Culture  Dancing with tradition

Brian Keast talks with some of the people behind McGill’s annual pow-wow

Pow-wows are special events, and Ray Deer should know. Deer knows the ins and outs of running a pow-wow. He’s the one who knows which songs the drum circle can play, which ones they can’t, and the songs they could probably learn on the spot if they followed the beat closely enough. He knows who he can call on to play a certain song or perform a particular dance. And as head veteran dancer of the Deer Family Mohawk Singers and Dancers, he even knows a couple steps himself.

Deer is one of the many people involved in organizing the annual pow-wow held on McGill Campus. It certainly isn’t every day that you can hear Inuit throat singing or the steady beat of a drum while rushing between classes. Put on by McGill’s First Peoples’ House, the pow-wow provides a unique opportunity for students to interact with First Nations culture, while serving the important cultural purposes of a pow-wow within the Native community itself.

Deer himself was once a McGill student, but left the university early to join the Canadian Forces Reserves. He later joined the U.S. Army, which he was able to do because of the dual citizenship that is the birthright of all Mohawks.

While stationed overseas in Europe, other Native soldiers opened Deer’s eyes to one of the most beautiful aspects of his culture: dancing. While he had often participated informally in longhouse dances in Kahnawake, the dancing his fellow soldiers showed him was new and fascinating.

Since then, Deer has slowly cobbled together his regalia – the handmade, unique costumes worn by dancers. Regalia are works of art. Featuring intricate and colourful design, no two are the same. They are a challenge to assemble and often worth upward of $20,000.

Finding the right person to bead a particular garment is a long and difficult process. This means, of course, that regalia can take years to be perfected. Even then, there’s always something else to add on or to change. Ray likes to look at the challenge in a positive light, citing its ability to bring one closer to one’s ancestors. He says that one can imagine how past generations, too, would put together their regalia over the long winters in eager anticipation of spring and the upcoming pow-wows.

The pow-wow at McGill starts out with a prayer for the Mohawk village of Hochelaga, which once stood on the university’s land. Now, all that remains to mark its location is a small boulder with a plaque that sits among a few trees near where McLennan Library meets Sherbrooke.

The prayer for Hochelaga is an important way for the pow-wow’s attendees to honour cultural memory. Lance Delisle, the Master of Ceremonies for the pow-wow at McGill, says that First Peoples always remain mindful of the hundreds of years of oppression they have experienced. For him, these cultural events help to heal age-old wounds. Delisle also emphasizes how the pow-wow helps Native people, especially those living in urban centres, to connect with their roots and to keep in touch with their culture.

As someone with over twenty years of experience in radio at Kahnawake’s K103 under his belt, Delisle possesses a thorough knowledge of his community and is said to be one of the most recognizable people on the reserve. Delisle says that pow-wows represent different things to different people: competitive events, community events, showcases, conventions, meeting places, networking opportunities, performances. As with any gathering, a pow-wow also functions as an important community-building tool, and a business opportunity for the entrepreneurs who line the lower field with their stands or, like Delisle himself, hand out business cards.

The Kahnawake pow-wow, Echoes of a Proud Nation, began after the Oka crisis in 1990 and has continued ever since. The event, like all pow-wows, is not only for First Nations members. Instead, Native people refer to the events as “inter-tribal,” meaning anyone can join in the festivities, regardless of their ethnicity.

Deer encourages everyone at the McGill pow-wow to join in the inter-tribal dances. Having done the electric slide in the U.S. and the chicken dance in Germany over the course of his time in the army, Ray feels no one should be apprehensive about trying out a step or two.

In addition to inter-tribals, the McGill pow-wow features a variety of other dances, such as the Men’s Jingle Fancy, the Women’s Grass Dance, the Rabbit Dance (for couples), the Alligator Dance (for pairs), and the Kids’ Dance. Ray jokes that, unsurprisingly, kids are often afraid of catching cooties from the opposite sex and so are allowed to dance in male-male or female-female pairs. The dances are full of symbolism and, with the help of a keen eye, it’s easy to spot the variations and intricacies they contain.

In Deer’s experience, people who join in have a great time. He remembers participants, though, who just didn’t get it and jumped around shouting “woooo,” like in an old cowboys-and-Indians movie.

That “woooo” that Hollywood so often mistook for a battle cry was, in fact, the collective prayers of thousands of Native warriors to the Creator asking for protection and success in battle. Deer likens the din to what you might hear in a crowded university classroom after a professor begins their lecture; everyone’s speaking perfectly clearly, but together the noise sounds unintelligible and chaotic.

The cultural heritage behind the pow-wow, however, does not mean that First Nations culture is stagnant. At the McGill pow-wow, evidence of cultural change could be found interwoven with centuries-old traditions. The Sweetgrass Singers are a group that has sprung from a movement of women who have been claiming their rightful place alongside the men of their nations. Though traditionally singing was strictly for men, this movement has helped to break down barriers in the community and is setting an example for younger generations.

In many ways, pow-wows function as a cross-section of contemporary Native culture. With McGill’s pow-wow over, opportunities to participate in Native culture around campus may seem sparse. In reality, however, First Peoples’ House, which organizes the pow-wow, hosts a wide variety of events throughout the year. They also serve bannock and soup lunches every Wednesday and Thursday at noon. And like the pow-wow itself, all are welcome.

The First Peoples’ House is located at 3505 Peel.