By Stan Louttit and Elaine Keillor
Our Elders of the 20th and 21st centuries have not forgotten their ancient customs, especially traditional dancing, singing and drumming. Elders, adults and youth have continued to practice the Fancy Dance, Grass Dance, Shawl Dance, Jingle Dress Dance, fasting ritual, smudging ritual, offering of tobacco, and Moon Time Ceremony as well as other traditional teachings (MacGregor 2006; Recollet 2006).
The Anishinaabe say that traditional teachings related to prayer rituals involved “bundles” (medicine bags). These were at one time strictly for hunters to acquire power for successful hunting or warriors who prepared to engage other aboriginal groups.
"The medicine bag was for the men. We weren’t allowed to touch it and grandma was never allowed to touch it. It was a bundle of tobacco, sage, cedar, sweet grass that men used for offerings at that time. Now, we see that women carry a bundle, everything is changed. . . We can carry a bundle but we have to earn it" (Recollet 2006: personal communication).
Another Anishinaabe traditional ceremony and ritual that has continued today takes place when people burn tobacco, sage, cedar or sweet grass in the “smudging” ceremony. Even our relatives in the cities have kept these traditions alive. “Smudging” has always meant to fan the smoke over an individual’s head and likewise over the rest of the body from a shell or bowl in which the person has lit sage or tobacco. We have used this sacred ceremony to cleanse the mind, body and spirit and in this way to offer a prayer to the Great Spirit. The people, whenever they have smudged, have acknowledged the Great Spirit who has always returned a blessing for the individual events. These have included conferences, marriages, birthdays, funerals, feasts, celebrations, powwows or other significant occasions.
In Anishinaabe history, we also have practiced the “smudging” ceremony in daily activities such as harvesting fish or animals that have given their lives for the people’s survival. In their youth, some Anishinaabe people accompanied Elders who “always put tobacco down every time we fished or when animals gave their lives” (ibid). Today’s Anishinaabe individuals have continued to participate in these ancient customs: “We still go to naming ceremonies or to the sweat,” said Recollet.
Anishinaabe now, more than ever before, have modelled the ancient ways and danced with their children. They have said they will continue to share and promote Anishinaabe traditional teachings, culture, language, song and dance.
The traditional and contemporary powwows are some of the important ceremonies where children have performed their first dances. We have always called this celebration the “Coming Out Ceremony” in which boys and girls dance in colourful regalia to a drum song around the arbour, the dance area’s centre. This “Coming Out Ceremony” has been where parents have proudly presented their children to the world. Elders, grandparents and parents have continued to speak of the way the event has always supported and encouraged the children’s first dance:
"When a child wants to be out there, and wants to dance, you help that child and you introduce them to that way of dancing through the right way of doing it, you know, which is more meaningful than just getting them ready to dance and sending them out. Do it right, do it the proper way, the traditional way where they are introduced to the people.
"The people offer their support behind that child and the family of that child that is wanting to be one of them, to be in that group of dancers, to be part of those dancers. You do it at the powwows and they also know that there are other children there. They are not out there alone. By seeing other children getting involved I think it helps a lot for the young person to be strong in their belief that this is a good thing. This is what is there for our people. Dancing has always been a part of our people. It is the proper way to do it, to get the support of all of those people that are there, the dancers" (McGregor 2006: interview).
Today we have continued to attend other culture-specific powwows. This has included communities in the Canadian Provinces and American States. Also, the dancers still travel the summer “powwow trails” on long journeys across borders to meet other Nations and to dance the Grass Dance, Fancy Dance and inter-tribal dances.
Aaron Benson has danced among many peoples:
"I am also a singer so you also need to know what the purpose of a song is; whether it is a Crow Hop, or Men’s Traditional. Whatever it may be, you must know the purpose of that song. Then you can dance accordingly. Each and every one of us has a different style. We learn from each other, but we also have our own approach" (Benson 2006).
