Many years ago, indigenous groups around North America would welcome in visitors for annual powwows. As time has gone on, this tradition has been lost for many groups. This year, the Tobacco Plains Indian Band rewrote history.
For the first time in over two generations, they hosted a powwow celebration.
In the middle of the room they danced; colourful, intricate outfits creating a rainbow of movement. Each piece of clothing meticulously crafted with most outfits taking years to construct. Surrounding them sat elders, parents, siblings and guests, watching proudly.
Tobacco Plains Indian Band Chief Mary Mahseelah said it was very special to see everyone gathered together for the first time in so long. Dancers and singers from across B.C., Alberta, Montana and Idaho were present to celebrate the historical gathering, one that Mahseelah said was a long time coming.
“We’re trying to bring back the way it used to be, a long long time ago, with our ancestors,” said Chief Mahseelah.
Generations ago, the Tobacco Plains would gather in a field above Edwards Lake every September for their annual powwow. In those days, the powwow was a celebration of life; a form of worship before the harvest. The gathering would last an entire week.
“All the other communities used to come and join,” said Mahseelah. “And when they were done, each of the other communities would go (get) whatever they were after; the berries, the animals… they’d all go in their (own) directions. Then they would prepare for their winter supply.”
This, Mahseelah explained, was long before her time. This tradition has long since been lost.
“The people that were behind it, they probably passed away,” she said. “Then the different generations just let it go.”
Generations later, powwows are starting to come back, however, they often do not attract the number of participants that they used to. Modern powwows also do not often take on a traditional theme. More often than not, they are hosted as competitions.
“Today, usually the ones (powwows) that are going on now are for the money,” she said.
Dancers earn money for placing first, second or third in their respective categories, of which there are many.
The categories can be gender and age specific, and include traditional, fancy shawl, jingle, grass, two-step, owl (couples) and more. They are judged on many things including their movement, timing, and whether or not they lose any clothing items or feathers during their dance.
This is preceded by a grand entry with colour parade, elders and elected officials. It is followed by a traditional feast.
Another significant change over the years is that modern powwows are inclusive; open to non-indigenous people. Previously, powwows were very traditional in that they only allowed members of the band and friendly neighbouring tribes on the dance grounds.
June 29 marked the first annual Tobacco Plains Powwow, and the ‘Speak Our Language’ celebration. The Tobacco Plains Indian Band is working to restore their traditional language with the help of their elders.
The hope, Mahseelah explained, is to host a powwow annually for many more years to come. This year, around two-dozen dancers participated.
“For today (is) the first time we’ve tried it,” said Mahseelah, “If word gets out that it was good then it will attract more.”