Gabriel Whiteduck wants to bring the powwow tradition to your community

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Gabriel Whiteduck -Early last year, Ottawa’s Gabriel Whiteduck was a furniture salesman working in a warehouse depot. Before that he sold cars for years. But last summer he realized he was ready to make a radical career change. Within a month, he had quit his job to become a full-time powwow teacher, dancer, drummer and singer.

Not long after, Whiteduck, originally from Kitigan Zibi, was all over Eeyou Istchee. You might have seen him at Oujé-Bougoumou’s first powwow last summer, or at Mistissini’s second annual event. But you could just as easily have seen him in Nemaska, Eastmain or Waswanipi – not to mention any of the many non-Cree communities he visited, among them Wemotaci, Lac Simon and Kawawachikamach.

“What I do is introduce powwow into communities,” explained Whiteduck, who teaches men’s traditional dance and traditional drum. “If they don’t know a lot about it, then they don’t understand what it is. They might have their own idea of what it is, but I introduce it as a social event.”

Powwow doesn’t have the same long history in Eeyou Istchee that it does elsewhere on the continent, but it’s spreading fast. Still, some religious authorities in Oujé-Bougoumou were initially uncertain about what it would mean for their communities. Since 2011, when Whiteduck danced at a powwow in Chibougamau (“It was really the first powwow in that area,” he said), he’s been trying to help the community get its own powwow up and running.

“They have a heavy church presence there, so it was slow going,” he said, noting that some of Oujé-Bougoumou’s faithful worried that powwow ceremonies could be threatening to the church. “It was three or four years later that I actually went into the reserve and hosted a powwow workshop. It’s been a lot of patience and work.”

Generally, he said, people opposed to powwows don’t really understand what the gatherings are all about. “It’s not a ceremony, it’s a tribal event to bring different nations together – Algonquin, Cree, Mohawk, Atikamekw – we all come together and share some of our culture. Explaining the drum, and the dance – it was a lot of work! It was open, and everybody came. People just didn’t know what it was, and they were curious about what it actually is.”

What powwow is really about, he underlined, is the power to uplift communities and bring people together. Following a struggle with addiction, Whiteduck took to the powwow trail to help him strengthen his newfound sobriety. He’s been sober for over six years, and has been a dancer, drummer and singer consistently ever since.

“The drum saved my life,” he said. “I was down, I was in low places. I started following the powwow trail again, like I did when I was a kid. And I started dancing. Now I’m sharing the good feeling I have with my people – the Cree Nation especially. There’s a need for that: sharing culture, and a healthy lifestyle, and a way for people to express themselves in a positive way.”

Whiteduck was almost overcome with emotion trying to explain last summer’s experiences. “It’s almost indescribable,” he said. “You really have to be there to witness what happens – the things that went down last summer, I’m still buzzing from it!”

Within a few short months, he left his life as a salesman, even though he notes that those jobs helped him prepare for his current life. “I created a perfect job for myself. I combined my salesmanship skills and my [passion and experience for powwow], all so I could do this. It was meant for me. It’s the perfect job.”

Whiteduck will be back in Eeyou Istchee soon.

“There are still a lot of people who don’t know what powwow is,” he said. “A lot of people spend all their time in the bush. That’s their culture. Their version of a powwow is getting together and doing target shooting and a portage – that’s how they celebrate with other nations. So what I want to do is inform them as much as I can. Not just promote my work, but to be informative.”

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