MIAWPUKEK FIRST NATION, N.L. – What started out as a conference about traditional medicines 23 years ago has grown beyond almost all recognition, but the core of teaching and healing remains.
“Throughout the years, that’s what the powwow has become,” said organizer and tourism, culture and recreation manager with the Miawpukek Mi’kamawey Mawi’omi First Nation Government Colleen Lambert Saturday, July 7, just as the day’s events were getting underway.
“It’s a sharing of our culture, of our medicine, of our art. It’s showing people how we express ourselves and our culture through those things.”
The powwow generally sees about 3,500 people over the course of the three days, July 6-8 this year. People come from all over Canada and some even from the United States to participate. While some have been coming for years, Lambert said there are always some new faces as well.
“We have dancers coming from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario, and they come every year,” she said. “Without them and the volunteers, the community members – the fire keepers and the pipe carriers – this would never happen.”
Besides the many familiar faces, another long-held tradition is the Chief’s request that politics be set aside for the day.
“Please don’t talk politics,” Saqamaw Mi'sel Joe told the hundreds of people gathered on the powwow grounds in his welcome speech after the Grand Entry July 7. “Don’t think politics – politics always ruins a good time.
“If you have any concerns about your communities, or the province, it can wait until Monday.”
Walking the Red Road
Of far greater concern on Saturday was a ceremony held to welcome a female traditional dancer to the “powwow family.”
Michelle Bennet is from Newfoundland, but moved to Norway when she was 10 years old. About four years ago, she started getting friend requests from cousins back on the island.
“That’s very Mi’kmaq,” she chuckled.
Then, about year later, she moved back alone and began preparing to make the commitment to be a dancer and to walk the Red Road, which means being a role model and abstaining from drugs and alcohol.
“There were many reasons,” she told The Advertiser a few hours after the ceremony that saw her welcomed and recognized for her choice. “A lot of it is the culture was taken away from us. We weren’t allowed to be Mi’kmaq, to show who we were…. Now we can celebrate it.”
Bennett said she dances for her father, who passed away in 1984, as well as the young people in the community who will look to her to be an example. She credits her partner, Paul Pike, with supporting her throughout her journey.
Denise One Breath Mitchell joined Bennett in leading the first dance after her ceremony. She said taking on a woman’s traditional role in the community is about honouring all women, and dancing for those who cannot.
“Your commitment is to dance for those who can’t dance, for those who have passed on,” she said. “(Bennett) was very nervous, but when we dance, we’re supporting her. I told her, we pray when we dance. Just think of praying.”
Part of walking the Red Road is being a role model for young people in the community, many of whom were at the powwow. One Breath Mitchell said seeing so many children filled her heart with joy.
“They’re proud of who they are,” she said, smiling.
The children weren’t the only ones feeling the pride. When Bennet began to dance in her ceremony, flanked by strong women of her community, she turned her face up to the sky and began tearing up.
“I was very nervous, but I didn’t anticipate to cry at all,” she said afterwards. “But I am so proud of who I am, and it just burst out.”