Sunday, April 3, 2011

It was time for the Grand Entry at the Wikwemikong Pow Wow on Manitoulin Island, sacred place of Canada's native peoples. 

The Grass dancers, as is customary, had prepared the arena with a vigorous foot-stomping dance.  As we watched, men and women drew apart and waited silently.

The compelling voice of the drums and a wild, wailing song sets the procession in motion and they move, slowly, deliberately, into the circle.  As the solemn line, including flag-bearing veterans of World War 11 pass a man and woman in beads, leather and feathers, a fragrant herbal smoke rises from a hand held sea shell.  The mixture of sweet grass and sage smoulders.  The smoke trickles upwards and is brushed towards individuals with a feathery bird's wing.

Reaching a crescendo the drums thunder.  The lead singer's voice soars heavenwards in a wild plaintive cry.  Then, for a moment there is a profound silence.  Women, mesmerized, bob up and down, long leather thongs decorated with beads sway in time to their movement.  The rustle and jingle of silver cones adorning their clothing, whisper in th air.

Close to us a tiny boy with feathered dance bustle affixed to his back moves to a rhythm known since birth.
The silvery tones of an Elder praying in a language melodious but foreign fills the arena.  Repeatd in English, the sheer poetry of the prayer holds the crowd still.

As the Pow Wow progresses, puffs of dust erupt around hundreds of dancing feet.  The heat is intense and an elderly Brave crumples to the ground, overcome.

Standing apart, I revel in the orange, purple, red, indigo and emerald of the costumes.  Their elaborately beaded mukluks, feathered dance bustles, hair ornaments and feathers fascinate me.

To stand close whilst the drummers pour their hearts out in songs both wild and primitive is to feel the pure heartbeat of the Pow Wow.

The arena is filled with whirling movement and in the midst of all the activity the First Nations women move in a dignified bobbing motion around the circle.  The actions of dance participants are governed by an elaborate etiquette and reverence for tradition.  If any man wearing an eagle feather in his head dress were to dislodge it during the dance, all would come to a halt and a special ceremony would ensue before it could be retrieved.  If a whistle blows during an inter-tribal dance, the drummers are surrounded by dancers and singers and the drummers repeat again and again the moment that moved the whistle blower to show his pleasure.

These are people whose pride in their heritage is unselfconsciously made visible for outsiders.  More than 12,000 years ago they made their way across the Bering Sea from Siberia.  They survived and flourished in spite of untold hardships during their journey down through the Americas.

In the past their villages numbered in the thousands.  The people were either hunters or farmers; hunting being the preserve of men and the provision of food that of the women.  There were in those days more bison than could ever be consumed and the land was fertile so the people were strong. 

Out of this nation the ceremony of the Pow Wow has grown.

Post by Anne Gordon on Sunday, 3rd April, 2011

Photos copyright Anne Gordon


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