Sweltering heat couldn’t stop Kahnawake’s 2018 Powwow

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Despite the scorching heat and dry conditions, throngs of people flocked to Kahnawake over the July 14-15 weekend for the 28th annual “Echoes of a Proud Nation” Powwow. More than 8300 visitors, dancers, vendors and food vendors from across Turtle Island crowded the powwow grounds.

Indigenous dancers in colourful regalia moved to the beat of the host drum. Whitetail Cree and Buffalo Hat Singers took turns drumming and singing in between master of ceremonies Kirby Mianscum’s often-humorous comments.

Lynne Norton, one of the 10 organizers on the Powwow Committee, spoke with the Nation about her role and how to create such a large gathering.

“All of the people who work here, the security, and those at the gates are volunteers,” Norton explained. “This year we’re a little short on staff but it always seems to work out.”

She has been volunteering for 18 years, and said that since the same people often continue to collaborate in creating this seamless event, they get to know one another very well. This year the Powwow Committee said goodbye to two of their own. Lee Martin passed away in July 2017; while Joyce Canadian passed July 3, just two weeks before the powwow.

Norton spoke about how it all started back in 1991.

“The logo for Echoes of a Proud Nation states ‘Renewing our spirit through the power of the drum’, because it was 1991 and we were all recovering from the Oka Crisis,” she recounted. “We wanted to reach out to other communities, and we were asking ourselves, ‘How can we show them that we’re not crazy?’ Five or six people were sitting around a table, and this is what they came up with. It seems to work!”

Norton also explained that the costs of putting on the “Echoes of a Proud Nation” Powwow hovers at $140,000. Gate revenues, along with subsidies from financial institutions, cover the budget.

“We have to truck everything in,” Norton noted. “There’s usually nothing here, no water, electricity, generators, lights or stadiums, and that costs a lot.”

The committee starts signing on staff and drummers for next year immediately after the powwow ends. There’s a standstill of activity until about January, when they open up the waiting list for the vendors and food stalls. Usually vendors and the people who operate food stalls are Indigenous, and their wares are authentic. They also tend to come back every year. This year there were 93 vendors and 30 food stalls.

“It took us nine hours to get here,” Cheryl Bomberry said with a slight smile as she stood over her sizzling frybread with tongs in her hand. “We only got stuck in traffic twice. That’s travelling! Sometimes getting stuck in traffic is the best time, because you get to know all your neighbours. And if your car breaks down, well you just have to dance!”

Bomberry was one of the 30 food stall vendors at this year’s powwow. Her food stall “Navajo Tacos” is legendary and is currently in its 39th year of operation. She hails from Six Nations and brought her family with her, along with a trailer filled with food and supplies. Her 15-year-old daughter Kareesa has grown up on the powwow trail and knows the ins and out of the business, and can make the various dishes from scratch.

“It’s really hard to stand here and cook for 10-12 hours a day. We have a good spot under the tree and access to supplies, but really, it’s that drum that keeps us going.” Bomberry said with a laugh.

The sweltering heat was the main topic of conversation as it was a blazing 35 degrees under the noon sun and it hadn’t rained in two weeks.

Isanielle Enright, of mixed Mohawk, French and Irish decent, is a beader with a craft and jewellery stall. She said the best remedy for the heat, along with some shade, was the strawberry juice at the Red Cart Stall run by Dave Fazio. Enright shared a stall at the powwow with Kateri Aubin Dubois, who also beads. The young women team up because it makes sense to share the costs of renting the stall that allows them to sell their products.

“It helps to buy textbooks.” Enright said. “And there’s an understanding of wealth that comes with doing this work, it’s not so much about what you can get, but how much you can give. I like to re-invest in the community, we give workshops, and I also buy pay-forward meals at the Café Roundhouse.”

Café Roundhouse is a seasonal café and restaurant in downtown Cabot Square that offers Indigenous-themed meals. Many homeless Indigenous people congregate in the square because of its proximity to Indigenous resources.

Joywind is a member of the Shushwap Nation in British Columbia, but lives in the Laurentians. She has been operating a stall that sells traditional drums, tanned deerskin, beaver furs, medicines, dream catchers, and jewellery at the Kahnawake Powwow for 18 years.

Joywind and her partner have organized their lives around the powwow trail. “During the winters, because there are no powwows we gather the skins,” she explained. “We gather about three truckloads of skins every winter.”

Their biggest business happens during the winter because that’s when they distribute merchandise, such as leather and drums, all over North America. They keep coming back to powwows every summer though, because it is so much fun.

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