The 23rd annual Echoes of a Proud Nation Powwow in Kahnawake went off without a hitch, bringing together individuals from around the world to celebrate life through dance, drums and Indian tacos.
According to the festival organizers, nearly 7000 people attended the event despite soaring temperatures and traffic congestion that was one of the hottest topics of conversation.
With the Mercier Bridge reduced to one lane of traffic in either direction, there were lengthy holdups getting into the powwow that often had cars idling for periods of 45 minutes.
And yet throngs of patrons waited patiently in their vehicles, often to the dismay of howling toddlers (at least in my case), only to burst enthusiastically onto the scene and delve into every delight that is synonymous with one of the province’s most popular powwows.
While the dancing got off to a late start at 1:30 pm on Saturday on account of many dancers being stuck in traffic, powwow goers used their time to peruse the many vendors and exhibitor booths on display at this largely merchant powwow. The food vendors also saw a wild flurry of action prior to the main event as the dancers and spectators fueled up on their share of walleye nuggets, moose platters, Indian tacos, bison burgers, wild rice salads, gallons of lemonade and, of course, the traditional Mohawk strawberry juice.
Each day the powwow opened at 9:00 am with activities carrying on late into the evening. This year there was a special feature prior to the main event – Chooky Dancers from Australia performing as mid-morning entertainment. The two dancers were there on a cultural exchange.
“They came because they had contacted the cultural centre here and wanted to do some kind of cultural exchange with the powwow because they were already around,” said Lynn Norton, one of the Powwow organizers.
According to Norton, attendees came from all over, including many foreign tourists visiting Montreal as well as Indigenous visitors who had come specifically for the powwow, like the large contingency from Peru.
Among the dancers was a brother-sister duo that had driven for seven hours from Pikogan (near Amos) to share their culture, spirit and pride among the hundreds of other traditionally garbed, feathered and jingle-jangled lot that were queuing up for the Grand Entrance of the dance arena.
“We spent seven hours travelling to get to this powwow but we came to this one despite the distance because it was one of the first powwows that I got to know. I haven’t been dancing for that long but in the region I come from (Abitibi) there aren’t a lot of them,” said Melanie Kistabish.
As I spoke to Melanie, my toddler grasped at the long, spaghetti-like fringes of her costume and tried to put them into his mouth. Rather than fuss over a 19-month-old yanking at her precious and delicate skins, Melanie smiled affectionately at him as she was both confident in the craftsmanship of her incredible outfit and seemed to think it only natural that he would grab at them.
“My outfit is traditional and it is really all about the logo (medicine wheel design). It tells the story of my life. There is the sun and the four colours, one each for the four parts of my life as I am a designer, a teacher, a mother and much more,” she said.
Her brother, Malik Kistabish stood at her side, was also gearing up to dance, fully kitted out for the occasion.
“It has been a long time since I managed to make it here, two years maybe since I started dancing. I have done the tour really, having danced for a lot of different powwows but I was missing this one so I came back to it,” said Malik.
The outfits at this year’s event ranged from ultra-traditional regalia that were replicas those worn pre-colonization to modern takes on Native traditions, employing fluorescent colours that could not have been replicated into a costume until the last few decades.
“I am wearing the garb of a warrior,” said Magua Christian Beausejour, a Métis-Abenaki from Odenak. “This is all rudimentary stuff that is made from items in the wilderness and it is accurate to what was worn traditionally in pre-modern times.”
Besides the dance arena and vendor stands, there were other organizations and schools on hand to spread their words about community and contributing to it in the future.
The Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal had a booth selling items that were made by many of the patrons who use their services in the hopes of raising dollars for the shelter.
“We are looking for donations and we are here to promote all of the different programs we offer. We have the outreach program, an addictions worker, a family worker, a holistic health worker and we also offer a lot of services to homeless women in transition,” said Tealy Norman, an outreach worker from the shelter.
“We help many women every year. Last year we helped 517 and these were women from across the province and the country. It isn’t about the numbers but the quality of the work we do,” added administrative assistant Jennifer Shearer.
A few tents down, Bob Hopkins from Trent University was on hand to talk about Trent’s Aboriginal programming.
“We had the first Indigenous Studies program back in 1970 and the first PhD program as well and we have a strong Mohawk focus in the programming.
“We have one Cree professor in the program but we also have women come down from Chisasibi to do teachings with our students and organize this huge feast,” said Hopkins.
Queen’s University also had a booth, which was geared to attract children with all sorts of blocks, digging tools and kids books – all with an engineering theme.
“We want to promote the engineering program to Aboriginal communities and so we are trying to go to the powwows to see if we can get kids interested in these programs at a young age,” said Melanie, a Queen’s engineering student.
Both of the individuals from Queen’s were actually female students who had specifically come to try and engage the young girls at the event with the hopes of one day inspiring them to follow in their own footsteps.
Up from New York City was Chris, a volunteer from American Indian Community House, a social organization geared at giving Indigenous people a leg up in the Big Apple.
“NYC actually has the largest Native American population of any major city in the US with over 50,000 people.
“We do a lot of health work, which includes HIV/AIDS testing, pregnancy help and linking up individuals with services and jobs. It is a place for people to come when they need help or assistance with services,” said Chris.
To find out more about the organization if you are headed to NYC, go to www.aich.org.
Hiding from the heat amidst her very busy vendor tent was Tammy Beauvais who seemed a little overwhelmed by the heat but incredibly enthusiastic despite this.
“Now that everybody is here, I think we are really doing okay. I have all sorts of new things here at the powwow, like this beaded-looking fabric and other new textiles. I try to do a few new things every year, this looks like beaded fabric but it is just the print,” said Beauvais.
New to her collection were a wide variety of leather goods as well as new printed fabrics. They can all be found at www.tammybeauvais.com/en/home.aspx
While there were all sorts of vendors, from those flogging natural cosmetics to baby clothes, to jewelry to baskets, among the most traditional of the shops was Randy Cliff of Randy’s Leathers. Surrounded by stacks of deer and moose hides, the booth had furs hanging from every corner and available pole, including ermine, fox tails, coyote, sheep skin and beaver.
Cliff was only too happy to tell the Nation about the nature of his business.
“I get these hides from all over. Some people just drive by my place and throw dead animals at me. I am the local hide man and so if they run over something and they don’t want to leave it out there they will drive by and throw it in my driveway,” said Cliff.
Cliff said that he never travels for long periods since the carcasses tend to pile up.