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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Powwow Fever

BY Will Nicholls Aug 3, 2023

The Kahnawake Echoes of a Proud Nation Powwow returned July 8-9 after a two-year absence due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Powwows are a powerful gathering where multiple communities and generations of people come together to witness the pride of Indigenous dancers, drummers and singers. And this year it seemed that there were more dancers, more vendors, more drummers and certainly more people attending than I have ever seen in the past.

This is the 31st anniversary for Echoes of a Proud Nation. It began in order to combat the negative stereotypes after the 1990 Oka Crisis; a way for Mohawks to connect not only with each other and other First Nations but with mainstream society in a positive manner that shared Indigenous traditions and ways of life.

Something special is how many old friends I see at powwows. I ran into one friend while walking around the vendors’ stalls (and having to drag my two sons away from many of them). She introduced herself to my sons, saying she knew me as a friend. “He never seems to remember all our names, but we never forget his,” she said with a laugh. 

I thanked the Great Spirit they didn’t probe for details, as those stories might not be age appropriate. They asked how much the necklaces cost they were looking at. “Only five dollars,” the vendor said. They quickly chose one apiece after much consideration. As I paid for them, I knew she was gifting a greater part of the actual cost of each necklace but that’s the way it is in a powwow. Yes, you have to make money, but you take care of friends and especially the kids. It’s that aspect of sharing that is special especially as it is done without consideration of payback or obligation.

I did remember a few names here and there. One was Patricia as you can’t forget a woman wearing a beaver top hat with a beaded band and feather. Her husband, who passed away a few years ago, was nicknamed the Indian Conan. He took a ragtag bunch of misfits who had alcohol and substance abuse problems and straightened them out in order to smuggle food to Kahnawake residents during the Oka Crisis. 

It makes you think that this is something that we need to do for other Indigenous people in those circumstances. Give them something meaningful to do with their lives and make them feel valued.

Powwows are coming back to the Cree communities as well. I remember our past ones. The tumpline contests to see how much you could carry are a highlight. Smally Petawabano was the champion in one carrying almost a ton at one point. Then there was the fox draw leaving you with a sore neck. 

I almost became the arm-wrestling champion of Mistissini one time. When they called for participants no one got up. My cousin George Matoush said, “Will, let’s go up. I’ll let you win.” Up we went and I guess we broke the ice because a lot of guys suddenly became interested. I guess they didn’t want to see a skinny kid get those bragging rights. 

My all-time favourite contest was war canoes. You had a guy to paddle while you stood on a plank at the front of the canoe armed with a mop. You had to wear your normal clothes. When the other canoe got close you would swing your mop at the opponent hoping to knock him into the water. Usually, because the balancing act is tricky, both ended up in the water. A few paddlers joined you. The laughter was contagious.

That is what a powwow is all about – laughter, sharing, pride, seeing old friends and making new ones. 

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.