Seeing Jingle Dress Dancers walk by attending my first Pow Wow in Wendake, Quebec, instantly recalled a summer camp counselor who introduced me to this world. When we had “Tribal” games during our seven and a half weeks at sleepaway camp in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, she fought to change the name and teach the entire camp of hundreds of campers and staff why we had to be more sensitive to the narrative we were attaching to Indigenous people. It stuck with me.
I don’t remember a lot from elementary school’s history lessons but I always remembered the educational units regarding Native Americans. I’m sure it was PG rated for us grade schoolers, and a lot of the history books bent the truth (as our nations continue to do to romanticize the subject). But regardless, I was always drawn to it. As an adult, I carry the culture in my heart with a sensitivity and alertness to the topics surrounding Indigenous cultures and their traditions.
A Pow Wow is a time for people to gather to honor traditions, connect with old friends, Mother Earth and the heartbeat of the drum. Hopefully you’ll be able to attend your first Pow Wow one day, too, if you haven’t already. And what to expect, lessons learned, and a break down of dance and drum competitions will help you.
Maybe even my feelings of “imposter syndrome” will resonate and put you at ease, knowing you’re not alone.
Attending My First Pow Wow with a Bit of Imposter Syndrome
I’ve always felt a pull towards the Native Americans who established communities on this North America continent. A continent that was subsequently divided by Europeans, long before land “ownership” was a thought in their minds.
Maybe it’s the Native Americans’ (or First Nations, as they call them in Canada) living in harmony with the land that speaks to me. Or using all of an animal they may kill, that I respect. Or the vibrancy of their regalia or connection I feel with gems and crystals from the earth that draws me to a culture that values similar beauty.
Whatever it is, I can’t remember a time my passion for the culture wasn’t there or I wasn’t fascinated with Indigenous Americans.
The opportunity arose to work with Indigenous Canada and I jumped at the chance. I genuinely wanted to help promote the First Nations in Quebec and support keeping the culture alive.
I feel like a bit of a fraud on this topic sometimes. I’m not a Native American of the United States and I’m not a member of any First Nation of an Indigenous community in Canada. I struggle with this: can I be an outsider and still love, adore and value a culture of which I’m not a part?
I absolutely adore Japan and I’m not Japanese. I’m drawn to western Europe yet my roots as a European are far removed by about three generations or so. So I decide yes – it’s my responsibility as a travel writer and advocate of planet Earth and humanity to responsibly write about First Nations as best I can. Because you too, may be an outsider like me.
Hundreds of Pow Wows across the United States and Canada are open to the public. Communities of Indigenous people open their world and cultures up to “outsiders” so they can be a part of these magnificent events. I’m grateful for that.
I’m also grateful for experiencing my first Pow Wow with the Wagar family. They’re awesome Canadians who made me feel less alone in my attendance. (And I love that they were inspired by their own experience to create some Indigenous-Inspired recipes you can make at home.)
Attending a Pow Wow was a dream I had for a long time.
I was proud to be traveling to Quebec, Canada to attend my first Pow Wow.
An International Pow Wow in Wendake
I felt alive with anticipation the day the event arrived. I was giddy, as I had been for weeks leading up to my first Pow Wow.
Wendake is a community just north of Quebec City, easily doable as a two day trip. It’s a short 20 minute drive from the urban Provincial capital. There’s a lot to do and experience in Wendake, Quebec so be sure to stay for a few days, not just one of the three days of the Pow Wow!
The event is very affordable to attend. It’s just $15 for adults, and free for children under 5.
What Happens at a Pow Wow?
So what goes on at a Pow Wow? What can you expect as a first-timer? I can’t speak to all of them – this was my first, of course. But the International Pow Wow in Wendake is a three day event.
Opening ceremony held on Friday, from 1:00pm to 1:30pm. Food trucks and artisan vendors were open for business. Dances and drum shows took place from 1:30 to 7:00pm and Bingo was open for enjoyment at 8:00pm.
This day had the longest programming from 10:00am to 10:45pm. Food trucks and artisan vendors were open. The grand entry of dancers took place at noon for thirty minutes and ended between 6:00pm and 6:30pm. There was then a hand drum competition at 8:00pm followed by an Indigenous DJ they brought into the amphitheater for the evening.
Sunday, the third and final day in terms of food trucks and artisan vendors. Dances and drum competition took place from noon to 5:00pm with a closing ceremony and awards from 5:00pm to 6:00pm.
