[This is an excerpt from the Ontario chapter of my book, Dancing Through History: In Search of the Stories that Define Canada.]
On the Sunday that weekend in Wiky [Wikwemikong, Manitoulin Island, Ontario], just before 1:45 in the afternoon, the little girl I had met earlier comes to find me. She takes my hand and brings me to an older friend of hers, or maybe it is her aunt, who tells me it’s time for the spectators dance competition. She gives me a feathered and beaded hairpiece and a blue satin cape with long fringes dangling down; in my hands she places a fan made of more feathers, components of the women’s traditional regalia.
The little girl smiles up at me approvingly as I make my way to the dance circle. The drum beats start as they always do and my new friend starts bouncing to the rhythm. I must admit, wearing a bit of regalia somehow helps me to understand the movements better. We make our way around the circular space with smiles on our faces as others are doing the same thing. Swirling around me are brightly coloured fringes, long shimmering capes and feather bustles weaving in and out of jeans, running shoes and summer tank tops. I start sweating as the afternoon sun seeps into my skin and my cheeks turn that rosy shade of happiness.
The drums keep pounding and they energize me to make bolder moves, to turn, to become completely intoxicated with the beat and the wailing voices of the men singing. I have no idea what I look like (I’m sure the judges remember the wild-eyed dancer spinning around to her own beat), but I feel good. The grass tickles the underside of my feet with each step and being outside on this glorious summer day brings freedom into each movement. It feels like my body is beating the drum.
And with the final whack, the song is over. I bow to no one in particular and reluctantly give back the regalia. Others are doing the same and we look around at each other, breathless and smiling, privileged to be allowed into the circle. The dancer who lent me her regalia prepares herself for the next competition and my little friend runs off to join her pals.
I decide to stroll around the grounds for awhile and over to the crafts being sold on the adjacent grass field, bringing my heartbeat to a rest, and then venture over to where the circles of drummers are set up. I stand among a small crowd surrounding the circle, peering over shoulders as eight men sit on chairs around a large drum beating it with drumsticks.
A group of singers, called Host Drums, is the main group invited to drum for the pow wow, along with other Drums (groups of singers). They are a crucial part of the weekend, as they are relied upon in case others don’t show up and hold a highly respectable place in the event.
I’m told the drum is not just a beat for the dancers to follow, but the reverberation of the earth’s heartbeat. It is the heartbeat that governs the movements of the dancers, the voices of the singers and the rhythm of the whole pow wow itself. The circle of the drum, and the singers and the dance circle, represent unity.
Numerous groups of drummers are set up along one side of the perimeter of the dance area, called upon one at a time to drum for the dancers. It’s easy to tell whose turn it is because there is always a crowd huddled around them watching, sometimes a few people thick.
The voices of the singers are high-pitched cries that blend together in songs from generations past and other tribes who have shared their own songs. Some are ancient, while others have been recently composed; they span themes of war, society and spirituality. The songs I heard were sung in “vocables,” sounds that replace the actual words of a song. When tribes shared their songs with each other, often they spoke different languages and couldn’t communicate by words. This was a way of conveying the songs so that they could be passed along to others in their tribe.
This is an excerpt from the book,Dancing Through History: In Search of the Stories that Define Canada by Lori Henry.