As someone living on Turtle Island (what the Indigenous refer to as the continent of North America), we should have a better understanding of the land that we’re on, and what better way to make this connection than by having your first pow wow experience in Canada?
In this guide, we’ll dive into our experiences at the Garden River First Nation Pow Wow in Sault Ste. Marie which was part of our weekend trip to the city focused on Indigenous experiences. Through our first pow wow in Ontario, you’ll get a good sense of what to expect.
Hint: It was amazing!
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Here's what we're covering:
- What is a Pow Wow?
- First Pow Wow in Ontario – Sault Ste. Marie
- Making Your First Pow Wow Experience Easy
- What to Expect with Your First Pow Wow
- Best Tips to Pow Wow in Canada Like a Pro
- Where Can You Go To Pow Wows in Canada?
- Frequently Asked Questions
What is a Pow Wow?
Pow wows are special events that hold cultural significance because it’s an important community gathering of First Nations to celebrate their rich ancestral history.
It’s a gathering that’s meant to ignite your spirit and celebrate Indigenous arts, culture, and music with everyone that attends. It’s sacred and is a place of healing as well.
As celebrations of Indigenous culture, the event is deeply rooted in continuing to carry on tradition whether it be through dance, story, and ceremony.
There was a time not too long ago when pow wows weren’t allowed and it was actually illegal for the First Nations to practice religious ceremonies, such as pow wows, in Canada. With reconciliation, it is now allowed to commemorate, honour, and keep in Indigenous traditions.
Are pow wows in Canada open to everyone?
Yes, contrary to what you might think, anyone can attend pow wows whether you’re a local, traveller, Indigenous, or non-Indigenous.
First Pow Wow in Ontario – Sault Ste. Marie
To provide a bit of context, this summer, we were looking to increase our Indigenous awareness, understanding, and education in our home province of Ontario.
We looked far and wide for where we could go and were looking for the following things:
- A large number of Indigenous-based businesses, sites, and activities in close proximity to one another.
- Indigenous-owned businesses that could offer guided and educational experiences for first timers.
- Drivable from Toronto.
It became clear in our research that Sault Ste. Marie checked all of these boxes. Make sure to take a look at the incredible job the city’s done with developing Indigenous tourism. There are plenty of ideas of how you can learn more about Indigenous culture including attending your first pow wow in Canada.
That is how we ended up building an entire extended weekend trip to The Soo and landed on 11 of the best things to do in Sault Ste. Marie, which included attending our first pow wow.
Making Your First Pow Wow Experience Easy
As a first time attendee of a pow wow in Canada, I’m sure you have the same apprehensions as we did.
How do you know what to do and what not to do? How does a pow wow work? Where are we allowed to stand? Can we take pictures? Will I know what’s happening during the pow wow? Are we allowed to go in the circle to dance?
These were all questions that we had and we were so thankful to be on a Learn How To Pow Wow experience with an Indigenous-owed tour company, Thrive Tours in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario during the Garden River Pow Wow.
I highly recommend that you look for a local Indigenous tour (if available) to guide you through the pow wow. It’s not mandatory but it definitely helps.
As far as we know, Thrive Tours is one of the few Indigenous-owned tour operators that has a pow wow-specific offering.
What to Expect with Your First Pow Wow
Your first pow wow will be incredible, precious, awe-inspiring, and overwhelming, all at the same time. To help set the right expectations, the below is a chronological layout of how a pow wow works.
Something to keep in mind is that every pow wow is different and so we’re coming at this from the lens of our experience with Thrive Tours at the Garden River Pow Wow in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
This is a pow wow that took place in mid-August in the Garden River First Nation Reserve and on the grounds of the baseball field.
Again, the goal of this guide is to give you an idea of what to expect with your first pow wow so that you can go with confidence.
Learning how to pow wow
The first part of your pow wow experience should be about education and understanding. With Thrive Tours, you’ll learn the history of the Indigenous people and common customs.
From there, you’ll get a briefing of how the pow wow works and also the proper pow wow etiquette.
Pow wow etiquette
- Be respectful.
- Traditional dress worn at a pow wow including the dancers is called regalia.
- It would not be respectful to ask to take a photo with regalia.
- Ask for permission to touch or take photos of regalia.
- Ask before taking a photo of individual dancers.
- Group photos and photos of dancers in the circle is permitted because your tour guide has asked the pow wow committee for permission. If you are on your own, it’s a good idea to ask the committee for permission to attend.
- Dress modestly.
- Don’t sit in marked areas or chairs/benches that have been reserved with someone else’s blanket.
- No drugs, alcohol, or pets.
- Grand Entry cannot be photographed or filmed.
- Stand and remove your hat during Grand Entry.
- Listen to the Master of Ceremonies for instructions especially when it comes to who is dancing and when.
- Don’t pick up any eagle feathers that fall, as this represents a fallen warrior and requires special ceremony.
You’ll also learn about the significance of the drum. Using the grandmother drum, Brad and Amanda from Thrive Tours will sing an honour song for the group.
Following that, they will perform a smudging ceremony. This is a traditional cleansing ritual where either cedar, tobacco, or sage is burned overtop a shell to create smoke.
