Seeing First Nations culture through the powwow

A Swedish exchange student forms perceptions of First Nations in Canada

It was a snowy, dark and windy evening. It was New Year’s Eve and actually just my second day here in Canada. I was walking up in Sahali, still jetlagged from the flight from Stockholm, when I heard a voice shouting.

No way that’s for me, I thought, continuing on my path.

But fast steps started to clatter. I saw the outline of a robust man coming towards me. I felt smaller than a mouse, knowing that I’m in the middle of a parking lot on the other side of the world.

(Kim Anderson/ The Omega)

(Kim Anderson/ The Omega)

A man with a dark, rough face appeared out of the shadows. His black messy hair hung in a long ponytail. He looked cold and torn. He took a loose hold of my arm and asked me, almost yelling, if I just hadn’t heard him and if I had a smoke. Still holding my arm, he swayed where he stood. I could smell it. He almost smelled like hand sanitizer when he opened his mouth. I manage to tell him in some kind of “Swenglish” that I wasn’t from here.

“Whereabouts you from?” he said. “Sweden,” I said, looking down. Then he let go of my arm with a surprised face and said “I’m Black Foot. Calgary.” Then snow swirled up around us as he told me he was homeless and asked if I could spare him a dollar. I gave him 10. The man shouted at the shadows and another man with a cane appeared. And even though they seemed to have nothing, they asked me if I wanted to join and celebrate New Year’s with the money I’d just given them. I said no thanks and they both went away.

I felt sad that this was my first meeting with a Canadian First Nation. But of course, I knew better than to draw conclusions about a whole people from one meeting.

On Saturday, March 14, I got my chance to be reintroduced. It was the date for TRU’s annual powwow. But without any idea whatsoever of what a powwow was, I headed for Cplûl’kw’ten (House 5), the Aboriginal Cultural Centre on campus.

(Kim Anderson/The Omega)

(Kim Anderson/The Omega)

Well there I climbed up the wooden porch, knocked on the door, stepped in, and said hello to the first person I saw.

Ryan Oliverius, one of the aboriginal mentors there, happened to be that person.

“What’s a powwow?” Ryan said, almost like my question rebounded. “It’s basically a First Nations event that we have adopted from the eastern United States. It’s a gathering where we celebrate, have fun, dance, sing and see family and friends.”

Ryan invited me to a table and we sat down. With my New Year’s Eve occurrence in mind, I couldn’t help but ask how the situation for First Nations looks today.

“There are a lot of people that stay at the reservations their whole lives,” Ryan started off, “but it’s kind of hard to live completely to the tradition, we have adapted to a lot of things. We are living similar lives as European Canadians. We are getting education and such like everybody else. We still grocery shop,” he ended with a smile.

Then, Ryan straightened his back, folded his hands, and continued down another path. According to him, the situation was completely different only 50 or 60 years ago. Back then, First Nations children were put in residential schools, and any kind of practicing of First Nation culture was deemed illegal, even ending with a jail sentence.

“They (the Canadian government) did a kind apology for that I guess,” Ryan said, and leaned back against the chair, “but they didn’t have an official apology until Prime Minister Harper did his apology a few years ago.”

(Kim Anderson/The Omega)

(Kim Anderson/The Omega)

After what Ryan called has been a cultural genocide, the quite recent adoption of the powwow has functioned as a way back for First Nations to their cultural identity.

Sitting there listening to him, I was astonished and almost enchanted by Ryan’s calm demeanor while talking about these things, and I quietly sat by while he continued talking about how B.C. today, is actually the most diverse area in the whole world concerning First Nations cultures. He also noted that people from all over Canada are coming to TRU’s powwow. Finally, Ryan asked me if I wanted to join the powwow’s public dance competition. He tried to entice me by saying that there would be some fine prizes.

“Of course not,” I said, and joked that I probably would need a beer to do that.

Ryan smiled and said that the powwow was a drug- and alcohol-free event.

The next day, I made my way to TRU’s old gym and I was immediately welcomed by everyone, especially Vernie Clement, another aboriginal mentor, who right away offered me a cup of coffee and showed me the way into the great hall. The first sight made me warm.

Everywhere I looked, I saw family members working together in stalls selling handmade crafts and paintings, I saw the hall’s best seats being reserved for elders, children in feather suits, and in the roof waved flags from all over the world welcoming newcomers with open arms. In each end of the court, people sat in circles beating leather drums, building up for the Grand Entry.

I hurried to the rows and took my place. The speaker’s voice welcomed, presented and spoke fluently in both English and First Nations languages. A few seconds later, TRU’s gymnasium floor turned into an explosion of colors. And when I saw people in all ages in painted feathered clothing, moccasins, slashing tomahawks, everything paced by the beating drums and loud singing, I almost thought I was in a new country all over again. I felt like a Swedish pilgrim among hospitality and thousands of years of history. And, even though I had never seen something so foreign in my whole life, I had never felt so invited and welcome.