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The event brought First Nations dancers and drum groups from all over Western Canada and beyond to compete for cash prizes and take part in a gathering that is believed to bring healing to a community.
Clifford Gadwa of the Kehiwin Cree Nation – located in Alberta, between Bonneyville and Elk Point – arrived early Friday morning with many members of his family to take part in the inaugural event.
“We heard about this powwow from Peace River, and my family and I thought we might as well go and support it, because it’s one of those things you don’t normally see in its inception – a first powwow,” he said.
Gadwa was not only participating as a dancer, but as a back-up singer in a drum group. For his dance – he was competing in the men’s “chicken dance,” a style said to have origins in both the Blackfoot and Cree Nations – he was dressed in an elaborate regalia complete with bells.
“The louder your bells are and the more noise you make, and the more movements you have, it coincides with what dance judges are looking for …and if you’re on beat and on rhythm, that’s what they judge you for,” he said.
Gadwa said he has taken part in many powwows across Western Canada and into the United States, and for him it’s not really about the competition as it is the feelings that are invoked by the dance.
“You have to dance to feel it, the powwow spirit. It’s very empowering, and I’ve found it brings people back to life regardless of how you feel. Once you participate, you’ll want to do it more and more.
He added he also enjoys travelling to different communities along the powwow trail.
“The best thing about it is you go and visit these communities and see how they interact with the people and how they survive as First Nations communities. Sometimes you go out and you bring the good things back to your community, and you enhance the community spirit.”
Jacob Faithful from Frog Lake, Alberta, is a lead singer for the Young Spirit drum group, usually comprised of eighteen members, but 12 made it up to Dawson Creek for the powwow.
He said drum groups are judged by how in-synch their drummers and singers are, but also how the dancers and the crowd react.
“Nowadays, with more modern-style drum contests, it has to do a lot with if you can bring a certain sort of feeling to the powwow, and if the dancers respond to it, it makes them want to dance,” he said. “Not only that, but if there’s a connection with the people with some of the lyrics in our songs.”
Faithful said his drum group is of a contemporary style that adds lyrics to their singing, unlike the more traditional way of singing where there are no words. He said it is great to make a connection with the audience with the subjects they talk about, which can involve a story about a dancer or the spirit world.
He said his group really isn’t that interested in the competition of powwows.
“We never worry about the contest. If we win, then thank you Creator, but if we don’t win it is not a big deal. We are singing for the people.”
The event was organized by a committee of volunteers with Aboriginal Family Services in Dawson Creek. Denise Paul-Belcourt, one of those organizers, said they had six drum groups participating – though one was the “host drum” and was not competing – and nearly 200 dancers, although not all dancers were competing either. She said for the first year of the vent, she was pleasantly surprised by the quality of performers the event attracted.
“We had champions there,” she said. “That’s what really surprised me, is the dancers and drummers we had were champion drums and champion dancers.”
She added one family even came from Farmington, New Mexico, to participate.
Paul-Belcourt said she was very encouraged by the positive feedback the committee received and gratified to hear about the impression it left on visitors.
“Everybody belonged in that circle. Everybody was happy to be there, and felt welcomed and respected.”
She said as important as it is to have a great competition, perhaps more important is the spirituality of the powwow and the healing it allows participants to undertake.
“It’s not just about healing from drugs or alcohol, or not just about healing from pain, it’s about healing from racism, anger, and misunderstanding. Even if it healed one person, we’ve done our job.”
She said one thing she took away from the event is how important strict adherence to protocols and traditions is to Elders in the communities who, she added, were instrumental in guiding the event. She said it is easy for the younger generation to think they can do things better or faster.
“They (the Elders) are strict, and they are very true to themselves and true to their culture. It’s about a way of life, not a convenient way of being.”
Paul-Belcourt added they hope to make the competition powwow an annual event, but with a small committee of volunteers from a non-profit agency, they will need the support of the larger community to ensure the event is a continued success.
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