The song must go on: Powwow teachers bring tradition to youth

By Nigel Maxwell
January 29, 2019 - 12:04pm Updated: January 29, 2019 - 1:34pm

Powwow is as much tradition as it is art, and for Mike Daniels from the Sturgeon Lake First Nation, it's cemented in his childhood memories.

The 80-year-old has been active member of Canada's Pow Wow circuit for over 50 years.

"I went to powwows and I listened and I watched the dancers perform," he said.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made 94 recommendations to ensure Indigenous culture is not lost and continues to be shared for generations. Daniels said he can remember a time during the residential school era when powwow singing was frowned upon.

"There were people who were punished and put in jail," he said. "People had to hide their drums and their pipes."

Howard Walker from James Smith Cree Nation, also recalled the difficulties.

"We were more or less forced to forget what we learned, but enough of us were stubborn enough to hang on to the songs," he said.

Walker said he was 10 years old when he learned the craft from his father, and from relatives on his mother's side. After leaving school Walker said he travelled with a group of singers from Sudbury, Ontario.

"When I got back to Saskatchewan I started singing with the drum groups that would invite me to sit with them," he said.

Walker said the secret to the special style of singing is learning that all the songs have a special meaning, and represent stories about life and the world around us.

"People who are not accustomed to the powwow think we sing the same old songs and we do the same old dances around in circles all day long. No, there's different dance styles, different drum beats, and different meanings to the songs," he said.

For example Walker said some of the songs are dedicated to the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Much like Daniels, Walker said he takes great pride in passing the lessons he learned from his elders onto his grandchildren, adding the best way he knows to teach them, is to sing to them.

"When I sing my grandson to sleep, I sing a song about a boy growing up to be a man, while when I sing to my granddaughter, I sing something soft and something that’s tangible to them and real," he said.

Jordan Twist, at James Smith Cree Nation, is among the next generation who are helping keep the sacred art alive. Once a week he offers a singing class for youth in the community. He said he started the class last November as a means to give youth something positive to do.

"To get the youth away from drugs and alcohol. If they are feeling low, they can just come out and sing," he said.

On Twitter: @nigelmaxwell

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