Celebration, resilience and food: What to eat at a powwow
These summertime gatherings celebrate artistry, community, resilience – and Indigenous cuisine
The sun is shining, birds are chirping and people are outside as much as possible. If you're Indigenous, that means one thing: Break out your best beaded earrings and regalia, because powwow season has officially started.
Powwows are, broadly, a celebration of Indigenous artistry, creativity and culture. They're a chance for people to show off what they're best at, whether that's dancing, beading, drumming or cooking, and a chance for the rest of us to enjoy it.
There's no one type of powwow. They can be huge, such as the Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque, N.M., or small and intimate, such as the Three Fires Gathering Powwow in Southwestern Ontario, hosted by the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. They're mostly held outdoors. Perhaps the most important difference for dancers is between competitive and traditional powwows: In competitive powwows, there are cash prizes to be won, while traditional powwows are just that – a celebration of tradition.
There are conflicting histories of the origin of the word "powwow" – some say it's from the Algonquian term pau-wau, some say it's from the Narragansett pau wau, both of which refer to a gathering of spiritual leaders – but perhaps the most relevant interpretation to any food lover is the Pawnee word pa-wa, meaning "to eat." And if you like to eat, visiting a powwow this summer is a must.
Some believe the first powwows had their origins in religious ceremonies held by the Pawnee, who are traditionally from what's now known as Nebraska. Others say Northern Plains First Nations (such as the Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwa, Assiniboine, Nakota and Dakota) created the first powwow dances some time in the 19th century. Wherever they started, and whoever started them, powwows spread quickly and many Indigenous nations were holding them by the 20th century.
Powwows are also about resilience. Starting in the 1830s, various pieces of U.S. and Canadian legislation first forced Indigenous nations onto reserves and then attempted to ban, and thus eliminate, Indigenous culture.
In Canada, the 1876 Indian Act effectively outlawed all traditional ceremonies, including powwows, going so far as to restrict the wearing of traditional clothing. Meanwhile, the U.S. government banned dancing on reservations in 1921, labelling dancing and ceremonies "Indian Offenses." Powwows didn't end, but for most of the 20th century they were held in secret.
In their attempts to fight assimilation, tribes started sharing songs, dances, food and clothing styles between nations. Songs from the Lakota blended with dances and dresses from the Anishinaabe. Intertribal sharing helped keep traditions alive. The Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation and the Thunderchild First Nation, both in Saskatchewan, were the only two nations that managed to hold powwows regularly during this dangerous time, a bit of bravery that is often acknowledged at powwows today.
In Canada, the Indian Act was amended in 1951 to allow First Nations to hold traditional ceremonies and powwows in the open once again, thanks largely to considerable pressure from Indigenous Second World War veterans. Today, these joyous, moving gatherings are a testament to Indigenous survival.
If you're new to powwows, don't worry: They aren't just for Indigenous people. Everyone is welcome. You can enjoy traditional, jingle, fancy and grass dancing for Indigenous people of all ages, which are especially exciting during competitions, some of which offer substantial prizes. There are also booths where traditional artists sell their authentic jewellery, art, clothing, moccasins, music and books.
And then there's the food: The dishes served at powwows are arguably the best part. Since June is National Aboriginal History Month, there's no better time to brush up on Indigenous history while celebrating our cultures and enjoying our cuisine with us. Here are some favourites you need to try.
The three crops that form the basis of Indigenous companion planting are corn, beans and squash, collectively known as the Three Sisters. In other words, corn is essential to both Indigenous identity and Indigenous diets. Corn soup is a Haudenosaunee dish created by combining lyed white corn, salted pork and beans. It's a taste that surprises you – salty and slightly earthy – but it can quickly become addictive. Best eaten with a buttered scone on the side.
Strawberries are an important food and medicine for many Indigenous cultures. They're also the first berries to ripen every summer, so when they do, you know the rest of the berries will soon follow. Strawberry juice is made by mashing strawberries, then adding water and sweetener (sugar, honey, maple sap or another sweetener). There will be chunks of strawberry floating in it, so don't expect pure juice. Embrace it.
This isn't exactly a traditional food in the strictest sense, since most of the ingredients weren't available to Indigenous people before colonization. The Navajo origins of frybread are based in the painful history of the 480-kilometre journey known as the Long Walk, when the Navajo nation was forced to relocate to New Mexico from Arizona. They couldn't eat their usual beans and vegetables, so they combined white flour, processed sugar and lard and fried it to create a bread with a biscuit-like consistency about the size of a funnel cake.
Similarly, Indigenous nations in Canada whose traditional food supplies were disrupted by displacement and government interference have cleverly created their own versions of frybread from what were originally meagre Indian Affairs rations. Some refer to frybread as "bannock," and it can come in all shapes and sizes. I'm from Six Nations, in Southern Ontario, where we have smaller versions of frybread called scones – which is pronounced "skawns" and refers to something very different from what you'd order with your coffee or tea.
Whatever you call it, frybread is delicious and versatile. You can have it topped with strawberries, drizzled with chocolate, sprinkled with powdered sugar – or make it into a more hearty mealby going with one of the options below.
Ham and scone
This is exactly what it sounds like: a thick, fluffy frybread scone cut in half and stuffed with slices of tender ham. Pro tip: Be sure to butter the insides of the scone. You won't regret it.
If you've ever wondered how to make tacos even more delicious, here's your answer. This powwow favourite is created by taking a massive piece of frybread and loading it with chili or ground beef, tomatoes, lettuce, shredded cheese and sour cream. Do not leave a powwow without trying one of these!
Beef burgers just won't taste the same after you've tried burgers made from wild game. Not only are they tenderer than their more conventional counterparts – they're also less fatty, with fewer calories. In addition, many Indigenous cooks use game that's been sustainably and ethically hunted, so you can rest easy while you chow down.
Powwow etiquette for newbies
Do dance. You'll hear the MC announce intertribal dances between bouts of competitive dancing. This is your chance to come into the arena and celebrate with us. Don't be nervous! Have fun.
Do buy authentic Indigenous arts and crafts. The amount of work the artists put in is incredible and will be well worth the money. The handcrafted leather moccasins you buy there are guaranteed to be better than anything you can pick up at a store like Urban Outfitters.
Do take pictures while dancers are in the arena dancing.
Don't take random pictures of dancers while they're walking around the powwow. This isn't LAX and you're not the paparazzi. If you'd like a photo, ask. If they say no, respect that.
Do come back. Powwows are for Indigenous people to share and celebrate our culture on our terms. Celebrate with us!
– Alicia Elliot