Canada 150+: healing the divide on Spirit Island

Canada‘s 150th celebrations, complete with flags and fireworks, have been in full swing for the entirety of 2017 – but the year has also been a chance to shine a light on the country’s aboriginal culture. As the year draws to a close, Edward Aves looks back on an event of great importance to some of the nation’s indigenous people.

Excited chatter drops to a low murmur as a sense of expectation descends across the forest clearing. All eyes focus on the eastern entrance to the arena, where the Head Elder is poised to begin his invocation.

Flanking him, the Eagle Staff bearer proudly thrusts this most potent of First Nations symbols into the air. Behind line up the dancers, faces painted, bells jangling, tassels glinting in the sun. A sacred pipe is lit and offered to the four winds. The prayer begins, delivered earnestly, first in Ojibwa and then in English.

“Oh Great Spirit, Great Father of the Four Winds. Light of life, the voice we keep hearing from the whispering breeze … thank you for your creation. Thank you for this Earth I walk on and everything that’s grown on it.”

From the central arbor begins a drum beat, steady and insistent, and shrill, high-pitched singing – a kind of polyphonic primal scream – and the procession enters the circle, dancing clockwise around the arena.

Elders, staff bearers and veterans first, then the female jingle dress dancers, the metal cones on their brightly coloured dresses chiming with the drum beat as they sway.

Next come the traditional dancers: the men, the hunters and warriors, with beaded breastplates and porcupine hair roaches, trailed by their resplendent eagle feather bustles; women in dresses of buckskin and beadwork.

Then the free-style grass dancers, ribbon fringes flowing like prairie grasses in the wind; and the flashy, colourful fancy dancers, who rock back and forth athletically with the rhythm.

Verdant Manitoulin – the largest freshwater island in the world – is a stronghold of First Nations culture

I’m here for the Grand Entry of the Wikwemikong Traditional Pow Wow, one of a packed calendar of native gatherings that take place at weekends through the summer across Manitoulin Island (“Spirit Island”) in northwest Ontario.

Lapped by the clear waters of Lake Huron, speckled with lakes and crisscrossed by hiking trails, verdant Manitoulin – the largest freshwater island in the world – is a stronghold of First Nations culture.

Indigenous peoples make up almost 40 percent of the population here. And for the Odawa, Ojibwa and Potawatomi residents of Wikwemikong reserve, a peninsula at the island’s eastern tip, its status as the only unceded territory in Canada (meaning it never relinquished its lands by treaty to the Crown) is a real source of pride.

Canada 150 is a craw in the throat to those whose forebears have occupied these lands for millennia

It’s also a symbol of defiance. In a year when maple-leaf flags have been flying off the shelves for Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations, it’s no surprise that the Canadian flag is absent here; indeed this year – in a break with recent tradition – there are no flags on display of any type.

“Not to show any disrespect but it was decided not to have any flags”, explains the Head Elder, Raymond Jackson. “Flags were not part of our tradition.”

Canada 150 is a craw in the throat to those whose forebears have occupied these lands for millennia.

Those who had their territories seized, culture assimilated and languages extinguished; whose parents and grandparents suffered abuse in residential schools; and for whom alcohol dependency, suicide rates and the number of unexplained cases of murdered and missing women remain at crisis levels.

Many indigenous folk have boycotted the event, instead rallying around the #Resistance150 tag as a voice for their anger and disappointment at the snail’s pace of change. Protests and demonstrations have been staged, status cards burned.

At the same time, Canada 150 has also been an opportunity to shine a spotlight on aboriginal culture. The city of Vancouver rebranded the event Canada 150+ and hosted a nine-day festival of indigenous arts, The Drum is Calling.

Tension may never be too far below the surface but the atmosphere at the pow wow is friendly and folksy

Immersive classes in languages like Ojibwa have seen attendances rocket.

An exhibition by First Nations artist, Kent Monkman – Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, which casts a time-travelling, third-gender alter ego (memorably called Miss Chief Share Eagle Testickle) as a guide through the darkest episodes in Canadian history – has caught the public imagination and is touring provincial galleries well into 2018. Cultural expression of these repressed nations seems resurgent.

Tension may never be too far below the surface but the atmosphere at the pow wow is friendly and folksy. Families sit ringside, chatting and munching their picnics. A cheery MC explains the proceedings to outsiders.

Elder Jackson introduces the next song, a veteran dance, retelling the story of the Mookomaanish, an Odawa chief who fought with the British against the Americans in the war of 1812.

This is a chance to celebrate what’s been retained, not what was lost

It’s a tale of clemency and mercy: having spared the life of an injured American soldier, Mookomaanish was awarded a silver sword, later displayed at Manitoulin’s Ojibwe Cultural Foundation.

A replica is brandished by one of his descendants in the victory dance that follows. For the participants this is a chance to celebrate what’s been retained, not what was lost.

I feel a tap on the shoulder and a man in a full headdress offers me a long grey feather from his regalia. It’s a signal for me to join him for the next song, an intertribal – open to all comers.

I coyly follow on to the arena and as the drums beckon I break out my “crow hop” moves, carefully choreographed the day before but now clumsy and half-forgotten. I lose my footing going for a high leap and stumble. My new dance partner laughs.

It’s lunchtime, so I head to Osawamick’s, one of the makeshift food stalls behind the arena.

I’m cheerfully doled out a cup of Indian corn soup, a thin but tasty broth, served with a huge scone – a heavy, salty ball of dough nothing like its Scottish counterpart but dense, deep-fried and delicious enough to do Caledonia proud. I won’t need to eat for the rest of the day.

For teenager Pierre, the gathering is a chance to connect with history and with the Elders

Giant scone tamed and defeated, I determine to find out more about what draws people here. I spy Lloyd, who’s been dancing at the island pow wows since he was nine years old and knows everyone here. He’s magnificently attired in a hawk-feather headdress, bearskin jerkin and porcupine-quill waistcoat.

Cigarette dangling from his lips, with movie-star cheekbones, Lloyd explains he’s now 62, with 21 grandchildren – many of whom are here today. He’s witnessed the pow wows grow and grow and watched with delight as the number of under 35s has swelled.

For teenager Pierre, the gathering is a chance to connect with history and with the Elders. Clad dramatically in a full bear pelt, face painted white, he’s here with his mum, Linda, who’s just been reelected for her second term as Chief of M’Chigeeng, a neighbouring First Nation on Manitoulin.

Chief Pierre, as his friends ribbingly call him, explains: “I could be having the worst week at school. Then I come to one of these and I feel ten times better”

Jingle dress dancer Rosella is 72 now. A former community nurse – she tells me she gave most of the people here their injections – she used to travel with her husband to every traditional pow wow across Canada. Her knees won’t let her do the dances any more, she claims, but she captures the essence of the pow wow.

“Hearing that drum”, she says softly as another song strikes up, “it’s healing”. And off she trots, jingles jangling. There are a good few years left in those dancing legs yet.

Edward travelled to Manitoulin Island with Air Canada and visited the pow wow as part of an Aboriginal Experience tour with Great Spirit Circle Trail. He stayed at the Manitoulin Hotel & Conference Centre. For more information see

Images (left–right, top–bottom): Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation (OTMPC); Michael Swan/FlickrOTMPC; OTMPC; OTMPC; OTMPC; OTMPC; Edward Aves; Pverdonk/Flickr

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