My camera bag lay beside my feet with its cover loosely closed. Though entranced by the display of vibrancy and energy before me I was still conscious enough of my immediate surroundings to tuck me bag under my legs as an elder woman was helped to her seat beside me. I was at ground floor and had witnessed a number of people troubled by the first giant step of the bleachers. Women had to lift their dresses and children had to practically climb up. It was no surprise that this elder woman had decided to sit at the bottom. As she settled in I was struck by the contrast of her quiet character with the boisterous strength of voices and drums ringing through the gym. The sight of her stillness compared to the flashing, twirling, ducking and leaping fabric and feathers on the dance circle. I felt a sense of calm within her small frame beside me.
We suddenly seemed removed from the lively kerfuffle, just two silent observers in a sea of celebration. Seeing her smile match my own I realized that we were both happy to be there–content to be observers. A young girl went by and presented the woman with a small umbrella. She took it with a small nod and grateful smile, resting the handle on her arm. Moments later another girl halted before me and pressed a set of curled green earrings into my hand.
I nodded and beamed wildly, carefully setting the earrings in my bag. Aboriginals pride themselves in being a gift giving culture. The earrings were the perfect gift for a jewelry fan like me. Strangely enough that day I forgot to put on jewelry so I don’t know how she knew.
Moments later I was asked if I had received anything by another passing gift-giver and I cheerfully showed her the beautiful earrings. She carried on with her duty and I was once more lost in the tranquility of my elder companion. We continued to watch the dancers, enchanted by the unique forms of their regalia. I got lost in the intricate patterns of the beadwork and the formations of the feathers.
I’d later learn that there is a lot more to the regalia than meets the eye. One important note is that the regalia should always be referred to as regalia. They are not costumes and not clothes, but ceremonial symbols and sacred to the bearer and family. Many hours of work can be put into each aspect of the regalia and pieces can be heirlooms passed down for generations. Others must not touch the regalia for that reason. Each is a unique and cherished treasure. Though I learned a few general things, each regalia has its own story, so keep that in mind as I present what I learned about the dances.
Video Example: Kamloopa Powwow Summer 2012 Women’s Traditional
Women used to dance on the sidelines in support of male dancers. Though they were sometimes welcomed into the centre to dance by special songs. The dance style was very subtle and dignified, either done stationary, in a graceful walk or a side step. Bending one knee they move in one direct then turn back, seeking their warriors.
I noticed as these women danced that some of them raised their feathered fans at the same time. It seems I need to learn to absorb with my eyes and my ears. What I missed was a special rhythm the drumming groups played, called honour beats, that would signal the women dancing to raise their fans. The reason for raising their fans or who should varies from region to region. It can be a move only performed by those who lost a male loved one. Or it can be raised in honour of the eagle and the native way of life.
Video Example: TRU Powwow 2012 Jingle Dance
So these dresses definitely call a lot of attention. I’ve been told they are a symbol of healing. Those that wear them are dancing to heal the people with the sound. The website Our Legacy dedicated to sharing material related to First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples in Saskatchewan cultural and heritage collections says the jingle dress almost died out before it returned in the 1980’s. The jingle cones were made from tobacco lids. Tobacco is sacred and used for prayer so the use of tobacco tins makes the dance sacred.
Women’s Fancy Shawl
Video Example: TRU Powwow 2012 Fancy Shawl
The dance that overshadowed the jingle dress for a time with it’s flourishing movements and colours, women’s fancy shawl dancing is like the men’s fancy dance in that it’s an energized contemporary dance. Carrying a shawl adorned with streams of satin ribbons these women flowed as beautifully as the male grass dancers. Imitating birds, butterflies and the wind they flew across the floor. I took so many pictures where these women hovered breathlessly over the ground spinning through the air.
What amazed me the most when this event was over, was how when I shared the photos with an organizer of the event he knew who was who just by stitching, beadwork and colours. He was pointing at photos where only shoes are shown and saying, “oh that’s so and so,” or “oh I recognize that beadwork from so and so.”
I attended this powwow last year and didn’t know any of these things. There is so much more that I’ve learned but don’t have the room to share.
I’m pretty excited about the next powwow I attend, because it will mean so much more.