When visiting Canada, it can be easy to forget that this land had a vibrant history long before the colonial Europeans got here and trampled all over it. Thankfully, there are still many ways to see evidence of this history as well as to experience historic traditions still alive and well today. There are a number of places within Canada where one can experience the country’s indigenous history and traditions. If you’re going to be in Ottawa, however, one of the best events to attend is the Summer Solstice Arts Festival, held in late June.

The purpose of this festival is to showcase the cultural diversity of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples which are broadly divided into three communities – First Nations (Aboriginal peoples of Canada who live south of the Arctic), Métis (peoples in Canada descended from First Nations peoples and European settlers), and Inuit (indigenous people from northern Canada). About 45,000 people attend this festival every year to admire the art, taste the food, and learn the history. But the most highly anticipated event of this festival is the annual powwow.

What is a Powwow?

A powwow is essentially a particular social event held by Aboriginal peoples. Generally speaking, it is an opportunity for communities to come together to socialize, sing and dance, and otherwise celebrate their cultures. Powwows can be a one day event or as long as a week for special occasions.

What Kind of Music is at a Powwow?

I love drumming styles from all different cultures, so of course, I love powwow drumming. The drums used at this event are so large that usually it takes at least four people, called a drum group, to play it. Traditionally, the drums are a solid wood frame with an animal hide stretched over top; the better quality the drum is, the deeper and richer the sound it produces. And the bigger the drum, the more likely the sound will reverberate right through you. Once the men start singing and chanting, it is quite the feeling! I have no idea what the words are but sitting there, listening with my eyes closed, the whole experience is always extremely evocative.

What Kind of Dancing Is Performed at a Powwow?

With music, there is dancing, of course. The styles of dance at a powwow depend on location and on the culture(s) represented. At many powwows, however, there are a few particular styles normally showcased. For example men perform the Fancy Dance while dressed in brightly coloured clothes and they dance with dramatic movements including leaps and spins. It can be quite thrilling! Men also perform the Grass Dance, but here the clothes are flowy and fringed to evoke grass blowing in the wind. An example of a dance performed by women is the Fancy Shawl Dance; the women wear bright clothes along with a finely decorated shawl and their dance movements can be dizzying to watch with their swift spins. Another dance done by women is the Jingle Dress Dance. This one includes dresses decorated with tons of tin cones that jingle as the dancer moves around.

What Should I Keep in Mind at a Powwow?

When attending a Powwow, it is important to keep in mind that you’re not attending something like a theatre show. You’re attending a traditional event to which non-Aboriginal people have been invited. Treat it with respect and learn from it. If you attend one that does not allow photography, don’t take photos. The powwow at the Ottawa Summer Solstice Festival does allow photography. Another piece of etiquette to remember is that the traditional clothing is not a costume. The proper term is “regalia”. And don’t touch unless you’ve been given permission. Same goes for the drums. At the end of the day, however, remember to have fun! Partake in traditional foods, admire/buy art or jewelry, and enjoy the cultural celebrations!