Smoke Signals

September 24, 2017

This week’s blog post is a little different from others that I’ve written; normally, the photographer in me likes to try and create a “Kodak moment,” so to speak, from the dish I’ve put together, while the home cook (and the Italian) in me likes to walk others through a recipe and give my reactions to the completed product, in lieu of being able to share the actual dish. Because Pow Wow culture and the traditions that surround it are such a vibrant, beautiful, and, frankly, little-known aspect of life in North America, I thought I’d direct some of the focus for this week to that history, rather than just writing about the food served at one of these unique and diverse events.

If you haven’t heard of a pow wow before or don’t live somewhere where they take place, a pow wow is a gathering of the various Native peoples of Canada, the United States, and Latin America, to recognize and honour Native culture, and typically includes traditional songs and music, celebratory and competitive dancing, and, of course, food. The word “pow wow” originally comes from the Algonquin term pauwau, referring to a gathering of medicine men and other spiritual leaders, for the purpose of healing, and was later changed to the English word “pow wow” by European explorers in the 1800s who mispronounced the word in its original form. Today, pow wows represent an effort by these indigenous populations to come together with friends and family, celebrate and preserve their heritage, and share their respective cultures with members of the public.

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Pow Wow “season” where I live is typically the last full weekend in September, rain or shine, and has taken place for the last thirty-nine years (this year was the 39th year for the Pow Wow), under the direction of the members of the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Council (COTRAIC). In years past, when I’ve gone to the Pow Wow, there’s been a brilliant array of individuals representing an equally wide array of nations and dancing styles; it’s truly an amazing sight, especially if you have the opportunity to see the grand entry of the dancers in their regalia at the opening of the pow wow. This year, I wasn’t able to stay as long as I had originally planned; however, I did have the opportunity to witness a truly moving dance that was performed in honour of the grandmother of the family responsible for organizing the pow wow each year. If you haven’t had the chance to watch the dancers perform in their regalia with the sound of the drum circle in the background, I highly recommend checking it out the next time there’s a pow wow scheduled to take place near you.

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Not the sharpest photo I’ve ever taken (yay, sun in eyes), but the colours on the regalia were gorgeous, so I couldn’t pass up adding it in!

In addition to the dancing and singing, the Pow Wow also features a wide variety of vendors with goods that have ranged over the years from handmade goods, artwork, and Native musical artists, to t-shirts, toys for children, and, more recently, information about HeadStart, support programs, and the events at Standing Rock, as well as food that seems to straddle a line between cultural and contemporary. To the surprise of no one who knows me, one of the biggest draws for me in attending the Pow Wow each year, aside from watching the dancers perform, is the food.

As with other cultures, the food served at pow wows is influenced in large part by the traditions and regional customs of those participating in the pow wow, and often includes traditional game, such as elk, bison, and venison, bannock (a versatile, oven-baked or fried bread made throughout Canada and topped with a wide variety of ingredients), grilled corn, fruity desserts such as wojape (a berry pudding popular in the Plains region), and, of course, fry bread. A staple at pow wows across Canada and the United States, fry bread serves as both a symbol of unity among the diverse nations participating in the pow wow and their guests and a reflection of the efforts Native peoples have made to preserve their identities in the face of incredible adversity throughout their history.

The Pow Wow near where I live features a wide selection of foods which are more reminiscent of picnic-style fare, including hot dogs, hamburgers, and lemonade, but the real focus is the fry bread and chili.

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Like the hamburgers, the chili contains bison meat, which, along with the corn, gives the chili a slightly sweeter taste than is typically found in chili containing ground beef. The doughy goodness of fry bread (think tasty, unsweetened funnel cake, stretched out into a pancake-like shape) pairs great with the chili, the perfect combination of fried and flavourful. Best of all, the entire dish is served in the most no-frills fashion imaginable – chili ladled into a paper or styrofoam bowl, with pieces of fry bread served alongside it, on a paper dish (or in an empty hot dog bun package, depending on how many pieces of fry bread you buy); it feels a lot like eating a meal at a family member’s house, complete with a hunt for the seat with the best view of the festivities.

Have you been to a pow wow? What was your favourite part? Comment below and share your experiences!

Fun fact: There are 562 federally-recognized Indian Nations in the United States and 93 First Nations throughout Canada. Famous Native Americans in Canada and the United States include indie artist Iskwé (Cree/Dene), actress Irene Bedard (Inupiat, Yupik, Inuit, Cree, and Métis), musician Jimi Hendrix (Cherokee/Aztec), and actress Angelina Jolie (Haudenosaunee/Iroquois).

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