Reflecting on a pre-pandemic pow wow experience in northeastern Alberta
Like sifting particles of dust in a sunbeam, here’s how I remember it.
Distant drumming carries on the wind, the high, crackling falsetto of a tribal song. We pick our way through a parking lot turned swamp by last night’s rain. It makes for sticky going but soon we are on wooden walkways.
We pass through the shadows of a ring of covered stands and the sky opens up. Sun graces the meadows, and swirls of colour fly in all directions around the field as drums swell and surge and urge the dancers on.
It’s Canada Day 2019, and I’m spending it at the Beaver Lake Pow Wow. I’m an outsider to the celebration, but I’m here with a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation and his wife. They’ve brought us here to share their heritage, and that welcome is felt as we pass through the milling crowds.
“We have a lot in common, when it comes to wellness, healing, working with our children, our youth, we have a lot to share with each other,” says local elder, Wally Sinclair. “It brings a real connection. Your past is important.”
Seeing their celebration reminds me how little I know, and how little claim I have to the ancient land I call home. The customs we witness are thousands of years in the making, the dust they raise up has been shuffled by these feet for centuries.
I am an outsider, uneducated in their traditions, and yet I am welcome to be here and to learn and to join in. In this, at least, I am making a step. Thinking back on it now, in the midst of a pandemic, I regret that more opportunities for such gatherings are necessarily on hold (while I accept the necessity of it).
Like Sinclair says, we share a lot, and we have a lot to share with one another - just to begin with, we share a land, and centuries of troubled history to reconcile. And we share a responsibility to care for our community, especially the elders among us, who broke the trails for us and whose insights we need. (More on that below.)
Drumbeats and voices carried on the wind, dirt under the fingertips, meals shared with friends, it’s all a dance in the footsteps of our ancestors.
We have so much still to learn.
#PROTECTOURELDERS It seems most of the talk around "vulnerable populations" centres on dispassionate risk-ratio formulas. So it is gratifying to see this campaign, launched on May 28, 2020 and spearheaded by Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation from Treaty 6 Territory near Edmonton, reminding us to protect the "living libraries" in our midst. While the campaign is focused towards indigenous communities, we can all take a lesson from this message, and remember that elders of all backgrounds deserve our respect and care.