It’s very casual and you can come and go to the events and vendors as you wish. For instance we started our time at the Pow Wow with lunch on Saturday, then walked to watch the dancing for an hour or two. Then we left that area to walk around and see the artisans and what was going on outside the competition.
Dances and Drums at the Wendake Pow Wow
There are several dance categories you’ll see compete if you stay for a few hours.
Here’s the categories the dancers compete in at the Wendake Pow Wow:
- Traditional Dance
- Fancy Shawl (women only)
- Fancy Dance (men only)
- Grass Dance (men only)
- Jingle Dance (women only)
Below is a photo of the Fancy Dance, one of the most energetic and colorful dances:
Within each category, four competitions take place for several age ranges:
- 6 to 11
- 12 to 17
- 18 to 44
- 45 and up
One category, Traditional Dance, had a fifth age group, making the 45 years of age category to age 59, with a fifth for age 60 and up. All of the groups line up in front of judges after they dance, which I presume is to be judged on their regalia as well as dancing though I’m not 100% certain.
I encourage you to click on the traditional dances option on the Wendake Pow Wow website, for a description of each dance. I especially love the Women’s Jingle Dress description. It made the story of the regalia and its purpose so much more meaningful.
Jingle Dresses even made headlines as a Google Doodle in 2019! Their meaning and history are quite extraordinary.
There were at least two drum circles we were fortunate enough to see that day. We were able to walk up to them and see the circle of ten or so men participating in beating a central drum and singing in unison.
It’s really quite moving and the feeling of syncopation and camaraderie is beautifully overwhelming.
Lessons Learned Attending My First Pow Wow
I felt a bit ignorant regarding terminology and customs that take place at a Pow Wow. Here’s a few things I learned that you can benefit from:
Don’t Miss the Beginning of the Pow Wow
If there’s one thing I regret about the day it’s that we missed the beginning of the Pow Wow in Wendake. Our schedules didn’t allow us to get there sooner. But from what I’ve heard, this is one of the most moving times of the day. A ceremony takes place welcoming everyone, especially the dancers and drum circles, and the Pow Wow is officially opened by the Grand Chief, in this case the Grand Chief of the Huron-Wendat Nation.
It’s Called “Regalia” Not a Costume
This is what they call the elaborate outfits they wear. It’s not a costume.
I called it a costume – not out of disrespect but because that is simply what I would call something like that in any instance -and was quickly corrected. I felt terrible.
I didn’t want anyone to think I was disrespecting the culture! I simply wasn’t accustomed to the terms. It took me a few sentences to get used to saying “regalia.”
Be Nice and Respectful
This should go without saying but I saw one too many people taking photos of Indigenous First Nations members who were a part of the crowd without asking.
They’re not caged animals in a zoo or models walking a catwalk who expect to be photographed without being asked. They’re humans, participating in longstanding traditional ceremonies and, in many cases, waiting for their turn to dance or to formally judge Pow Wow dance competitions.
It’s one thing to photograph the dances while they’re happening but it’s another to walk up to a person sitting on a chair and snap a photo right in front of him or her without permission. I loved the photo I took of an elderly man sitting watching the dances – but I took it after I asked his permission.
I looked at him and pointed to my camera and motioned a thumbs up or down, using body language so he could understand what I was asking amidst the loud drum circle music on the loud speakers. He smiled and nodded yes and I knew it was okay to proceed clicking my camera.
Indigenous to Compete and Participate – But Not to Attend
You have to be partially or fully Indigenous to participate and officially register for the competitions. But you don’t have to be Indigenous to attend.
We learned that while a vast majority of the people visiting the Pow Wow in Wendake aren’t Indigenous at all, you must have Indigneous blood in you to participate as a dancer or in the drum circles. Many Indigenous people of the First Nations actually have a card, much like a driver’s license, that they can use to quickly prove they are Indigenous.
Pow Wows are Competitions
I’m not sure if this is the case at every Pow Wow, everywhere. But I learned a lot of Pow Wows are actually competitions where the dancers and drum circle members are competing.
There are prizes for the top three spots in all categories. (The most appealing being cash!)
Participate in Open Dance and Be a Part of the Community
There are a few times during the afternoon where there was Open Dance.
This is a time all visitors are welcome to participate in dancing on the open grass circle, open to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The first and second times Open Dance were called I just watched. It was great to see the generations gather to bounce or walk along the beat of the drums in a rotating circle.
I was brave enough to participate the third time it was called. It felt great to be in the middle of all that energy and was a “moment” for me attending my first Pow Wow! It felt like some sort of right of passage.
