As Pow-Wows go, this one met all the expectations and then some. A Pow-Wow is a gathering of the people. A time to renew… old friendships, new beginnings. A time to trade, a time to dance and ultimately a time to rejoice. The winter is gone and summer, a time for the gathering of people, has arrived.

I was amazed at the number of Crees I ran into at the 21st Annual Odawa Native Friendship Centre Pow-Wow in Ottawa. Far too many to picture in this article but we’ll try to give a small picture. I enjoyed the sight of Neil Diamond stubbornly chopping wood with a jackknife… er, hatchet?!? While I got to try out the boiled muskrat, unfortunately I wasn’t around for the spun goose or moose on a stick. I guess in the end Neil’s persistence paid off very tastefully. He, Charles Essau and Joe Blackned, among others, wisely chose the camping option that made this country food feast possible.

I would be remiss in not acknowledging my elder relative. She’s not old enough yet to rate the capital E in front of elder. I happened, of course, to meet my favourite aunt… at the Pow-Wow, Maggie Petawabano.

I also met an old respected friend. His name is Marvin Burnette, a Lakota Sioux from the Rosebud reserve in South Dakota who does presentations, lectures, seminars on traditional dance, crafts and customs of his people. I couldn’t resist the chance to interview this Vietnam veteran, who sometimes posed as a Buddhist monk in combat to fool the Viet Cong.

The Nation: Has this been the furthest North you’ve been?

Marvin Burnette: Well, no, I was up at Big Cove, New Brunswick at a Pow-Wow. Maybe five or six years ago but this one here is more recent and quite a bit larger.

Did you enjoy this Pow-Wow?

Yes, the people were all so friendly. The Pow-Wow committee people were friendly. I had the distinct impression that they couldn’t do enough for me. I really enjoyed it and met some interesting people. A lot of dancers and some excellent, excellent drums.

I’m glad that you were happy with the drums.

Very much so.

Do you find a difference with southern groups?

Well, not really. It’s maybe a little different style of music, the northern sound. But it still has a northern beat and a dancer relates to the beat of the drum.

Will you be coming back to Canada?

Most definitely, yes. I never really realized there were so many good drums coming out of Canada. Another thing that impressed me is that this is one of the few Pow-Wows where the majority of the audience was Native people. I was very impressëd with that. Down south it’s mainstream America, not Indian people.

A lot of them perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps more of them just wanting to experience what Native culture is. I found it quite different where there was a majority of Native people being there.

Did you find some of the same questions being asked? I’m sure a lot of people are curious when they find out you’re a Lakota Sioux.

Yes, I’ve had that question asked of me. I was surprised to find that there was a substantial amount of people that had roots or some type of beginning back in South Dakota. I ran into a number of people who came from or had been though South Dakota.

But there were interesting questions. How did you get out here?

I would ask how often do you get back there?

I’m from the Rosebud reservation. I go home every year. I go every chance I get. I go home July and August, especially for Sundance.

I would like to say that I felt I was very honored that the Odawa Pow-Wow committee people chose me to be the head veteran dancer.

When I was going up to Canada, I had in the back of my mind how different it would be dancing in Canada as a veteran as opposed to being one here in the United States. But what it boils down to is being a veteran is being a veteran, whether it’s military experience or veteran experience, as far as helping the good of the people whatever reserve they may come from.

So being a veteran doesn’t mean just going off to war?

No, there are those people who have stood up for the civil rights of the Natives, the indigenous people. That’s another status of veteran, a veteran of civil issues, the civil rights of Native people. There are those with military experience also.

Both are allowed to participate in the veterans’ dance. Especially down here in the United States we recognize that. Because there might be some individuals who might be disqualified for, say, medical reasons from military service. However, because of their support and activity as far as working with Native issues, they’re still veterans of Indigenous or Native people.

