A gentle breeze blew past, lifting the eagle feathers on the dancers’ regalia. The drums were humming, and the audience held their breath. Suddenly, a forceful hymn reverberated through the air, and the dancers’ feet skimmed the ground, mirroring the natural world around them. The vibrant garments on their regalia chimed as they swirled and twirled, mesmerizing all the audiences. This extraordinary energy marked the celebration of the 22nd annual McGill Pow Wow on September 22.
Pow Wows are gatherings that are deeply rooted in the traditions of many Indigenous communities in North America. People come together, socialize, sing and dance, and celebrate the history of Indigenous communities. Pow Wows also serve as opportunities for cultural education that helps preserve and raise awareness about Indigenous traditions and heritage.
The McGill Pow Wow, organized by the First Peoples’ House, also featured food craft vendors. Indigenous-owned businesses were set up along the perimeter, while dancers of all ages showcased their skills at the center stage of Lower West Field. Handmade jewelry, home decorations, Indigenous clothing, and delicious food were being sold in the Pow Wow arena. Community groups supporting the Indigenous population of Montreal were also in attendance at the Pow Wow.
The Native Friendship Centre of Montreal (NFCM) has been working with the McGill Pow Wow for over 10 years. The non-profit community development agency aims to promote, develop, and enhance the quality of life of the urban Indigenous community of Montreal.
Drayton Gilbert, the executive assistant of the NFCM, shared his thoughts as a first-time participant of the McGill Pow Wow: “Pow Wow is a way to celebrate our culture in a really sound space. It’s a sharing of connective energy, value, and practices.” Gilbert added that his biggest takeaway from the Pow Wow is “celebrating who you are, your identity, and being proud of that.”
“Our main focus is working directly with the Indigenous communities that are transitioning to living in Montreal. We hope to bridge the gap between communities and cities,” Gilbert said. Some of the NFCM’s work includes a nursing clinic and legal clinic through partnership with McGill and the Ka’wáhse Street Patrol, which offers supplies, assistance, and referral services to Indigenous and non-Indigenous homeless people in Montreal. NFCM’s food security program, which was featured in the McGill Pow Wow, provides secure access to food, with options for delivery and hot lunches for unhoused people.
Gilbert said that the focus on minority groups should not only be present in a specific week, month, or event. He wishes people to “keep the same awareness that’s available today across the 365 days of a year and celebrate from a day-to-day basis.”
Matthew Coutu-Moya, administrative supervisor at the First Peoples’ House, took part in organizing the event. He said that Pow Wows are as diverse as Indigenous people all across Canada, and it is nice to have non-Indigenous communities come out and learn about Indigenous cultures especially on McGill’s campus. “My mother was born and raised in the prairies of Saskatchewan and Alberta, with ties to Michif communities of St-Boniface, Petite Pointe du Chênes (Lorette) and St-Laurent in Manitoba as well as St-Paul-des-Métis (St-Paul) in Alberta, but my father is from Santiago, Chile. I am a literal byproduct of international relationships. So, it is really cool to have people who are from all over the world to be at McGill and get to experience the Pow Wow,” Coutu-Moya said. “I also love seeing the little ones dressed up in the regalia, I love seeing them dance. It’s awesome to see the younger generation having stronger sense of identity and culture. I think that’s really empowering.”
Coutu-Moya spoke on the challenges that Indigenous communities face and the ways to resolve them. “I think one of the big things that would go a long way is removing barriers to school,” he said. Though he recognizes that this is a systematic challenge, with part of it being governmental, Coutu-Moya thinks there can be more done at McGill. He said that the Office of First Nations and Inuit Education or the School of Continuing Studies has strong off-campus programming, and he wishes that other faculties at McGill could better serve Indigenous students by also building similar programs.
“One thing that is really important is that the school has more programs that are available at a distance so that folks can be in their community and still access the educational resources of McGill,” Coutu-Moya said. “Maybe a student who’s from [an] Inuit territory far north can’t afford to make the huge trip down here to set up a life, to be away from their community, their home base, their friends, and family, but they are still entitled to the opportunities of McGill.”
He thinks that pushing for more educational resources at McGill is really important. In other words, people could have the option to either come to McGill physically, or at a distance back home, rather than being forced to have only one option. “I think the diversity of learning paths would open more pathways for students to come,” Coutu-Moya concluded.
Sam Ojeda, from the Mayo-Yoreme land in northwestern Mexico and southern California, stood out in the crowd with his stunning gold and black regalia. “This is to enhance, to honor, [and] to acknowledge who we are, and who our ancestors are. Every regalia that the dancer carries has to do with the heirlooms of the family, it runs in the family. It’s passed on,” Ojeda said. His regalia belonged to his grandfather, whom he called the “Black Horse.”
Dreams also serve as guidance and instructions in Indigenous cultures. They are not just random occurrences but have deep significance to reality. Ojeda said, “In the dreams we have messengers. That’s what we take into account when it comes to wearing what we wear and carrying what we carry, and usually our ancestors come in those dreams.”
As a traditional dancer, Ojeda values the spirit of love and the respect for Mother Earth. He shared that dancing is a way of prayer, to honour all men, women, children, and elders who helped their communities; to honour plants, animals, and the planet; and to keep everything in balance. “When a dancer really dances, we are not a dancer anymore, we become the dance itself,” Ojeda said.
Ojeda believes that the celebration of Pow Wows are reminders of their Indigenous identity. He hopes that Pow Wows can bring back the unity of the prophecies: “that one day we could be here dancing together under the flowery tree of life, with all people from the four corners of the world.”
In some Indigenous cultures, the Great Spirit, the concept of a life force, created everything and gave sacred instructions to people from all over the world. Ceremonial prayers are means for the Indigenous people to communicate with the Great Spirit. Ojeda wants to remind people of the teachings of the Great Spirit.
“Somewhere along the bad, we forgot what the teachings were. One of the first instructions is to honor the planet, to honor ourselves, to love, and that’s what the Pow Wow does. It brings laughter, it brings celebration, it brings unity, and that’s what we need, all of us, to go on, and make this a better world,” he said with resolve.