With a clear mind, the smoke is carried towards you with your arms and hands as a way of gaining protection, blessing, and purify the body and soul, while also repelling negative energy.
A must-do for first-timers
It makes a difference to be able to experience your first pow wow by being under someone else’s wing. If you’re going to a pow wow in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, make sure to check out Thrive Tours and their glowing reviews.
Honouring the sacred fire
Before heading to pow wow circle, you will make a stop to the sacred fire. This is a ceremonial fire that’s lit before the start of the pow wow and burns continuously until its end. Its flame is tended to by one or several fire keepers.
At the Garden River Pow Wow, we followed our guides to the sacred fire that was burning inside a teepee. Outside, we greeted the fire keepers and made our way inside.
There is typically a bowl of tobacco by the fire. You will pull the straws of tobacco and cup them with your left hand. Walk around the sacred fire in clockwise direction, and with an honouring thought, you release the tobacco into the fire and say chi-miigwech, meaning “thank you very much”.
To kick off the pow wow, Grand Entry is the opening ceremonies. This is performed every day of the pow wow.
One by one, the chief, Eagle Staff carriers from various First Nation communities, Flag Carriers representing special causes, followed by dancers, are announced and walk into the circle to the entry song.
With the Master of Ceremonies MC-ing, you’ll experience the true heartbeat of the pow wow with their thunderous beat and incredible range of singing.
To close the ceremony, a flag song is played by a drum group and a procession of flags are placed and where they stay in position for the duration of the pow wow.
During Grand Entry, you’ll be asked to stand, take off your hat, and refrain from taking photos and videos.
The drum groups are at the very core of the pow wow and a unifying feature. That is why they play a very significant role and are held in high regard.
Pow wows typically have multiple drum groups and in our case, there were three – Bear Creek, Island Times, and First Nation. Each group takes its turn performing songs for the pow wow, whether it be for Grand Entry, specific styles of dance, honour or healing songs, and intertribal dance.
With 5 or more drummers sitting around a large grandfather drum, they strike the drum together and sing a song.
You’ll notice that there is typically a lead singer that starts the song above the synchronous voices of the whole group. As the song goes on, the primary singing rotates around in clockwise direction which you can tell by their higher pitched notes.
What you’ll love about the pow wow is that not only is the circle for the dancers competing for prizes but it’s also for everyone there.
Right after Grand Entry and throughout the pow wow, the MC will announce the intertribal dance. This is where anyone from every background is invited to go into the circle and dance.
Going in again, clockwise direction, you’re able to strut your moves to the beat of the drumming. While there is no judgement in the circle, most people will do their best 1-2 step.
It’s harder than it looks!
Depending on how coordinated you are, you’ll be able to do the step and tap moves with ease or if you’re like me, your feet will get out of rhythm in a flash. It’s harder than it looks!
At the Garden River Pow Wow, they also had numerous spot dances. This is an intertribal dance where once the drumming stops, everyone stays in their spot and they have someone walk around to pick the winner of a prize (typically monetary).
Throughout the pow wow, you’ll watch and feel the energy and beat of the dancers that enter into the circle.
There are various styles of dances that you’ll see – traditional, fancy, grass, and jingle. Each age group will get their turn to show off their skill and athleticism ranging from junior girls and boys to golden age men and women.
If you take a look the Garden River Pow Wow poster, you’ll see that there’s a prize for the winners of the dance groups so it is definitely competitive. Winners are announced near the end of the pow wow.
During this core part of the pow wow, you’ll be free to watch from anywhere in the circle, whether it’s finding an empty seat on the benches, on the grass, or standing.
Your Thrive Tour guides are available to questions during this time but you’ll also be free to roam.
As your first pow wow experience, it’ll be a little daunting to approach dancers to say hello and ask questions. That’s where Thrive Tours come in.
Since they know many of the community members, they’ll be able to connect you with them if you had any questions or just wanted to chat.
From our experience, everyone is incredibly friendly and willing to share.
Out of respect, there’s the Indigenous custom of offering tobacco, called Semma, in a pouch in exchange for teachings and knowledge that you’d like to learn. It’s the idea of giving something to receive something. In our case, we gift tobacco to acknowledge that the wisdom of our elders is a sacred exchange.
We had the opportunity to speak to one of the Fancy Shawl dancers and with Thrive Tours with us, they had the tobacco gift ready and luckily for us, she accepted.
During our time with her, she told us her story of how she’s been dancing since she was 2 and was kind enough to go through how her current regalia came together over the years.
Food and vendors
With pow wows easily lasting from 1PM to 6PM or longer, you’ll find your stomach growling at some point.
Each pow wow is set up differently but at the Garden River Pow Wow, they had food stations set up on the outside of the circle.
There are typically numerous local food stalls serving a mix of main dishes, dessert, and drinks.
We had the opportunity to eat at Chiblow Fish and had their incredibly fresh and flavourful fish & chips (pickerel fish fry). It’s run by Bob Chiblow, who also happens to be the Chief of the Missisaugi First Nation.
There are plenty of options to choose from and there are tables set up out in the open for eating.