Don’t be shy if you attend your first Pow Wow and the energy moves you – if you want to participate, do so!
As mentioned above, a big lesson for me was learning what the dancers wear is called “Regalia,” not costumes. I feel it’s important to note what it was like to see various parts of animals used in their regalia . I was a bit shocked, to be honest. Not out of disgust, simply out of a lack of knowledge. But I received a welcomed education at the Pow Wow.
A bird’s two feet and talons spiked up from the back of one man’s regalia. A turtle shell was the center of a feather circle on another. Small hoofs encircled a man’s feet like ankle bracelets.
This is proof they use all parts of an animal in respect – and even honor – of its life and beauty. We learned that if an animal like an eagle dies in Canada, their government will call Indigenous people to see if they can use it rather than simply discarding it in the trash.
We also learned EVERYTHING is handmade on the regalia. Everything. It is a true labor of love and community to make these beautiful, traditional pieces.
It was interesting to see some of the dancers very, very carefully put pieces of their regalia away at the end of the day on Saturday. The solutions they have developed to store things like head pieces and elaborate feather creations is fascinating.
Art Vendors and Assorted Crafts at the Wendake, Quebec Pow Wow
I was expecting there would be vendors selling crafts at the Pow Wow. But I never expected to see so many vendors also selling assorted craft supplies, including beads and furs.
It was really cool to see the options and realize the event is also a market of sorts for Indigenous people, where they can enjoy the ease of locating some special materials to purchase in person.
There was a lot of beautiful beaded jewelry, dreamcatchers, bones (yes, bones – they use the whole animal!), fur pelts, leather goods, jackets, hand carved vessels like bowls and urns, and so much more.
Food at the Pow Wow
Just like many other festivals I’ve been to, the main food at the Pow Wow in Wendake was provided by food trucks. Who’d have thought?!
My favorite truck was the Sagamité food truck, called Saga, that comes from a restaurant of the same name. (The restaurant in Wendake is currently being rebuilt after a devastating fire but their food truck is alive and well!)
Their award-winning poutine was out of this world. (For those unaware, poutine is a famous Canadian dish made with French fries, with gravy and cheese curds. Their version was topped with pheasant meat and crunchy onions.)
There were many other food truck options to accommodate any palate.
The Kindness of Strangers
My feelings of being an imposter were eased as I got more used to being there that day. Yet two people I met vastly helped me along my journey.
Connection through Beading
One was a woman who was beading. I talked to her as she moved a needle and thread through the piece I took a photo of below, with her permission. I reminisced about my love of beading as a child and shared I still enjoy making jewelry as an adult. Something we could both relate to. A common connection.
It was educational for me to see how a lot of the intricately beaded details on their regalia are created. I could have watched her for hours. We agreed about how therapeutic it can be to separate seed bead colors out from mixed beads! Ahh, craft humor…
Connection through a Smile and Conversation
The second person who made me feel comfortable at the Pow Wow was a man named Bryce Morison, who was the Dance Master. He didn’t compete – it was my understanding he was more of a “mayor” of the ceremonies.
He had the most beautiful regalia. He knew two of the people in the group I was with, which was how we were introduced. His kindness and welcoming spirit made all the difference to me that day. He was Indigenous and spent time to converse with us that afternoon. It felt like he was bridging a gap between the non-Indigenous visitors and the ones who, from an outsiders perspective, felt like they “belonged” more than us.
In a thank you message to Bryce, I wrote:
Such kindness goes a long way towards connecting us across countries and cultures and for us to learn about the Indigenous nations, which is why we were there. This further encourages us to help pass the education along and be sensitive and understanding to the artistry in your ceremonies and traditions passed along from generation to generation.
Attending My First Pow Wow….Has Left Me with a Fullness In My Heart
Attending my first Pow Wow was exactly what I dreamed it would be. I left with a fullness in my heart and excitement about attending more in the future.
Please note: we thank Indigenous Canada, Tourisme Autochtone and Quebec Cite for generously hosting us. We also may make a small commission from affiliate links in this post but all opinions are ours and we bring you genuine content with real facts, photos, thoughts and recommendations. Always.
Heading to Canada? Also check out:
- Culture-Filled Two Day Trip to Wendake Quebec, Canada
- 16 Things to Do and See in Quebec City in 24 Hours
- Staying in the Old Quebec City Hotel that Inspired Epcot’s Canada Icon
Have you been to a Pow Wow before or dream of going to one? Let us know in the comments below!