I noticed that at the Pow-Wow there was a table with Canadian veterans. Did you get a chance to talk to them?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I got to talk to a number of Canadian veterans. In South East Asia and Vietnam, we had Canadian forces there, as well as well as veterans from other places. I took the opportunity to talk to some of the veterans on military affairs. I spent two years in Vietnam myself.

How did you find it being Native and in Vietnam?

At the time, it wasn’t an issue. The issue was taking care of what we had to do there. There wasn’t so much of an issue of black, white or red or what have you. It’s always been an issue as far as civil rights go. It fits into discrimination of Native people.

Now, you were chosen to be the head veteran dancer and I hear you’re considered one of the best?

Well, I don’t know about the best. I enjoy dancing and do as much as I can at my age because I know at some point in the future because of medical reasons or something, that when I can’t dance I can look back and say I did that. I feel good about myself knowing I danced with the best and at a variety of different places.

I remember a jacket you were wearing once that involved a competition of about 5,000 dancers?

That was down in Connecticut at the Mashentuket-Pequot Pow-Wow. They had over 5,800 registered dancers. In my category, the traditional dance, there was about 4 to 500 dancers. You dance according to age group. In my group I came in 7th. Somebody told me I don’t have to be ashamed of that at all because it meant I was 7th in the world. I was very pleased with it.

But primarily it’s just being able to participate, to be part of something as large and the magnitude of the Mashentuket-Pequot Pow-Wow.

What do you feel when you’re up dancing? Why does it feel so good for you?

It’s the different things you think about while you’re dancing. Who you are. Maintaining your identity of the Native people. Being a representative of your tribal nation and trying to maintain the culture and traditions, not only of who you are but all Native people.

What kind of advice do you give out to someone starting out in dancing?

Believe in yourself and what you’re doing, and have faith in yourself and what you can do. That there is a lot to be accomplished. It all depends on the individual. Have a positive mind. Put the stereotypes, the prejudices behind and do what you have to do. What it boils down to is do the right thing.

Dancing helps Native people express themselves on who they are and where they come from because it helps to show our joy, our pain and despair. When you roll all that together, Native people… we are still here in spite of all the adversity—in spite of all the problems that Native people have had over the hundreds of years. The dancing and the drums show we are still here.

I know that among the Crees, the drum was banned and in other places dances and ceremonies were banned. Do you feel it is important to get those things back?

Yes, probably one of the biggest aspects of maintaining cultural identity is the youth. The youngsters continuing to use the Native language regardless of tribal affiliation. It’s maintaining the tribal language. Just maintain that identity through tribal language.

There’s another aspect of your lifestyle I’ve always found fascinating, the fact that you check out the White “shaman.”

Oh yeah. I don’t know what it is. There are a lot of people who tend to look at Native culture in a fascinating light in a sense that Native people do things in a different sort of way than mainstream America can understand. What our culture is all about. People are looking for answers for themselves. I don’t know what leads them to the Native culture—but individuals who, for example, read a book, then by virtue of reading the book become knowledgeable about the culture of Native people. That perhaps makes them feel good. It gives them a voice of authority about what they’ve read. They try to display that as an authority figure.

Some of the people say this is what a sweatlodge is, a Sundance is or the use of a pipe. They may read about some of these things. They may have even experienced some of these things. Myself, I’ve shown people things so they will have a better understanding of what that particular incident or act is. That’s only for their own knowledge so they will have a better understanding. It’s very disappointing for an individual to take that and turn it around to somebody else and say come on with me, pay me a hundred dollars and I’ll show you what a sweatlodge is. That’s what is upsetting to Native people.

So you don’t believe any of those things should be paid for?

Absolutely not. The land’s in turmoil. The free life or the good life our ancestors knew years and years ago, all that’s left is our spirituality and the religion we have is not for sale. That’s the only thing we have.

I remember you saying that one time you had heard someone saying at a demonstration they were going to sing a sweatlodge song, at which point you interfered.

