A celebration of First Nations

In Arts & Life /

By Shanti Zachariah

With his face painted red and his large headdress bobbing as he danced, Aime Katcheconais looked almost celestial.  Katcheconais, who’s been dancing since he was a child, was one of the performers at Ryerson’s first traditional pow wow last Saturday.

“The pow wow is a celebration for everyone,” he said later while resting with his wife on the lawn in front of West Kerr Hall, his face paint still on.  Katcheconais says he learned much of his dancing from his grandfather, and through the years has picked up different styles from other people.

“Like any creative, artistic impression, your spirits is involved,” says his wife Lynnette.  “It’s very much a feeling thing.”

It was difficult to know where to look during the pow wow.  You needed eyes that could see in all directions at once.  The Quad was framed by a craft market, where crowds of people milled around, and through it all the steady, vibrant beat of the drums and the technicolour of the dancers’ regalia.

The pow wow began with a sunrise ceremony.  The Grand Entry, made up of dancers, flag carriers and veterans, began around noon.  The procession was aptly named “grand” for the dancing and drumming lent the occasion a royal air.

Native dancing, drumming and dress are born out of both personal and communal experience.  These experiences were evident in the dancing circle that continued throughout the day.  Fantastic arrays of shapes and colours came from the dancers, each with their won distinct dance and costume.

“Your regalia and its colour reflect what you’re feeling,” says Tabatha Antone-Honyust, a 21-year-old dancer from the Six Nations reserve outside of Brantford.  “Designing your regalia is really personal.”

She points to her own outfit, a dazzling drape of red, orange and yellow.

“The colours for my outfit were originally different from these,” she says.  “But as your’e making the rgalia, the colours and the concept of it can change, depending on where you are.”

Antone-Honyust explains that for women dancing at pow wows there are three types of dance, each with a different physical impact.  Elderly women will often do a low-impact, solemn dance in thanks of the earth.  A high-impact dance, or a “women’s fancy shawl” dance, is based on ad ream a woman had long ago of a butterfly emerging from the cocoon of a caterpillar. T He third kind s a healing dance, where the regalia is covered in rolled-up snuff tins that jingle like bells which is considered a healing sound.

“Traditional dancers are actually story-tellers,” says Allen Manitawabe, a dancer, drummer, singer and event MC.  “Each time they dance, they are telling a story about love or something historical for example.  And for many dancers, their dances were given to them in vision or dream quests.”

“Dancers can do their own steps,” Antone-Honyust says.  “But what’s most important is that your feet keep time with the drum beat.”

While the women were draped in colour and bells, many of the male dancers’ regalia consisted of elaborate feathered headdresses and “bustles,” circular pieces made from feathers attached to the dancers’ backs.

“Your regalia is either given to you or designed by you,” Katcheconais says.  “Your family can help you make parts of it as well.”

He says his regalia is constantly evolving.  “My bustle took years to gather.  And my beaded arm bands came from my adopted brother — they were his father’s .”

Katcheconais points out there are different dances for different occasions.

“A sundance, for example, is more exclusive.  Dancers don’t mingle with the crowd.  It’s more serious, more spiritual —            some male dancers will even pierce themselves.”

Spiritual experiences, whether intense or everyday, inspire the music of the drummers and singeres.  Lester Mianskun came to the pow wow with the White Tail Singers from North Bay.  Mianskun says the sources of songs are varied.

“Not all songs come from fasting (or dreams),” he says.  “They can come when you’re alone, in your own house and you start chanting.  One of our singers made a song from watching his son play one day.”

Like Katcheconais, Mianskun says there are different songs for different gatherings.  The songs performed at the pow wow are not considered ceremonial.

A pow wow is a social gathering open to everyone.  IT is an important and fun way for non-native people to become more comfortable with aspects of native culture.  And, for native people, it is a chance to show their collective culture to a variety of people.

“The pow wow is really a celebration for all nations,” says Mianskun.  “It’s like a birthday, a celebration of life.  And we play the music here, to share with others, so they can be happy.”

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