Pow Wows are very popular these days all across North America. A good friend of mine, Peter Sackaney, recently invited me to the first Pow Wow in Kapuskasing, Ontario. The two day ‘Honoring All Nations’ Pow Wow in June featured a lot of great dancers, drummers and singers and it reminded me of some of the history of Pow Wows or gatherings of my own people the James Bay Mushkego Cree.
I was born and raised in a small, remote community called Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast. Originally, the James Bay Cree, like most other Native groups in North America followed a nomadic lifestyle that was close to the land. This meant that small family groups lived separately from others. People followed the animals and fish and lived near places that had an abundance of food supplies. This was a way of survival that allowed these family groups to live off of the limited amount of food that could be harvested from the land. This was a difficult way of life that separated people from friends and family for months, as sometimes individuals or smaller groups had to head out to do the hunting or gathering. During the coldest part of the year, families living in the wilderness were cut off from other people and they spent weeks or months without seeing any other signs of human life.
In the spring or summer, people happily gathered together to meet with other distant families and also to socialize with new friends. In the past, during the warmest part of the year when everyone came together, these gatherings were organized into special occasions where traditional dancing and drumming took place. On the James Bay coast these traditional gatherings took place for centuries and were part of the annual events that marked the year. Over time these traditions became lost and almost forgotten as my people were introduced to non-Native religions. Many Elders and older people have stories that have been passed down of how the original people were instructed to forget so called pagan ideas and disregard traditions and cultural practices.
For decades my people have been fearful of discussing the old ways but over the last 20 years or so things have changed. With the return of the Pow Wow I see people being reintroduced to the original traditions and cultural beliefs. This new movement has been welcomed recently by some of the western religions as a new respect has emerged for the original beliefs of my people.
The regalia that most dancers adore themselves with are created with a great deal of care and skill. Many of the items and decorative designs are significant because they were created by a loved one or someone special. Some of the decorative parts of the regalia are sacred and have a lot of meaning. These include eagle feathers which are rare and regarded as very special to Native people.
Pow Wows are open to everyone as a sharing of culture and the gathering of friends. Traditional gatherings have always been a festive time for people to come together and they usually happened in the summer. This was also an opportunity for young people to meet one another. This was a very important part of the Pow Wow as it allowed young men and women the opportunity to get to know each other and often this led to coupling or marriage. So Pow Wows were a great way of ensuring that my people produced healthy and strong offspring.
Traditional gatherings took place on the banks of the Attawapiskat River for centuries. People lived on the banks of this great river for generations. In the winter most people moved away to other areas but in the summer, they returned to gather along the shores and spend time with friends and families. In summer, the traditional Pow Wow now takes place on the opposite bank of the river. It is a gathering for others from communities such as Kashechewan or Fort Albany in the south or Peawanuck in the north to join with family members again in Attawapiskat for a short time.
There are Pow Wows all across North America now and they attract thousands of people. The main highlights are the dancers and drum and singing groups who perform and compete. Often these modern Pow Wows also feature Native arts and crafts and foods. If you want to get a crash course in what the Native culture is all about try to attend a Pow Wow in your area this summer. It could become a habit.