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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

A proud father takes his daughter to her first powwow

BY Dan Isaac Aug 2, 2019

There are a few certainties when you attend a powwow

When you have your first child, there are plenty of firsts that follow. First pair of moccasins, first birthday, first trip. You keep a lot of mementos in a box somewhere to remind you of these firsts, so that one day, when they’re all grown up, you’ll have proof of how young they used to be.

It’s been three years since I last attended the Echoes of a Proud Nation Powwow. And my father, Harold Tarbell, was auspiciously in town this mid-July to join me and my young family on this year’s pilgrimage to Kahnawake – our 18-month-old daughter’s first powwow. 

Construction on the Mercier Bridge and practically every other major roadway in Montreal gave my dad plenty of time to tell us a tale or two as we bobbed and weaved through pylons and traffic.

“Did you know the Tarbells were the first exiles of Kahnawake,” asks my dad, rhetorically. Of course, we know. We’ve heard this story plenty of times, but it’s better when dad tells it so we indulge him a little.

“The Tarbell boys came to Kahnawake as captives in 1707,” he continues. “But if you were taken as a captive to a Mohawk community and stayed, you eventually had the right to become a citizen.”

The story goes that John and Zachary Tarbell were captured during the Indian Wars in Groton, Massachusetts and end up in Kahnawake. Later, they marry into the community, and become intermediaries between the Mohawk, English and French. Eventually, conflict arises between the Tarbells and the leaders of the community and they’re asked to leave.

By now, however, the Tarbells, who were English by blood, had become culturally Mohawk. So when given the choice to return to their family in Groton or establish their own Mohawk community, they chose the latter. This is how the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, where my father was born and raised, was founded.  

By the time dad is wrapping up the ballad of the Tarbell boys, we are arriving at the always pristine Kahnawake powwow grounds. The beat of the drum ushers us in as my daughter kicks her feet in her stroller in anticipation. 

There are a few certainties when you attend a powwow.  You’re going eat some powwow food, run into people, see some dancing, and possibly buy something from a vendor.

As this is my partner’s first powwow too, this is new to everyone in our party except for my dad and me. We eat Indian tacos, my dad buys his granddaughter her first hand drum, and my daughter can’t wait to get a little bigger so she can join the dancers at the grand entry. 

On our way out we keep bumping into people – Chucky, Viola, Amanda. Then my little one sees another infant and chases after him for a few minutes.

“Her first boyfriend,” quips my dad about the young Innu boy she’s playing with.

When we arrive home, we’re all exhausted but in a good way. It’s then I realize that instead of getting a story, I spent the entire day chasing my daughter. Totally worth it.

My dad tips his hat and heads to the airport to board a plane back to Vancouver later that evening. When he gets home, he opens that box of mementos that he keeps somewhere and sends a photo of me and him at the Odawa Powwow in 1987 – my first powwow.

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Dan Isaac is a Mi'kmaq and Mohawk journalist with a BA in Creative writing from Concordia University. He’s been writing for the Nation since 2016.