The powwow grounds were baked in the sun – but temperatures in the high 30s didn’t keep people away or push the dancers back into the shade. Over the three days of the 2014 Kamloopa Powwow, the 35th annual, an estimated 15,000 people made their way around the arbour.
The centre of the arbour was filled with jumping flairs of spinning regalia, all to an unstoppable drumbeat from one of the many drum circles positioned around the circle. The outside of the ring was well stocked with folding chairs, mostly empty as viewers tried to avoid the sun. I was further back under the well-shaded interior to watch Saturday night’s grand entry.
Led by the eagle staff and flags of many nations, including B.C., Canada, the United States and the Secwepemc (Shuswap), the grand entry established the tone and mood of the powwow. It was a display so grand and diverse that it was almost overwhelming. Dancers and tribesmen in colourful regalia, both fluorescent and pastel, danced their way into the grounds, parading around the outside, eventually spiralling into the centre to accommodate everyone. In the middle of the arbour, leaders, still shifting foot to foot to the drumbeat, held the flags high.
Over the loudspeaker, each group was announced as they entered. Nations from all across Canada and the United States had come to dance and display. Eventually some filtered out, leaving only those left to be announced. Finally, an intertribal dance was called and all attending were welcomed to join in and dance, and many did.
At the edge of the arbour, the grand entrants made their grand exits bathed in a golden orange sunset. It was at this exit near the large eagle statue that I met Ryan Oliverius, a chicken dancer from the Okanagan Nation and a second-year TRU student.
Oliverius is no stranger to powwows – this was his fourth just this year. When he was five years old, his mother, aunties and cousins went away to a one, leaving him alone at home with his dad. Not long after they left, a five-year-old Oliverius cried over the phone. He pleaded to his mother that he could dance and sing, too. And it worked. His family made him an outfit and he joined them from then on.
In his regalia, adorned with every colour, but trimmed in white, he dances in the Chicken Dance category, a style of dance that originated with the Blackfoot people of southern Alberta and northern Montana.
“I liked the way they moved, the intricate movements,” he said. “I thought it was cool, wanted to try it out and then it just stuck.”
His regalia is the product of years of additions and changes, made up of things acquired over the years on the powwow trail and inspired by the traditions of his Okanagan Nation. In his hands, he held a Peyote bird and a medicine bag.
“In my beadwork I have animals and flowers – that’s what Okanagan people tend to bead,” he said.
Oliverius wasn’t just here to show off, though. The story of his attendance is one with meaning and purpose.
“I grew up on a reservation. Alcohol and drugs were really bad. It wasn’t uncommon to go to a gathering and see people drinking, and there’s young kids who see that and think it’s normal,” he said.
“A lot of kids grow up in dysfunctional families and they don’t really have anyone to show them any other way,”
Escaping to a powwow is one of the ways that Oliverius has used to stay away from alcohol and drugs. He was also guided by his family, who supported his decisions and decided together to make healthy choices.
“My grandma was kind of the main person behind it. She didn’t drink, and she talked to my aunties and my mom about it, and slowly everyone else started following her and left that way of life, going back to our traditions,” he said.
Though she has since passed, it’s clear that Oliverius took her message to heart. He used to work with school districts and the Okanagan Indian Band, going into schools to teach kids how to dance and how to make healthy choices and avoid the problems he saw growing up.
“I just wanted to show the kids that don’t have a family like mine to teach them. A lot of kids grow up in dysfunctional families and they don’t really have anyone to show them any other way,” he said.
He continues to be a role model as a dancer at powwows across Canada and the United States. His initial decision to occupy himself on the weekend by attending powwows is based on the very problem he’s now helping others avoid.
“A powwow is definitely cultural, but I wouldn’t say it’s a traditional thing. It hasn’t been around for a very long time. It’s just a way for people to see and have an idea what their culture is about.
“A lot of people grow up in the cities and don’t have close roots to their heritage. Just by going to the powwow and spending the weekend there, they get an idea and form a sense of identity. In the past fifteen years or so, it’s definitely grown into something a lot bigger because of that.”
His positive outlook will most certainly be an asset going forward. Starting in the fall, Oliverius will be working as mentor at TRU’s Gathering Place, welcoming and assisting new students just as he was welcomed when he first arrived.
“I went there on my first day and it was really friendly and a really positive environment. They all introduced themselves to me, asked me what my name was and made me feel at home,” he said.
Looking forward, Oliverius is focused on finishing his degree in business and further improving his grades, all while working with new students through the Gathering Place.
He’s spent the summer on an internship with Flatiron-Graham, an engineering and construction company based in Chilliwack, doing accounting and other business-related tasks. He hopes to one day either go into business for himself or work with the Okanagan Indian Band or another First Nations organization and to continue encouraging others to make healthy choices.
As I made my way outside around the arbour to leave, the bright orange sun had retreated behind the hills down the valley and the lights had come on inside. A thunderstorm had roared in above Mt. Paul and I wondered if it would have any effect on the celebration inside. I had a feeling it wouldn’t. Nothing could stop people from dancing to that drumbeat.