TIP: Come prepared with cash as only a limited number of vendors accept credit card. This also means that they don’t issue receipts either.
Around the pow wow are typically local vendors as well. This is your chance to support local artisans and businesses. Every pow wow is different but expect to find a range of traditional instruments, clothing, drums, painting, jewelry, and more.
Retiring of the Flags
To close out the pow wow, there is the final ceremony called the Retiring of the Flags. This is when each of the flags flying during the entire event are taken down by their respective flag carriers one at a time.
As part of this closing, there’s normally a give-away song where gifts are given to the community and everyone has a chance to take something home. At this point, participants will have the opportunity to shake hands with the pow wow committee, dignitaries, and other members to say chi-miigwech.
At the very end, there’s a travelling song to wish everyone a safe journey home.
Best Tips to Pow Wow in Canada Like a Pro
With these tips, you’ll be able to go to your first pow wow and have an amazing experience.
1. Don’t miss Grand Entry – This is an important ceremony that showcases all of the important people behind the pow wow and the vibrant colours of all the regalia.
2. Ask for permission – When in doubt, ask permission to take a photo or video of awe-inspiring regalia. If you’re lucky enough to attend a pow wow with a guide, don’t be afraid to ask them what you’re allowed to do.
3. Bring cash – Chances are, most of the food stalls and vendors won’t take credit card so make sure you bring enough cash. Buying a meal, unique crafts, or raffle tickets is also a great way to support the Indigenous community. Also, check to see if there’s an attendance fee.
4. It gets hot – Pow wows are usually in the summer and outdoors. Unless you’re lucky enough to sit under a canopy tent, you’ll be baking under the sun so make sure you apply and re-apply sunscreen, wear a wide-brimmed hat like a Tilley Airflo LTM6, and wear an Arc’teryx sun hoody. Stay hydrated with plenty of water in your Hydroflask bottle.
5. Bring your own chairs – If you want to make sure you guarantee your own seat, bring a super portable camping chair.
6. You can come and go – Whether your pow wow is multiple days or you’re just there for one, don’t feel the need to stay the entire time. It’s a long day and the summer heat will make things challenging so whenever you feel like you’re ready, you can head out. You can also leave and come back later in the day or weekend.
7. Go with a guide – You won’t be able to do this at every pow wow but if you end up going to one in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, look up Thrive Tours and do their “Learn How To Pow Wow” experience. It’ll make your first pow wow experience so easy.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN SAULT STE. MARIE
If you’re planning a road trip to the Soo and you’re doing one of the pow wows there, make sure to catch up on the other Indigenous and outdoor attractions that you can include in your itinerary.
Where Can You Go To Pow Wows in Canada?
There are pow wows in Canada every year and the First Nations that have them and their dates change so it’s best to consult a few calendars to see where you can go to experience your first pow wow.
- Canadian pow wows by Destination Indigenous
- Pow wow calendar by Powwows.com which breaks things down by province
- Pow wow listings Canada Facebook group (public)
- Pow wow and round dance listings Facebook group (private)
Pow wows by Province and Territory in Canada
- Alberta – Travel Alberta Indigenous event calendar
- British Columbia – Indigenous Tourism BC event calendar
- Manitoba – There’s a Manitoba Pow Wows Facebook group and Powwows.com
- Newfoundland – Powwows.com Newfoundland calendar and look up the Miawpukek and Bay St. George pow wows.
- Northwest Territories – Spectacular Northwest Territories event calendar
- Nova Scotia – Powwows.com, Nova Scotia calendar, Tourism Nova Scotia’s event calendar, and the Atlantic Pow Wow Listings Facebook group.
- Nunavut – Destination Nunavut events & festivals
- Ontario – Pow wow calendar by Northern Ontario, Pow Wow Calendar for Northern Ontario on Facebook, and Powwows.com Ontario calendar.
- Prince Edward Island – Powwows.com PEI calendar, Tourism PEI’s event calendar, and Mi’kmaq Confederacy of PEI calendar.
- Quebec – Indigenous Quebec event calendar, joint Pow wow Ontario/Quebec Facebook group, and Powwows Quebec calendar.
- Saskatchewan – Powwows.com Saskatchewan calendar
- Yukon – Travel Yukon event calendar
The above is by no means a thorough list, but is a great place to start your search.
TIP: We’ve found that most lists of pow wow events aren’t complete and so we recommend that you check multiple resources listed below and also Google because many First Nations don’t promote outside of their own websites and Facebook groups.
Frequently Asked Questions
You are not allowed to take pictures/videos of the sacred fire at anytime and also during Grand Entry or any other part of the pow wow that the Master of Ceremonies specifically says not to.
Both are used and you can refer to it in either way.
The majority of pow wows are free however there are some that do charge an admission fee for the day.
Pow wows can range from 1 day to a full weekend (Friday to Sunday).
If you’d like to fly a drone, you will require special permissions from the pow wow committee and the Chief. Thrive Tours can help with this if this is something you’d like to do.
Sault Ste. Marie is a great place to see a pow wow because you can join an education experience with Thrive Tours which will make your visit comfortable, you’ll learn about what you’re seeing, and you’ll be able to connect with the locals in the community.
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