Louise came to the powwow from Manitoulin, but she said she didn’t want to talk to the Nation on record about her feelings about Ottawa’s third annual Summer Solstice Aboriginal Arts Festival (SSAAF). She had her reasons. Finally she said, “If there’s one thing you can quote me on, it’s that powwow means different things to everyone. For some people it’s a festival and a good time, it’s a chance to see the dancers and hear the music. But for other people and families it can mean much more personal things.”
The emcee of this powwow for the second year in a row, Anishinabe comedian Ryan McMahon, agreed with Louise’s observation. “To families, powwow means something different, depending on where you come from, and your own family’s experience with it,” he explained. “Some people have more experience than others. It’s generational, and it does mean something a little bit different to everybody.”
McMahon pointed to the difference between families who travel the powwow circuit every weekend, those just now discovering their connection to powwow culture, and those for whom the connection already exists but who don’t have enough money to maintain it.
“There are families that are excluded from the circle,” he added. “Powwow is a privilege, and for those who are privileged enough to be able to afford to drive hundreds of kilometres every weekend, that can afford to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants, it can be a place of privilege as well. We should always acknowledge that.”
McMahon’s wasn’t raised with the powwow as a central part of his culture. “My family dabbled, but residential school had a real firm grip on our family.”
Still, he contended, powwow culture has an amazing pull even on those who never experience it.
“You’re drawn to it,” he said. “It’s a calling. Whether you’re Native or non-Native. One of the things that’s so remarkable, in the types of things we hear from the powwow, are things like ‘I started to cry when I heard that drum, and I’m a white guy! What was I feeling?’ Or, ‘I’m a non-Native women visiting from Scotland, and we heard the drums and came running!’ You hear these things all the time. It really does come down to the base principle of being human and being attracted to basic things. Cultural gatherings that are inclusive and open the door to everybody are wonderful things.”
It’s the central drum of powwow that draws people together, McMahon contended, noting that every nation on earth has music based in drums and percussion instruments.
“They’re used differently,” he said, “some socially, some spiritually. But that drum and that heartbeat that we hear at the powwow is something that every one of us carries. So the beauty of that heartbeat is that it calls you into it.”
The Host Drum at this year’s SSAAF was the legendary Northern Cree Singers – a Juno-award-winning group that has been a fixture of the powwow circuit for over 30 years. However, the other groups competing in the drum competition were equally electrifying, especially the year’s winner the Black Bear Singers, an Atikamekw group from Manawan, Quebec.
The SSAAF, however, offered a great deal more than its competition powwow. Among other attractions, there was a main stage of performers, a cultural tent offering examples of the traditions and practices of the host Algonquin Nation, and a workshop tent in which the Northern Cree Singers taught an hour-long introduction to Big Plains Traditional drumming.
But most came for the powwow, which McMahon hosted with a command and energy surprisingly at odds with the laid-back, self-mocking persona he has made famous with his comedy.
“You are performing, as an MC,” he explained. “You’re trying to bring people forward, and you’re a teacher, and you’re entertaining people. You’re trying to bring the spirit of the powwow and the inclusiveness of it out. You gotta be firm: there’s times when it gets a little more serious, and there are times when you could be a little more light-hearted.”
While he’s widely known for his comedy, and for his popular podcasts Red Man Laughing and Life According to Clarence Two-Toes, McMahon has been quietly honing his talent as a powwow MC for well over a decade.
“Slowly I’ve just been adding dates here and there and getting more and more experience,” he said. “There’s a lot to learn. It’s a lifetime commitment and it’s something you really have to prepare for and you’re not to take lightly. Also, there aren’t a lot of MCs out there. They are always looking for new blood, but it’s not for everybody. It’s an honour, but it’s also a big challenge.”
One aspect of Ottawa’s Summer Solstice powwow is that it coincides with National Aboriginal Day. This year it took place in the wake of Shawn A-In-Chut Atleo’s resignation as National Chief of the AFN over the Conservative government’s First Nations Education Act – and four days after the federal government approved Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway pipeline.
For all of these reasons, “Aboriginal” is a word McMahon said he uses carefully.
“I joke in the new hour of comedy I’m writing that I’d rather you called me a ‘drunk Indian’ than an ‘Aboriginal person.’ Because at least I know you’re racist, and I know exactly where we stand. When you’re calling me ‘Aboriginal’ and it’s done with a smile – that’s the polite and political way to say it – then it becomes a grey area where we’ve kind of made it easy for Canadians to forget, or to not learn or to not know, that they’re on Indigenous territories. That [people’s] traditional lands are under their feet.”
McMahon noted that the event itself is paradoxical: a celebration of Indigenous nations presented by the colonial nation that now exerts top-down control over all the peoples it colonized.
“If you go from coast to coast to coast, many National Aboriginal Day [events] are paid for by the perpetrators – industry and government often get the right to pass because they’re funding these things. Is it problematic? Absolutely. But we gather on the solstice anyway.”
And the SSAAF was nothing if not a celebration. Though it had fewer dancers competing than older and more-established powwows, the crowd was supportive and the drummers sang their hearts out. The crowd was notably cross-cultural: a nearby community picnic attracted many women in hijabs and people of African descent, who watched dancers shoulder to shoulder with people of European and Asian ancestry, not to mention people from many different First Nations, near and far.
“I think at the heart of it, the purity and the beauty of it is that it’s about community,” said McMahon. “It’s about sitting together, sharing food, sharing social time, teachings, songs and our cultural items. Really keeping the sense of what it means to be a community-minded people. That’s what’s at the heart of powwow. So if it’s a context powwow and there’s money or prizes on the line, at the heart of it, still, there’s brotherhood, sisterhood and community.”