Grand River Pow-wow

All photos below are mine and for non-commercial purposes only. Six Nations does not allow photos of their pow-wow to be used for commercial purposes without their express permission. These photos are not for sale or distribution; I respectfully ask that you do not copy them to your personal hardware or sites.

Driving on the QEW highway, snaking your way through Oakville, Burlington and Hamilton as it horseshoes around Lake Ontario, it is next to impossible to imagine the Canada of 400 years ago. These lands were once home to a great civilization, the First Nations people of Turtle Island (the name used by several indigenous tribes for the continent of North America). My daughter tells me she has learned nothing about First Nations history in high school, and doesn’t remember talking about it in elementary school either. Beyond an assortment of museum exhibits there are few opportunities to see examples of living First Nations culture today. The Grand River Pow-wow is one such opportunity.

Located on the banks of the Grand River 10 minutes outside of Caledonia, Ontario, this weekend the Six Nations of the Grand River is hosting the 35th annual Grand River Campion of Champions Pow-wow (link). Thousands of people drive up to the Six Nations Reserve in Oshweken, Ontario every year to take in a cultural display of native dance, crafts and rituals.

Pow-wow is a word derived from the Narragansett word powwaw, meaning “spiritual leader.” The Narragansett tribe is an Algonquian Native American tribe from Rhode Island. Today the word refers to a specific type of event for First Nations people to meet and dance, sing, socialize, and honor their culture. It is an excellent opportunity to show your children an important part of Canada’s history.

The Grand River Pow-wow started in 1980 and has become a nationally recognized event and a major tourist attraction. With over 400 dancers, 30 food vendors and more than 100 craft booths, it’s a visually dazzling display of First Nations culture. It’s held at the Chiefswood Tent & Trailer Park, on the grounds of the former estate of the Mohawk Poetess E. Pauline Johnson, at the Six Nations of the Grand River Community.

I went to see the dancers and listen to the singing, but quickly discovered the craft booths are amazing. There are relatively little of the usual tourist trade items like hats and t-shirts. Displays of handwoven baskets, soapstone carvings, dried and tanned moose and deer hide, antlers, dreamcatchers, knives, beaded and feathered jewellery catch your eye at every turn. Drums sit next to hatchets and war clubs made with the leg and hoof of a deer.

War bonnet replica
War bonnet replica

The vendors also demonstrate their techniques; one woman was weaving a basket while customers watched the intricate process. Hand carved, hand painted boxes open to display sage burning kits, which First Nations people have used for centuries in purification rituals and sacred ceremonies.

Browsing through the displays, you will see things and overhear conversations you’ll not likely experience anywhere else. While I admire a display of moccasins, two men discuss the quality of a knife the purchaser wants to use to skin moose. Another admires the $750 Grey Wolf hide, completely intact down to nose and claws. A man who introduces himself as an archeologist admires a shadow box of arrowheads selling for “$10 an inch.” He asked the vendor where he had dug up his specimens.

“I didn’t – my son makes them,” was the reply. The price is set as it is so the buyer will appreciate the amount of hard work and skill that went into making the piece. The archeologist was flabbergasted to learn there is actually a class you can attend to learn flint napping. When I left he was getting the information from the vendor.

Turning to thoughts of lunch, I checked out the various food vendors. Buffalo burgers sizzled on outdoor grills, wafting a rich aroma much more delectable than hamburger. Corn soup, tacos, and a variety of freshly made fruit drinks made with lemons and strawberries were also available. My husband wolfed down a buffalo burger with cheese and onions followed by a strawberry cream, which was fresh Ontario strawberries blended with cream and ice, topped by whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I tasted both; the drink was fresh and sweet with a slushy-like consistency and the burger was much better than a hamburger; it tasted restaurant made, not the type of burger you usually get at a fair venue.

After lunch I joined hundreds of spectators in the stands to watch the dancers. An elder gave a speech in both English and his native language explaining the significance of the dance in their culture and asking people to please respect the sacredness of the opening ceremony by leaving the cameras down. Of course a bunch of people took pictures anyway; I did not. The dancers paraded in and the elder placed a sacred eagle feather staff in the centre of the parade grounds to open the competition.
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The dances range from high intensity warrior dances to elegant and graceful women’s dances. The costumes, all handmade, are decorated with beads, feathers and bells. For the most part, with the exception of a few pieces handed down through the generations, the traditional outfits of tanned leather decorated with eagle feathers are mostly a thing of the past, probably due to modern day hunting and environmental restrictions as much as simply taking too long to make. They have been replaced with colorful fabrics printed with First Nation designs and symbols and are still decorated with intricate beading. One toddler, parading with her grandfather, was wearing a pair of knee-high moccasins with a beaded representation of Dora the Explorer.

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Watching the performances, with the wailing cries of the singers and the steady beat of the drums resonating through the crowd, it was a little easier to imagine a way of life almost destroyed through European ignorance and hubris. The music strikes an emotional chord, stirring memories long-buried in our DNA of fire, rivers, trees, and a life at one with nature even if you live in a condo in Toronto. My kids thought they were listening to a CD until I pointed out the circle of drummers singing under a canopy at the rear of the dance area.

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At the end of the day we left with an assortment of bags containing dreamcatchers, drums, beaded purses, Native dolls dressed in tanned leather and a CD of flute music by Jason Chamakese, and a new appreciation by my children for a rich culture steeped in traditions honoring the planet and the self. I would have liked to also buy some moccasins and a blanket, but as usual I blew most of my money on the kids.
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The Grand River Pow-wow is held every year on the 4th weekend in July.
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