On September 22, McGill hosted its 21st annual Pow Wow on campus – a resumption of the in-person gathering after it was held virtually for two years. A Pow Wow (sometimes written as powwow) is an Indigenous gathering where people can sing, play instruments, and dance. For Indigenous peoples, it is also an opportunity to honour their histories, reconnect with friends and family, and heal as a community. Many see this as a way of reasserting their identity; celebrations like Pow Wows were banned by the Indian Act in 1876, and they did not become officially legalized until 1951. McGill’s annual Pow Wow is the largest event organized by the First Peoples’ House. Since 2001, children, students, community members, and more have come together annually to celebrate Indigenous cultures.
The event began with speeches from the organizers, dancers, and the two masters of ceremony. Their words honoured and thanked the Creator for all things given to us, ending with a message of love and understanding: “I wish you all a good day, and peace and love in your hearts.”
After the speeches, the Grand Entry began, where all the dancers entered the circle while the host drum and singers performed a song. During the Grand Entry, the audience was asked to stand as a sign of respect and to refrain from taking any photos. Elders – along with veterans and retired police officers – were honoured throughout the day. Children were also supported throughout the dances and encouraged to participate in any way they could.
A highlight for many attendees was the inter-tribal dance. During this dance, everyone was invited to enter the circle regardless of nation and whether or not they were adorned in regalia. Many young people happily participated in the dance and shared in Indigenous culture. The event concluded with a gift giveaway and the retiring of the flags.
The Pow Wow was part of the Indigenous Awareness Weeks activities taking place at McGill from September 19 until Truth and Reconciliation Day on September 30. The goal of Indigenous Awareness Weeks is to “provide a space to amplify Indigenous voices and perspectives on campus.” Events included speeches, seminars, movie screenings, and more.
Many McGill groups who work with Indigenous students were at the event, including the Indigenous Students Alliance. Leah Louttit-Bunker from the ISA explained that the club is necessary at McGill to show Indigenous students they are supported and welcomed. The Indigenous Students Alliance has the goal of bringing forward “a sense of community and to act as a home away from home.” It also offers “a welcoming and inclusive community for Indigenous students and allies.” Louttit-Bunker noted that Indigenous students and allies alike are always welcome to join the ISA or participate in any of their events.
The McGill men’s lacrosse team attended the event to show support and honour the creators of lacrosse. The McGill radio station CKUT was also tabling at the Pow Wow, and its representatives highlighted their two radio shows specifically focused on Indigenous peoples. The All Kanien’kéha Show, rebroadcasted from Reviving Kanehsatà:ke Radio 101.7FM, is entirely in Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language. The station also has a show broadcasted partially in Inuktitut and partially in English. Representatives of the station emphasized the importance of uplifting voices that have been historically underrepresented.
McGill University has a long history of injustice towards Indigenous peoples. James McGill enslaved Indigenous and Black people, and his fortune was made through the colonial system, which inherently oppresses Indigenous peoples. This history continues to impact all aspects of education at McGill University. Members of the McGill community have called for McGill to take further action.
After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission published its final report in 2015, McGill’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education created 52 calls to action. To date, only seven of the initiatives have been completed. The completed actions, among others, include changing the varsity sports team name, implementing a school-wide land acknowledgement, and creating an Indigenous Studies minor program.
Delbert Sampson, a member of Secwepemc First Nation, was one of the dancers at the Pow Wow. He spoke of his love for Pow Wows and dancing: “I come to all the Pow Wows I can.” However, he noted that it’s not all about enjoyment: “I dance for the residential school survivors and all the babies they have found.” The discovery of the remains of 215 children at Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia is particularly close to Sampson, as he attended that school for seven years. He now focuses on using his knowledge of his culture to help others, as, he says, “our people need to come back to our ceremonies.” Sampson also reflected on how nice it is to see younger people coming and sharing the culture. He said it makes him so happy to hear “grandpa, I want to dance.”
Sampson explained that, while events like the Pow Wow are great for the community, they do not take the place of real systemic change. When asked if McGill was taking the right steps forward, Sampson answered “it is important to see action instead of just words.”