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article imageWikwemikong Cultural Festival and Powwow Special

By Elka Weinstei     Aug 19, 2013 in Travel
Wikwemikong Cultural Festival and Powwow on Manitoulin Island, Canada, is held every year on the August Civic Holiday Long Weekend. Very few foreign tourists know about the festival, but it is great fun, and well worth the time it takes to travel to it.
The Wikwemikong (“Wiky”) Cultural Festival and Powwow takes place every year on the August long weekend. This year, its 53rd anniversary, the weather held to make it a lovely time-out-of-mind for about 3,000 people who participated.
Arriving early on Sunday, our first impressions of the festival included small children dressed in fancy-dance costumes wandering the stalls of Native merchandise (good and bad); the Swedish Scouts (in uniform) who were here for the 14th annual World Scout Moot; food vendors sleepily setting up their stalls on the hill above the dance ground; and dancers getting their regalia out of their pickup trucks to begin the process of dressing for their big moment in the ring.
The Wikwemikong Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island is an unceded reserve, which means that no document has ever been signed by its people to make it part of a larger nation-state. Wiky residents, who identify as Ojibwe, Odawa and Pottawatomi, are native to the area, and have their own beliefs, intertwined with early Christian beliefs which originated with French Jesuit missionaries.
Wiky’s powwow is a mix of cultural event and dance competition — a festival of food, art, handicrafts, drumming, and dance — but it is mainly a dance competition, a tradition that began in the mid-western United States about 50 years ago. The term “powwow” is actually a North Eastern Woodland word belonging to the Narragansett Language and the closest English translation is “meeting.” Powwows in fact began as meetings, a chance for tribes to gather to decide upon such weighty matters as boundaries, treaties, economic livelihood, and hierarchy, but as more and more territory was taken over by settlers of European origin, and more treaties between nation-states and tribes were signed, powwows of this sort became outmoded. The modern day powwow evolved from the Grass Dance Societies that formed in the early 19th Century. These were originally warrior societies, but they quickly became social societies as traditional hunting territories disappeared. Dance has always been a very important part of Native American life, and is integral to the powwow.
Dance and drumming/singing competitions follow a very specific order at these events. Groups of drummers and singers — singing particular types of songs for specific kinds of dances — compete to win prizes (these are often cash prizes but can simply be ribbons or awards) that are coveted by Native groups on the powwow circuit. Some drum troupes spend their year on the powwow circuit, like rock stars on tour they travel in buses or campers, staying in cheap hotels and eating pizza endlessly.
Wikwemikong Powwow and Cultural Festival 2013
Wikwemikong Powwow and Cultural Festival 2013
Dancers too, can spend years on the powwow circuit, although dancers competitive identities may change over time — competing in young dancers’ competitions such as fancy-dance and grass-dance, changes to more sedate dances such as “traditional” dancing as a dancer ages. Women’s dances in jingle-dresses (decorated with snuff-can lids bent to look and sound like bells) are also easier on their bodies, but there are occasionally women who excel at other pan-Native forms of dance. At Wiky, all of the usual kinds of drumming and dancing were represented on Sunday, but we were extremely lucky to be standing directly in front of one of Wikwemikong’s finest dancers at the right time.
Lisa Odjig  celebrated hoop dancer.
Lisa Odjig, celebrated hoop dancer.
Lisa Odjig is a true artist, like her famous grandmother (Daphne Odjig), but in the spirit’s way she is blessed with dance as her form of artistry. Hoop-dancing is a joy to behold when Lisa dances. This is a form of dance which is said to have originated in Ojibwe territory, but its modern form was created in the 1930s by a young Navaho dancer called Tony White Cloud. The dance begins with the hoops placed on the ground in front of the dancer, and gradually, as the song progresses, the hoops form lyrical arcs and shapes around the dancer’s body, until the hoops become the expression of the world-tree and the four directions, a salutation to the centre of the world.
Wikwemikong’s cultural festival is famous worldwide, hence the attendance of the Swedish Scouts who enthusiastically participated in the intertribal dances that led off the day’s dancing competitions. How odd, yet appropriate, to have the Scouts, come from so far away to experience “Canada” at an essentially pan-American event on Manitoulin.
Manitoulin means "spirit island" in Anishinaabemowin (the Ojibwe language) and is the largest lake island in the world. It is, however, still a little-known place, even to people who live in Ontario. We are just beginning to discover how much Manitoulin has to offer, and hope to be able to understand more of its Native culture with each visit that we make there.
Miig’wech Manitoulin.
Note: Many reserves in Canada hold both traditional powwows and cultural festivals that welcome non-Native visitors. You can find out more about powwows coming up by looking it up on the internet at
More about Manitoulin Island, Powwow, cultural festival, Native american, Ojibwe tribe
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