Introduction to Pow Wow

Erin Halonen is an Educator and the former First Nations, Métis, Inuit, Curriculum Consultant in the Curriculum Implementation and Resources Branch, Alberta Education. Her passion for Education for Reconciliation and Indigenous Ways of Knowing was born through her lived experience with the local Cree First Nations community. Embedded in her work is deep sense of agency to urge the provincial education system to move forward in reconciliatory understanding and action.


Have you had the chance to attend a pow wow? I have attended pow wows all over Alberta!  arbour

Pow wows are spectacular Indigenous cultural events that highlight stunning regalia, incredible dancing, singing and drumming. The event takes place in an arbor. This is a permanent circular structure maintained on cultural grounds. Some arbors are open air, while others are covered like the gorgeous arbor at Saddle Lake cultural grounds, pictured here. As you can see people sit on bleachers, or bring a lawn chair and sit on the grass around the dance area. Sometimes the dance area is natural ground or grass and other times, like in the example from Saddle Lake, they dance on artificial turf. Around the arbor vendors will display their wares and sell traditional foods. Bannock Taco’s are my favorite pow wow food! Tipi’s are often set up and people will be camped or parked in a circle formation.

Normally pow wows will be organized with two Grand Entries a day. One in the king eddieafternoon and one in the evening. Here is a picture of past Chief Eddie Makokis bringing in the Eagle Staff during the Grand Entry of the 2018 Saddle Lake Pow wow. During the Grand Entry the Chief and other dignitaries lead all the dancers into the arbor while a group sings and drums. At the completion of the Grand Entry there might be hundreds of dancers in the arbor.  This video highlights a Grand Entry from the Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gathering of Nations is the largest Pow wow in Turtle Island (North America). It is held annually in April. Over 700 tribes from Canada and the United States participate!

There are many different dance categories at a pow wow, and all ages participate. Usually the youngest competitors are highlighted first. The athletic, colorful, spectacular men’s Fancy dancers are usually saved for the last. The regalia that is worn is specific to each category of dance. You can tell what kind of dancing an individual does by their regalia. Regalia is unique to the dancer, usually holding personal and spiritual significance. Some specific items that you might see on regalia are: porcupine quills, elk teeth, bear claws, woodpecker tail, joshbear2eagle or magpie feathers, weasel pelts, and bead work. Some regalia costs thousands of dollars to purchase, many people make their regalia. This is a picture of Josh Bear, Men’s Traditional Dancer from Saskatchewan. His roach, which is part of his head dress, features a woodpecker tail.

Each item on a dancer’s regalia represents something significant to the dancer. In this picture Shalaya Whiskeyjack, from Saddle Lake Cree Nation is wearing her Jingle Dress regalia. Her Kokum (grandmother) handmade her regalia to represent her Indigenous name, White Spotted Pony. Indigenous names are obtained in cultural ceremony, and highly respected. She is wearing white weasel pelts braided into her hair. In her culture, it is believed that the weasel provides protection from jealous shalayaenergies that onlookers may project onto the dancers. When she dances the metal jingles on her skirt make a tinkle or jingling sound.

Dancing is considered a form of ceremony. Each dance represents or teaches a different story. For example, Grass dance category is highlighted first because traditionally the grass dancers would dance to stomp and pack tall grass down, and remove any rocks or dangerous obstacles to prepare for a new camping / living area.

Participants dance for healing. This quote from Fancy Dancer and Indigenous artist Christian Parrish, known as Supaman highlights the ceremonial intentions of dancing:

They say to dance like nobody is watching. I think that implies that we are afraid or ashamed to dance in front of people. I say dance like everybody is watching, your ancestors, and your family. Dance for those who are hurting, those who can’t dance, those who lost loved ones and those who suffer injustices throughout the world. Let every step be a prayer for humanity! Most of all dance for the Creator, who breathed into your soul so you may celebrate this gift of life!”

800px-SupamanSupaman is from Crow Agency, Montana. He started dancing at pow wows when he was in grade four.

Dancers dance to the music of different drum groups. Singing and drumming, like dancing, has spiritual significance. Drums are handmade in ceremony, and are treated with respect.  The drumming represents the heartbeat of the mother earth. My personal favorite drum groups are Northern Cree and Wild Horse Singer’s. Northern Cree is a pow wow and round dance singing group that was formed in the 80’s by the Wood brothers from Saddle Lake Cree Nation. Over the years they have had worldwide success, including performing on the Grammy’s.  Northern Cree is powerful to hear live. The Wild Horse Singers are from North Battleford Saskatchewan. A highlight of their experiences has been performing for the Queen! Wild Horse singer member Colin Stonechild, told me that the drum saved him from delinquency. He learned Cree language and culture while sitting around the drum with his indigenous brothers.

Pow wow is considered ceremony, so here are some general protocols to remember. It is respectful to wear a long skirt and sleeved shirt if you are female. Also, taking pictures should only be done with permission. If you are outside the arbor during the Grand Entry, it is respectful to walk behind or around the dancers and not cross in front of them.

Poundmaker’s Annual pow wow is being held at Poundmaker’s Lodge, near St. Albert, Alberta this weekend. See more details here.  I will be going to watch my friend’s son dance for the first time. I hope to see you there!



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Be well! 

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