Powwow are held in all parts of southern Canada, as they are from the cultures of the Plains. Today, a powwow in Halifax would not be too different from a powwow in Vancouver. Some are competitions in which dancers from different regions participate and compete for cash prizes. Others are traditional powwows where women and men dance for pleasure. Just like in all forms of living traditions, the form of the powwow has changed over the years in many regions. The local culture of a region gives powwows a certain style or “colour”. An excellent example is the Annual Children’s Powwow that is organized by the Odawa Native Friendship Centre in Ottawa. Integral parts of the event include the big drum, the singing that accompanies the plain dancers, as well as Iroqois drummers, singers and dancers and social dancers.
Not only does the powwow gather and draw people together, but it is a way for the First Peoples to express their unity and cultural heritage. Anyone can attend a powwow and participate in the Intertribal Dance which is where Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can dance together. Other dances include men and female specific dances. In a powwow, the central zone is generally reserved for the drummers and is a temporary structure designed to bring attention to the focal point of the powwow. The structure provides shade for the drummers and singers for when the powwows are outdoors. Food, craft and clothing vendors have the opportunity to sell and share their handiwork to the community outside of the designated central zone in stands.
All powwows start with the Grand Entry where dancers lead by Canadian and American flag bearers and the bearer of the Eagle Staff enter the dance area known as the Dance Arbour. Important guests, elders and powwow organizers enter soon after and the flags are always presented in homage to all of the indigenous veterans that served in the armed forces. The dancers enter in a predetermined order. The first are male traditional dances that wear elaborate eagle feather bustles and are identified by their high kicking steps. The men’s fancy dancers follow with their very complex and colourful regalia. Next come the grass dancers that wear long fringes to imitate the movement of long grass blowing in the wind. That is when the women enter, led by the traditional dancers and their elaborate regalia.
Their movements are poised and majestic and wear eagle feathers in their hair and always hold in their right hand, a fan made of the same feathers. They are followed by the women’s fancy dancers making quick swirling movements and wearing long fringed shawls. Next enter the jingle dress dancers covered with tin cones that jingle in time with the music. Originally from the Ojibwe nation, the jingle dress dance is considered a healing dance. The women dance to heal the people of all nations. As with the men, the younger girls and smaller children follow the senior women in their respective categories.
Once all have arrived in the sacred circle, a Flag Song followed by a Victory Song are sung and then an opening prayer is recited in the local Indigenous languages or one of Canada’s official languages. The powwow continues with dances from different categories, special honour songs and presentations to Elders and many other activities. If the powwow is a competition, the dances and judging are done throughout the day.
There are protocols and etiquettes that are asked to be followed by participants and visitors during a powwow. While a powwow is a social event, it is also a sacred one that requires respect. There are sets of rules that need to be followed and that can vary depending on the region. Some include : No photos can be taken during the song of the flag and the honor song, during the opening prayers or while any spiritual activity is taking place; Removing hats during certain songs unless you wear an eagle feather in your hat; Always show the utmost respect towards the chiefs, matriarchs and elders.
Native Drums, an online Indigenous resource page said:
“Our children are beginning to see the value of our traditional ways again. A great flowering of our cultures is happening as our young people begin to take up the drum, learn their languages, the songs and the traditions of the people. That great pan-Indian phenomenon known as the powwow has helped many to find pride and their way back to their own cultures. The rhythm of the drum has made it possible for us to sustain our identity during difficult periods. We still have much to relearn; much to put right, but with the help of the drums we shall rebuild, preserve and celebrate our traditions.”