Why the world needs a Pow Wow, now more than ever

Despite the prom, Closing Day, and the 70s reunion, the second annual Pow Wow became the signature event of the season.

by Glen Herbert

In 2018, Victoria Grant was invited to discuss Rosseau Lake College’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Report. A member of the Temagami First Nation, Grant had recently been invested into the Order of Canada in recognition of decades of work, per the Governor General’s citation, to “bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous culture, businesses and communities.” At that meeting, her contribution was characteristically personal. She said, “Ask yourself: What would make an Indigenous student feel comfortable here? How can they see themselves within the school?” 

On one hand, it might have seemed that the school had already done a lot in that regard. RLC had long welcomed many students from local First Nations communities, and had inaugurated a bursary program to benefit more. The school had begun Seven Generations, an initiative to bring Indigenous knowledge into all the curricular areas, and hired Kory Snache to lead it. So, yes, the school was doing things. But Grant was essentially asking them to flip their perspective, and to think of it less as a policy question, and more as a personal one: If you were an Indigenous student, where would you see yourself in the school? Where would you look? 

"... it was an amazing feeling. Like something I’d never felt before."

Courtney Tabobdung '20 wasn’t at that meeting, though she was at the school. She was in Grade 10 that year. A member of the Wasauksing First Nation, two years later she would help answer Grant’s question in a particularly elegant way. She used her Grade 12 Discovery project to imagine, organize and host RLC’s first ever Pow Wow, a now annual event that involves local communities. “I wanted to find a way to enhance the indigenous culture at Rosseau and to bring more awareness to Indigenous people,” she says. “I felt that Rosseau needed a breath of fresh air, and for the Indigenous students that they were bringing to Rosseau to be seen ... to make them feel appreciated and seen.”

That first was held in 2019. “It was stressful, seeing everybody roll in on the day of that Pow Wow,” she admits. “But it was an amazing feeling. Like something I’d never felt before. Just seeing all of the cultural representation on the field that day, and seeing everybody come together to celebrate. To dance and sing and do their own thing. It was quite amazing to see.” 

The second was held just this past week. It was annual in the way that so many things have been through the pandemic, skipping two years due to the shutdowns. In the days leading up to the event, things didn’t look good. Heavy rains soaked the fields, making them unusable. On Wednesday, a snap decision was made to move the event to the central tarmac, using wood chips to make the space more amenable to dancing in moccasins. The day of the Pow Wow began in rain, though the clouds parted, the woodchips gleamed in the sun, and the drummers began. 

It’s difficult to overstate how beautiful it was. In part, that was because it just seemed so natural. The drummers played and sang, and people danced. No fuss. Just dancing in the sun. The MC, Dienna Bomberry introduced the dances, and talked a bit about favourites, and how she remembered certain ones from childhood. There were a few jokes. At one point, Chris Stock from the community of Wahta talked about how the grass dance was first seen by colonists as a war dance, when really, it’s a hunting dance. In other hands, that would have seemed like a nod to a regrettable, if not entirely tragic moment in Canada’s past. Which it is, of course. But here, in his hands, it was more like an in-joke, one made at the colonist’s expense. Which, actually, was really kind of funny, at least when seen through that lens. And then we danced, the sun on the wood chips bathing the whole area in gold. 

“You plant a seed”

During the event, Chris Stock talked about how, even a decade ago, it would have been difficult to find enough drummers who knew the dances to sit around the drum. But here they were, all in their teens and 20s, leading the dance. “You plant a seed,” he said. In some ways, the event was significant of some new beginnings, or a window onto what the future might hold. 

For those who aren’t members of the host communities, it felt like we were in their territory, and that they were hosting us as guests; as if we had been asked into an immense living room in our neighbour’s house. Which, actually, is precisely the case. Rosseau Lake College acknowledges the land every morning at the school-wide assembly, and as important as that is, it can risk feeling distant or historical. For students from the communities mentioned, of which there are many enrolled here, the mention of time immemorial doesn’t necessarily feel like it includes last week, or the week before. 

But, here they were, right now, from the old to the very young—members of nations mentioned in that acknowledgement—dancing together on the land that they share with each other, with us, with me. During her last visit to the school, Grant noted that, for her, reconciliation is ultimately “about how we build relationships.” Perhaps it’s an oversimplification, but at the Pow Wow with people from down the street and around the world, it seemed that it would be hard to conceive of a better representation of what reconciliation can be. 

Courtney graduated two years ago—she’s now at Laurentian University studying Indigenous Social Work—but she came back for the Pow Wow. I asked her how it felt, and she turned toward the dancers and said, simply, “It feels good.” Maybe, in that moment—just like the current students of RLC—she saw herself, right there, in her school. Perhaps for the first time, she knew exactly where to look.