McGill’s 15th Annual Pow Wow Pushes Powerful Message

Canada’s Indigenous communities encourage Montrealers to stand with North Dakota

  • McGill University’s 15th annual pow wow prayed for the Sioux people of North Dakota. Photo Joshua De Costa

  • McGill University’s 15th annual pow wow prayed for the Sioux people of North Dakota. Photo Joshua De Costa

  • McGill University’s 15th annual pow wow prayed for the Sioux people of North Dakota. Photo Joshua De Costa

As Indigenous dancers from communities across Canada entered McGill Univesity’s 15th Annual Pow Wow circle, the cries of throat-singers pierced the air and tingled the skins of more than one hundred onlookers Friday afternoon.

Each step the dancers took made dust clouds and jangled ankle-bells.

But each step did more than that—each step was a prayer.

“When we dance, we pray,” said 61-year-old Sedalia Kawennotas, an Elder Woman from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. “Each and every step of these dancers is a prayer for North Dakota. It’s a prayer for our Sioux brothers and sisters—that their waters are safe, that the pipeline doesn’t go through.”

As is customary for Elder Women, Kawennotas opened the pow wow, and she started it with a message: “Pray for North Dakota.”

“If we all die tomorrow, Mother Earth will replenish herself, but if Mother Earth dies—if those waters die—we won’t survive,” she said.

As she danced, Kawennotas carried with her a bottle of water taken from a part of the Mississippi river that runs through North Dakota.

“As I’m dancing, I’m praying for the water. It’s symbolic that the Mississippi is here with us,” she explained. “Today the Mohawk people pray for our brothers and sisters, the Sioux, in North Dakota. We stand with them.”

“If we all die tomorrow, Mother Earth will replenish herself, but if Mother Earth dies—if those waters die—we won’t survive.” –Elder Woman Kawennotas, from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory

The Sept. 16 pow wow was McGill’s 15th annual gathering and Paige Isaac’s eighth year organising. As coordinator of the First People’s House, an organisation that supports Indigenous students on McGill’s campus, she said she had seen the crowds grow every year, with more Indigenous communities coming together from across Canada to share their culture.

Amanda Fox was one of the dancers that Isaac had invited to come from afar that afternoon. The 27-year-old had travelled from Wikwemikong First Nation in northern Ontario to be the head dancer and lead the other lady dancers in the Pow wow.

“I’ve been dancing since I was two years old,” she said. “To me, [a pow wow] celebrates First Nation culture, and food, and dancing, and singing. It means a lot to me. It’s part of my life.”

As she spoke, the aroma of fry bread and Indian tacos wafted through the air. Dancers walked past wearing regalia splashed in purple, blue and pink; others wore yellow, black and beige. And just as each community differed from the other, so did each dancer’s regalia.

“It grows when I grow,” said Fox, joking about her dress. “Mine is called the old-style jingle dress—we don’t usually have appliqué on them but we’ll have plain dresses with beadwork designs. My designs are Ojibwe florals.”

As the Pow wow neared its close, Elder Woman Kawennotas told the gathering that on Sunday, she would add the water taken from the Mississippi River to the rapids of the St. Lawrence River. “We’re praying that these two energies can work together—to keep our people strong, to keep the water strong, and to keep Mother Earth strong,” she said.

Kawennotas also had advice to share with the public in the meantime.

“Instead of having a line of two hundred cars going to work with one person in each car, start using public transport,” she said in an interview after the pow wow. “Some people are going two blocks to their job and they have to drive—walk, or take your bike.”

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