The cultural makeup of Indigenous peoples in Canada is incredibly rich and diverse. As the original caretakers of the land we now live on, we thought it necessary to explore some Indigenous culture and help educate others on the peoples who inhabited this continent for thousands of years before the arrival of European colonizers. Since there are more than 600 separate bands of Indigenous people (each with their own distinct cultures) living in the area we call Canada, it would take a very long blog post to detail each style of dance that has been practiced across these varied cultures. In this post, we’ll be touching upon one of the most popular styles - the Northern Traditional Powwow Dance.
Powwow dances are believed to have originated from the Plains Indigenous peoples of the North-central part of the continent. Each region has its own variation of this style, but there are some common threads. Powwows can be spiritual or competitive, and are typically performed inside of an area known as the Circle, blessed by a spiritual leader. Dancers walk with the sun, and as such must only enter the Circle from the East. In a competition, dancers compete to win cash prizes.
Men’s Northern Traditional
Again, this style varies depending on nation, region, and band, but most can trace their origin to that of the early traditions of the Indigenous peoples of the Northern Plains. They closely resemble the dances of the 19th century warrior and hunter societies, which descended from earlier forms of dance that were performed prior to the creation of reserves. After a battle or a hunt, warriors and hunters would return home and sometimes use dance as a way to tell the women, children, and elderly about the events that took place. The powwow dances have become more or less standardized in terms of steps and music.
The regalia worn by dancers performing Men’s Northern Traditional is personal to each individual as the colours and design of the outfit can be used to represent family, clan, or tribal name. The overall style of clothing is also believed to have been derived from the 19th century warrior and hunter societies which are believed to have represented different animals of the hunt. To depict the cycles of Mother Nature and the unity of everything, all dancers wear a circular bustle of eagle feathers. Eagle feathers are sacred because the eagle flies the highest and carries the prayers of the people toward the heavens. These feathers are typically given for acts of bravery and other achievements. If a feather falls to ground during the dance, all dancing will cease until the feather is properly retrieved. Some dancers carry traditional objects that originally represented their hunter or warrior status, but nowadays are usually carried by veterans who have served in international wars.
The steps involved in Men’s Northern Traditional are more discreet and closer to the ground than any other style of competitive powwow dance. The original style that this type of dance was derived from was meant to mimic either the steps of a hunter moving silently through the forest or the animals that were being hunted. Dancers will move forward slowly, tapping their feet to the ground and swaying their bodies to imitate these animals. A more modern version of the dance includes moves that mimic the evasion of bullets from the warrior’s retelling of events. According to certain traditions, the ability to dance is a gift from the Creator that gets taught to Indigenous peoples by the creatures of the world, usually those with four legs.
Women’s Northern Traditional Dance
Women’s Northern Traditional is much newer than its’ male counterpart. Before WWI, women were rarely permitted to dance inside the circle with the men, so they danced along the periphery. This style is based off of the dance moves that the women would do along the outside of the circle. Women were awarded the right to dance competitively inside the circle after WWII, when more women were called upon to serve in the military. Their newfound warrior status, the movement for Indigenous rights, and the push for more inclusive powwows are what eventually led to this change.
This dance style has more variation in its regalia than any other powwow dance style. Dancers often wear a full-length dress or a skirt and shirt combination that hits just below the knee. Typically made from buckskin or trade cloth, these outfits feature large fringe and are sometimes worn with matching leggings. Decorative pieces of shells, ribbons, and elks’ teeth are often added to the dress, with jewellery made from bone or shells as well. Some dancers wear shawls overtop or carry fans made from eagle feathers that they raise throughout the dance if they resonate particularly with any words in the song.
The steps of Women’s Northern Traditional are modest and elegant. Derived from the tradition of dancing outside of the circle, these subtle steps are only performed a few feet into the dance circle. In this style, the feet must never completely leave the ground to symbolize the connection of women to Mother Earth. The fringe on the sleeves must be kept in constant motion, sweeping in large arcs. Some traditions say that this slow style of dancing represents the long times that the women, children, and elders would have to spend waiting when the men went away to hunt or battle.
We hope you learned something new from our blog post, please let us know if you have any comments or questions by contacting us via phone, email, or in-store.