While most activities in Eeyou Istchee are again closed to outside visitors this summer, various communities hosted successful events in recent weeks that encouraged residents to reconnect and embrace their Cree cultural pride.
From July 2-4, Chisasibi celebrated the region’s first powwow since the pandemic began. Upon request from a community member, an honour song was presented for healthcare and other frontline workers who helped keep people safe over the past 15 months and make gatherings like this possible.
“I just loved every moment of it,” said head dancer George Trapper. “Wow, it was a great feeling to see people happy and enjoying themselves. I like when I see those little kids having fun running around, hugging any dancer they see. I didn’t know they were going to do three days – Sunday, my wife looked at me and said you have a hard time lifting up your foot.”
After events were cancelled last year, Trapper is happy to be back on the powwow trail this season. In the weekends following Chisasibi, he was head dancer at the Kanesatake and Lac Simon powwows and plans to participate at several more throughout the summer.
There is added significance and emotion this year as communities emerge from pandemic isolation and deal with recent residential school revelations.
“The powwows this year that I went to were pretty heavy with what happened to our young children,” Trapper told the Nation. “There are people who come to heal themselves. Sometimes I feel great but also emotional at the same time. There are times when I look at people around and it makes me want to cry.”
Powwows are a family affair for the Trappers, with George’s son Kalvin starting to dance this year. Chisasibi was his first powwow as a dancer. Trapper’s own journey as a dancer was inspired by his daughter Lily Rose about eight years ago, whom he had initially left at home for a boys’ trip to a powwow in Mashteuiatsh.
“When we got to the powwow site, the first thing that popped into my mind was my daughter,” recalled Trapper. “So, I drove all the way back to Chibougamau, a two-and-a-half-hour drive – that’s where everything started. Then she asked to have her regalia a year after and asked me to make my own.”
While Waskaganish is planning a powwow for September 18-19, no dates have yet been confirmed for Wemindji or for Trapper’s original home in Mistissini. For many dancers and others on the powwow trail, these events are spiritually vital and might even save lives.
“When I first started dancing in powwows, a lot of people told me it wasn’t a good choice,” Trapper reminisced. “I want to thank the people who came back years after and told me they’re sorry and to keep doing what I’m doing. I think there was a reason Creator gave us Lily Rose – she saved my life. I used to drink a lot and it’s been 12 years sober.”
Powwows are an important venue for people selling their art, crafts or food. Then there are competitions. In Chisasibi, young speedcubing champion Walter Duff raised $1,790 in two days, with Ernie Whapshooyan winning a television donated by Cree Mart.
“Artists and artisans are so used to interacting with the public through a display or selling their crafts,” explained Gail Chamberlain of Sacred Fire Productions, whose mission is to generate exposure for Indigenous artists such as Tim Whiskeychan. “Artists are so good at explaining their paintings, crafts and materials with the viewer they’re engaging with.”
Although Chamberlain couldn’t attend the Chisasibi event, she was in Kanesatake where throat singer Nina Segalowitz reportedly became the first Inuk to MC a powwow. Immersed in the music and the people’s energy, she felt “the power of healing”.
“In light of what has been resurrected in the two months, there’s a power of change within Indigenous communities and the rest of Canada,” asserted Chamberlain. “Anyone who attends a powwow this year, it’s going to re-energize ourselves to keep moving forward towards getting answers, justice and having our voices validated.”