On one crisp Canadian afternoon, during my exchange semester at McMaster University, I found myself sitting amongst a large group of students and staff in the formation of a circle spanning the campus lawns. Some had started to sport goose-down jackets in anticipation of an oncoming autumn bite. Others settled for a more decorative use of feathered attire, with dazzling head and body pieces, accompanied by beaded shawls, and ribbon-adorned clothes. It was these people who we had all gathered to see.
A friend of mine, who I met in an Indigenous Studies class, invited me to attend what I would come to understand as a ‘Pow Wow.’ Emerging from the 1950’s pan-indigenous Pow Wow movement wherein the Aboriginal people moved from reservations to cities, a Pow Wow became a commemoration of the heritage of indigenous peoples. They would come from a variety of different tribes and joined with non-indigenous people to celebrate through music, dance, and food.
Run by the McMaster First Nations Students Association, this Pow Wow aimed to promote the local indigenous community on campus. We truly joined in the celebration when we were encouraged to dance with the performers and share in complimentary traditional foods – which apparently is universal in its ability to suddenly attract hungry students. But though the free food brought people to attention, it was the dancers that held it. The physical prowess of a leaping and twirling Fancy Dancer in vibrant eagle feather regalia, or the Hoop Dancers’ rhythmically intertwining limbs with countless hoops that represented various native animals.
Being a foreigner, I was completely enraptured by the spirit and spectacle of the occasion, though I was not one to limit my knowledge to public displays of celebration. There is much to the history of the indigenous population that remains raw in the Canadian psyche, from assimilation policies forcing native children into residential schools, to the manipulation of an Indian Act in order to expropriate indigenous reserve land. Theirs is a history that is bloodied by colonial violence and oppression, hauntingly echoing much of the history of Indigenous Australians. The Pow Wow then becomes a force for indigenous solidarity. Through it they are able to reify the significance of their cultural heritage to themselves and others, despite the socioeconomic inequality and systemic racism still experienced by many people across Canada. This was captured in the Hand Drum song of a sole performer whose thrumming drum and voice resounded throughout the campus grounds:
“These words are my own. From my heart, they are my own.”