Gift of Song & Dance
Since the beginning of time, song has been a primary medium for facilitating prayer, thanks, giving, socializing and the confirmation of honour within First Nations cultures. Each culture has oral traditions embedded within them a rich repertoire of First Nations songs, many thousands of years old. The drum has been the fundamental instrument of accompaniment to songs. The dance further accentuated the message and response. The origin of many songs and dances are attributed to visions.
Each culture had individuals gifted in song composition. In some cultures, the traditions of song composition have carried on to present day, continually adding to their repertoires. Songs and dances were considered personal property or collective property of a specific group that could be given as gifts or bartered. The exchange of songs and dances within a culture was common. On occasion, there was an exchange between First Nations when gathered together. Each culture had unique traditions which centered on songs and dances. But in all cultures, song and dance played an integral role in demonstrating hospitality to visitors and celebrating events of significance.
Though songs and dances were integral to First Nations cultures, they were viewed as archaic and central to war rituals. As a result, all forms of First Nations song and dance were banned in Canada in the late 1800's and those involved in song or dance could be charged with an indictable offence. Thus, several songs and dances are lost because of colonial efforts to force Indian assimilation.The pre-reserve song and dance traditions of First Nations are the roots of the contemporary pan Indian Pow Wows of today.
Evolution began during the ban time when promoters arranged with Indian agents, to have Indian encampments at their annual fairs and sports days, as a side show. Families were encouraged to dress in traditional regalia and perform traditional songs and dances at various times of the day. The wild west show also contributed to evolution of the contemporary pan Indian Pow Wows. A feature attraction of travelling shows was mock battles between Indians and non-Indians and Indian dance demonstrations.
Promoters wanted a lively show to attract an audience and encouraged Indian performers to modify their dances and regalia accordingly. Grand entry, men’s’ fancy dance, competition dancing, and many specialty dances originated in the Wild West shows. Annual fairs and wild west shows brought together dancers from various First Nations cultures worked together to make an appealing public show which led to tradition sharing and blending which promoted pan-indianism.
The name “Pow Wow” originated in this time period and is an example of a First Nations word incorporated into English. The word originates from the Narangset First Nation of the United States east coast and refers to a shaman. Non-Indians misconstrued the meaning and referenced it to a group of Indian people who gather to perform rituals. Fair and wild west show promoters used Pow Wow to refer to dance demonstrations being performed.
In contemporary times and over the past decade, the annual Pow Wow of the Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) and numerous community partners exists to protect, preserve and revitalize our cultural singing, dancing, ceremonies, story-telling, practices and rituals of the First Nations of what is now called Saskatchewan which encompasses the Treaty territories of 4, 5, 6, 8 & 10 of the Plains Cree, Woodland Cree, Swampy Cree, Dene, Nahkawē (Saulteaux), Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Nations.
The Pow Wow provides a forum for song and dance and above all gives thanks to the Creator for the gift of life. The traditions of various cultures come together to share in heritage amongst themselves and the general public. It has a festival-type feel while celebrating the connections to tradition and spirituality, Mother Earth, and to one another in a social, personal and spiritual way.