Traditionally, often only men sat at a large powwow drum, but Benson has invited women to sit at his drum. He has seen this practice elsewhere, but only occasionally in western Canada. He said this has been the reason why so many women only play the hand-held drum. In his culture, several types of hand-held drums, either a single membrane open at the back, or on both sides, can be found. Benson said that farther north, people have used the double-headed more often, sometimes with a snare or bones attached to enhance the sound. Some drummers choose to have more than one snare if the maker has had a dream of a drum with a certain number of snares attached. Beaters vary as well. As a beater Benson occasionally uses a buffalo-hide shaker that he has covered with cloth.
In a social sense, the traditional and competitive powwows have evolved and merged into a “modern” gathering of many dancers, singers, drummers, Elders, First Nation Veterans, crafts people and other participants from various North American First Nations. The “modern” powwow or “gathering of peoples” has grown over the years to provide a contemporary social space in which people share stories, dances, songs, honours and feasts to celebrate old and new friendships:
"I think that the Powwow today is more like a social; socializing, you know, getting together; meeting people you haven’t seen or meeting new people. They exchange stories and ideas. They learn from those and they meet people, their Elders, and they talk about different stories and try to pass those on to the children. You dance, to show that you are a Native person, to be proud of who you are, to show you that there are a lot of celebrations, that you are proud of you, so you dance" (McGregor 2006: interview).
Anishinaabe Elders have said that much has changed over the course of centuries and decades. The traditional dances that people once practiced were a simple, “down to earth” style with little physical movement. Now, this has become something of the past (Recollet 2006: personal communication).
Today’s Anishinaabe generations have grown up in a very different world than the Elders of the early 1900s. In fact, some Elders have said that new, fancy, colourful outfits, fancy footwork and competitive dancing styles of “modern” powwows were still new to the Anishinaabe and have occurred only in the last four decades (McGregor 2006; Recollet 2006).
"The fancy shawl is popular today. The fancy footwork is a change of style. Back then, the Chicken Dance was the only fast dancing I saw that was done only by the men. [Today] they will dance the Crow where women are dancing real fast. I had never seen that. In this age, it’s all changed but some girls dance in the old style. Today, we dance in both the traditional and competition, and we go to both" (Recollet 2006: personal communication).
McGregor agrees, saying that "The styles have changed. There is a fancy dance for women and girls and also the men and boys. You know that there is more; the regalia part of it is more contemporary. I guess more bright material they use today rather than way back when all they had was their buckskin outfits, whether you were a fancy dancer or not. But where that came from I don’t know. It has changed from way back when they just had the two dances, the men traditional dancers and the women. Down through the ages, you know how things are added to everything that we do" (McGregor 2006: interview).
Like many North American aboriginal cultures, Anishinaabe culture has incorporated various powwow practices, plus song, dance and drum traditions from other cultures such as the Plains Lakota communities and European cultures. Also, some Anishinaabe peoples have continued to practice European music, fiddle songs, square and step dances that originated with Scottish and French traditions (McGregor 2006: interview).
However, the dance traditions at contemporary Anishinaabe traditional and competition powwows would likely be the Men’s Traditional, Men’s Straight Dance, Women’s Traditional Buckskin, Women’s Traditional Cloth, Men’s Grass Dance, Women’s Jingle Dance, Men’s Fancy Dance, and Women’s Fancy Shawl Dance. Today’s interconnected world of modern travel and communication systems have greatly increased people’s abilities to create a cultural-sharing network. This has included aboriginal traditions at powwows, community gatherings, traditional teaching workshops and celebrations.
Contemporary First Nation powwows have blended the celebrations of various cultures, such as the Apache, Mohawk, Anishinaabe, Plains Cree, Lakota, Wendat, Eeyou and others. All these peoples have continued to dance, sing and compete in harmony with one another (Nation huronne-wendat 2005).
Whatever instruments and at whatever locations, you will find us, the Anishinaabe peoples, proudly dancing and making music.
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