Yes, that was a couple of years ago. Out of curiosity I attended the Native program and the individual who may have experienced a sweatlodge and may have had a knowledge of some of the sa cred songs associated with our religion—he used that for profit to display that to the public. Because it did deal with religion as practiced by the Lakota Sioux, I interrupted the program and told him no. He wasn’t going to entertain the public. That he could do with other aspects than the religious.

I remember you also talking about feathers.

Well, the feathers we receive of course are honour feathers. As veterans we gift eagle feathers to a variety of people for different reasons. Generally for the good of the land and what they do. For the good of the people and what they do and so on. It’s working with Native people for what they do for the good of the land or people.

Would you have advice on making your own regalia?

Well, it should be culturally oriented as to who you are and where you come from. For example, where I come from, the Midwest, northern Plains, beadwork is very prominent. Back before the arrival of the Europeans porcupine quillwork was prominent. It’s knowing who you are and where you come from and what’s culturally correct as far as what you wear and how you wear it. Everything is important, colour, shape, symbol and design.

For example, you take a Seminole Indian and put a bustle on his back. That would not be appropriate because those people would not wear a dance bustle.

That goes into my next question. I’ve noticed a lot of tribes have borrowed from the Plains in making regalia.

Yeah, I don’t know why but there is generally not a lot of opposition or no ill feelings towards it if it’s done correctly. If an individual wears honour feathers in a dance roach correctly. Wears a bustle appropriately, it’s made correctly and he knows some of the dances and so on. That’s not a problem as long as everything’s done correctly. If someone’s going to adopt the Plains style I’d recommend they find someone who could help them, teach them and could fill them in.

Have you ever come across people who have done something inappropriately?

Yeah, I’ve witnessed things from time to time from different people and Pow-Wows. Someone who will want to impress people and bring out the peacepipe and go through a exhibition or demonstration. Most Native cultures frown on that because first of all it’s a prayer pipe, not a peace pipe. It’s very personal. It’s very religious and it’s not for public viewing in that sort of thing. So there are things that are done in Native culture that are upsetting to us because there’s a time and a place for everything. Bringing out the prayer pipe like that is not appropriate. This is frowned upon not only by myself or other people of a Native background.

Is there anything else that you would like to share?

Well, I can’t think of anything off-hand except this past weekend to me was most enjoyable. I had a good time. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I made a lot of new friends and I had the opportunity to say hello to a few old friends. People I have known for a while like yourself, I’ve not seen for a while. So being up in Ottawa at the Odawa Pow-Wow was a good social environment. A good feeling.

The organizers, the volunteers, the committee people. Everything well-run. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I look forward to coming back.

Are there any others you’d recommend?

There’s a couple coming up. I’ve always gone to the one down at the Mashpee reservation, down around Cape Cod. It’s pretty close to me during a major holiday in the United States, July 4th weekend. Then there’s another coming up in about the middle of August. The Mohegan tribe who recently became federally recognized. They have a casino down in Connecticut and they’re sponsoring a large Pow-Wow. I’ve been asked to be the headman dancer there, so that should be a very interesting Pow-Wow for me.

Mohegan, is that in the last of the Mohegan’s?

No, no. There’s Mohegan, Mohichan and MoHegon. There’s three different tribes and they sound phonetically alike.

There’s a variety of different Pow-Wow’s and a lot of times being a dancer is important to me and it depends on which drums are there. Which might lead me to one direction or another. It depends on the people organizing, the MC, the head man/woman dancer or might be the organization sponsoring the Pow-Wow. There’s several factors to consider in which way I might go.

I guess I can’t go too far east from here but I can go north, west or down south. Every now and then some of my friends, say, we going to North Carolina and let’s go. You get four or five vehicles together and go down for a four, six or seven-day trip. It’s all on a whim. A lot of times these types of trips work out fine and are a whole lot of fun. You never know what to expect and that’s half of the enjoyment. Just make the best of it and enjoy it.