strive towards a better future. There are wine tastings with submissions from Aboriginal wineries. There is a music award ceremony and a fashion show. Then, there is an education day to give schoolchildren an insight into Aboriginal culture through craft workshops, dance and storytelling.

Pow Wows begin with the Grand Entry: the Chief Veteran bearing an Eagle Staff leads a long procession consisting of flag bearers, war veterans, representatives from all the services, members of the Canadian Mounted Police, members of various tribes in their regalia and all the dancers. The host drum offers a special song for the Grand Entry and this parade snakes slowly into the central grassy area, until the arena is filled with a mass of swirling feather-bedecked people, their regalia blazing with colour. Finally a solemn address is given in a native language by an elder – last year by a woman.

The Grand Entry is the sacred heart of the Pow Wow. Many of the items of regalia are potent symbols, none more so than the eagle feather which is said to represent a fallen warrior. If one is dropped during a ceremony it must not be simply picked up and returned as would apply to other fallen items. The procession must halt and everyone remain silent. The honour of retrieving the feather used to be granted to a warrior who had been wounded in combat but as these are mercifully few nowadays, a Lost Feather Dance is arranged and four veterans participate in the retrieval.

Competitive dancing is the focus of the event for many people. Parents deck their children with fan-like feather bustles and headdresses, girls don dresses glittering and tinkling with metal ‘jingles’ while young men strut around in buckskin suits and tufted hair roaches. Colour is crucial with a predominance of black, white, red and yellow – First Nation colours which represent races of the world.

Most of the dances have their roots in the Grass Dance, originally part of a series of rituals performed by warring societies at which the dancers wore bunches of grass. Men danced for spiritual strength and courage using symbolic battle movements; weapons, war-paint, beads and feather were much in evidence.

Other less belligerent dances imitate animals and birds and so honour the buffalo, deer, bears, wolves and other creatures known to the tribe. After settlement, war-raids and buffalo hunts became things of the past but dancing has remained important within individual tribes and clans.
One of the earliest examples of a ‘modern’ Pow Wow as a gathering of many different tribal peoples is the Ponca Fair in Oklahoma, a four-day event held in 1887. The government and the missionaries, concerned that their authority would be threatened, tried to declare the events savage and pagan and get them banned. But just as this happened, the public appetite for Buffalo Bill Wild West Shows increased and a number of indigenous families joined these shows and were paid to perform traditional dances and wartime re-enactments – all of which helped to keep alive the culture.

A vibrant culture with colourful artefacts is evident throughout the art festival. I bought beautifully crafted baskets and dream-catchers; tasted Indian corn soup, moose burger and cedar tea; visited the Aboriginal tourism pavilion and chatted to individuals and came away feeling I had experienced the generosity of spirit of a people who deserve healing, respect and increased good fortune.