Keeping on Beat at the Pow Wow of Champions

A kaleidoscope of swirling, twirling feathers and fringe had me in its grip. I was sitting in the stands of the Grand River Champion of Champions Pow Wow and the Men’s Fancy Feather dance was in full swing. The emcee told us the key to being a champion is the ability to keep on beat despite the fast and furious footwork. Spread out on grass, judges kept close watch of every move to make sure the winningest dancer kept with the beat and was awarded the appropriate points.

First organized in the 1970s, this annual event is held the fourth weekend of July outside of Brantford, Ont., at the Chiefswood Tent & Trailer Park on Six Nations land. This year the dates are July 27-29. It draws around 10,000 spectators a day and more than 500 competitors (dancers, singers and drummers) come from as far away as Oklahoma.

Prior to attending the pow wow, which is open to the public for an admission fee of $10 per day or $15 for the weekend, I did a little online research. Six Nations of the Grand River is the largest First Nations reserve in Canada by population and the second largest by size. Located between Hamilton, Brantford and Simcoe, Ontario, Six Nations is the only reserve in North America where all six Iroquois nations live together – Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora.

Before the American Revolution, the Iroquois lived in the north eastern United States, primarily in what is referred to today as Central New York, west of the Hudson River and through to the Finger Lake (Great Lakes) Region. During this time the Iroquois were governed by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a governing body that made decisions with input from all six Iroquois nations.

After the American Revolution, 950,000 acres (3,800 km2) was granted to the Six Nations by the 1784 Haldimand Treaty. This treaty was awarded to the Iroquois people for their alliance to the British Crown during the revolution. The original treaty granted the Six Nations six miles on either side of the Grand River from mouth to source. This relationship was also commemorated by the construction of Her Majesty’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks in 1785.

There’s a dark part to the story, though. According to the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation website, the current reserve spans 46,500 acres (190 km2), only five per cent of the original grant. What happened? A slow encroachment of white settlers shrunk the reserve’s borders. Not a happy topic and one that melds with other results of colonization experienced by Indigenous peoples today such as residential schools, inadequate housing and lack of economic opportunity.

At the pow wow, it seemed these struggles were momentarily pushed aside. Indigenous attendees, dancers, family and friends, milled about in cultural regalia and the air was infused with an air of regal joy. Drums emulated the heartbeat of mother earth and spectators respectfully removed their hats as First Nations veterans and dignitaries streamed before the stands during the grand entrance. Rounds of clapping erupted as the emcee announced local participant’s names as well as those from other parts of Canada and the United States. They were all there to strut, jingle, stomp and beat out rhythms that celebrated heritage and could also result in scooping serious prize money – first place for the Men’s Fancy Dress dance category was $2,500 while first place for drum group was $5,000.

Competitors placed first, second, third or fourth in a variety of style categories. They collected points for their wins throughout the weekend and on Sunday the dancer with the most points was named the Champion of Champions. Jaden Parker, a member of the Seneca and Tonawanda nations took home the prize after placing first in the young men’s Traditional category with 775 points.
Sitting in the stands, my jaw dropped at the eye-popping colours, intricate beadwork and energetic dance styles. I could tell that participants had invested thousands of dollars and spent years personalizing their regalia. One youth proudly wore a black bear skin draped over his body while another boy danced wearing a buffalo horn head piece. According to my program, dancer’s outfits are never to be called costumes. What they wear may reflect their heritage, clan and the category of dance they are competing in.  Many pow wow dances come from the western and Plains nations and the regalia often reflects those cultures. The deer hide and moose hide, bead designs, feathers, and animal skins I saw made each ensemble unique.

Sizing up the day’s program, I saw that the six main style of dances were: Men’s and women’s traditional dances; men’s and women’s medicine dances (men’s grass and women’s jingle); and men’s fancy feather and women’s fancy shawl dances. The age groupings were golden age (50+), adult, teen, kids and tiny tots.

A description and origin of each dance style was also in the program. I learned that Men’s Traditional tells a story, typically of a hunt, battle or certain victory. Crouching, tracking, aiming and running about are common moves. Moving toward the centre of the circle, dancers tap once on the pole or shout out to represent victory over an enemy or success in a hunt.

Women’s Traditional features something called scrubbing. Standing in one place, dancers bounce in time with the drum, snapping the fringes of their regalia. In the walking style, dancers travel around the circle taking small steps and doing deep knee bends. The object is to look smooth, controlled and elegant. Men’s Grass is a medicine dance with fluid, swaying motions representing a sense of balance with nature. Women’s Jingle is a healing dance of the Anishinabek people of Whitefish Bay. A young girl was ill and one of the men had a dream showing the dresses, dances and songs that could make her well. The women followed his instructions, dancing around the girl who by the end recovered and joined them. Jingle dancers always keep one foot touching the ground to show the connection with the earth.

Men’s Fancy Feather is a spectator favourite with zingy colours and fluffy feather bustles. Fast and furious, it is filled with tricky footwork and acrobatic movements. It’s a crowd pleaser with physically challenging moves including cartwheels, backflips and the splits.

Women’s Fancy Shawl (my favourite) is a more feminine version of the Men’s Fancy Feather dance. Women spin, kick, twirl and leap around the circle. The goal is to look as if they are floating.

Once the dances had finished, I headed out to peruse the hand-made goods brought by more than 100 vendors – moccasins, dreamcatchers, animal hides, beaded pouches and other crafts. Then it was time to hit the food trucks for an Indian taco. It may be politically correct to say First Nations or Indigenous, but in regards to these tacos, the old label has stuck. What is it? Fry bread (a flat dough bread that has been deep fried) at the base, topped with chili, shredded Cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and sour cream. A delicious way to end a dance-filled day.

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