Have you ever wondered what a pow wow really is? I have. Perhaps you’ve watched the documentary in the Abitibi 360 virtual series about this and have an idea about the experience. The video actually whet my appetite and I wanted to know more. I wondered about joining in on their next pow wow, but had a question: Would I be welcome?
This is the very question I intend to answer in this blog. To make sure that my information was reliable and accurate, I did some research. I connected with one of the organizers of the Lac Simon Pow Wow, Pamela Papatie, to get some guidance.
What is a Pow Wow?
A pow wow is a traditional spiritual celebration with music, dancing, food and Indigenous crafts. Contrary to popular belief, a pow wow is not a party. No drugs or alcohol are allowed on site during the celebrations. A pow wow is a traditional gathering for the purpose of cultural exchange between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. It’s actually a tradition that comes from western Canada, adopted by Indigenous communities here in order to reconnect with their culture. For many years, it was forbidden for First Nations to practise and teach their ways to future generations.
There are two types of pow wow. There’s a competition pow wow, where dancers and singers compete for prize money and there’s a traditional pow wow, which has a more spiritual orientation. Both types of pow wow honour traditions and rituals.
The Lac Simon Pow Wow, featured here in the fourth episode of Abitibi 360’s virtual journeys is a traditional gathering. Organizer Pamela Papatie tells us that it usually takes place on the third weekend of July. It starts at noon, when the sun is at its highest point, and ends at sundown. However, sometimes it runs a bit later into the night so that people can dance and celebrate. On Saturday night, there are also little friendly competitions for singing and drumming. A traditional feast with wild game is also shared as part of the celebration. There is absolutely no charge for admission to the pow wow.
Photo | Christian Leduc
Are Non-Aboriginals Welcome at a Pow Wow?
It can feel a little overwhelming for someone attending their first pow wow. However, although it’s a traditional Aboriginal celebration, all are welcome. Pow wows are open to the public. They serve not only to reclaim and preserve Indigenous culture; they also help to foster the pride Aboriginal people have in being part of our First Nations. It’s a beautiful way for them to share this pride and to introduce the richness of their traditions to the world.
How to Fit In and Show Respect?
Although everyone is welcome, there are a number of basic protocols you need to know and respect. Online, you’ll find a variety of pieces written for those who are new to pow wows , a world that the general public knows little about. Have a look around the Internet for this kind of information, bearing in mind that protocols vary from region to region. Meanwhile, here are a few tips from Pamela Papatie.
First off, pay special attention to the emcee. At every pow wow, there is someone who announces what’s going to be happening next, letting participants know what to do and what not to do. Pay attention.
There are specific times when photos are forbidden. Particularly, during certain songs and dances that are sacred prayers for the Indigenous community holding the pow wow. The emcee will let people know this. Be respectful.
The traditional clothing worn by the dancers is called ‘regalia’. It is not referred to as ‘costumes’. Each regalia is unique. It can signal that the wearer is part of a particular clan or has a connection with a spirit animal. For Pamela Papatie, her daughters’ regalia can reflect both personal choice, and how they are feeling; it can be a vehicle for expressing something they wish to convey or an interpretation of their dreams. This traditional clothing is magnificent, and colourful. It must never be touched without permission. Be observant.
Finally, always bear in mind that the pow wow site is a sacred place. It is forbidden to move around inside the dance arena. Sometimes, people are allowed to join in during the big intertribal dances. Here again, it’s the emcee who will let you know when that is going to happen. Stay curious.
Photo | Christian Leduc
Seeking to Reclaim their Culture
For Indigenous communities, the pow wow is a way of reclaiming their culture and their traditions. Pow wows are a vehicle for sharing, among other things, values, pride, respect and wellness, with youth and elders.
This kind of celebration plays an important role in the life of many Aboriginal people. For example, most of the community is involved in preparing for the Lac Simon Pow Wow. The gathering is a way for them to see their family and friends and to celebrate their cultural heritage together. The pow wow means something different for each individual. For Pamela Papatie, it is highly significant: she wants to follow in her grandmother Janette’s footsteps by raising her daughters with a spiritual orientation. For her, the pow wows aren’t just songs and dances, they are prayers for her children, for Nature, the Earth, the animals, men and women. It’s important for her because it helps her to reconnect with her identity, her Indigenous cultural identity that was lost during the residential school era.
Pow wows are also a way of demonstrating the pride Aboriginal peoples still feel as members of our First Nations. Inviting non-Aboriginals to their pow wow is also a step towards reconciliation.
Photo | Christian Leduc
To see what is looking like a Pow-Wow, you can check out the fourth episode of Abitibi 360’s documentaries here. It takes the viewer on a virtual journey with Jerry Hunter, a traditional dancer, as the community prepares for the Lac Simon Pow Wow. You’ll discover a beautiful colourful world and feel the community’s desire to instill an understanding of Aboriginal culture.
If you’d like to know more about Indigenous culture, there’s a cultural and touristic site you might want to check out in Val-d’Or. It’s called ‘Kinawit’ Through guided tours and cultural workshops, Kinawit creates a full cultural experience. You can learn more about the history of the First Peoples and their presence on this land for thousands of years. Walking in the woods, collecting medicinal plants and making crafts are all options with a Kinawit experience.
In light of the current pandemic, schedules and activities may change, so be sure to check with Kinawit directly.
My special thanks go to Pamela Papatie, who took the time to answer all my questions.
For her part, Pamela would like to extend her deep gratitude to the merchants who support the pow wow financially. Their financial contributions enable Lac Simon to hold this celebration every year.
Thanks also to Janet Mark and Caroline Lemire who helped to point me in the right direction.
Pamela Papatie, sur le comité organisateur du Pow-Wow du Lac Simon.