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Male traditionalist dancers compete. Photo: David Sommerstein
Male traditionalist dancers compete. Photo: David Sommerstein

Balance of dance and drum at Akwesasne's pow wow

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The weekend after Labor Day is a special one on the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation near Massena. People from across the region gather on Cornwall Island for the Akwesasne Pow-Wow, a friendly competition of dancing, drumming, and singing that's at the heart of native culture.

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If you’ve never been to a pow wow, here are a couple reference points. It’s like a track or swim meet in that dancers and drummers compete in different categories and age groups, and that competition can be intense.

A dancer waits for her event to start. Photo: David Sommmerstein
A dancer waits for her event to start. Photo: David Sommmerstein

And it’s like a county fair, in that the lawn outside Cornwall Island’s lacrosse arena is lined with craft and food vendors, the smell of fry bread and Indian tacos in the air.

The main action’s in the big dancing circle, within sight of the fast-moving St. Lawrence River. Dancers twirl, jump, and hop in traditional outfits. Their bright pinks and turquoises and oranges and yellows and every other color glow in the sunshine. They’re adorned with beads and bells and rattles and feather headdresses.

I’m curious about the drum tent. It’s right next to the dance circle. And it’s like the engine that drives the dancing. Drummers hang out, eat, and chat, until it’s their turn to play.

This is Bear Creek is a group out of Sault Saint Marie, Ontario. Like all pow wow groups, they sing in a tight circle around a big drum, facing each other. It’s loud and powerful and electric. Gabe Gaudette’s one of Bear Creek’s members. He’s been singing pow-wow music since he was a little kid. And he says singing is “like a first love” for him. “I just really enjoy the feeling of it, the brotherhood with all my extended pow wow family.”

Gabe Gaudette (left) and members of Bear Creek pow wow group. Photo: David Sommerstein
Gabe Gaudette (left) and members of Bear Creek pow wow group. Photo: David Sommerstein

The singing is so high, so fierce, you can’t believe they don’t hurt their voices. Some guys actually hold their throats as they sing. Gaudette says it’s like training for any sport: “When I was young, I would sing every day, ‘til I couldn’t sing anymore, then I would rest a couple days, then do it all over again. Your voice will get weaker if you don’t sing, just like if you don’t work out, your muscles will get soft. I sing every day, a couple hours a day, even still today.”

Casey Thomas and Charles Belisle came to dance from the Cattaraugus territory near Buffalo. Photo: David Sommerstein
Casey Thomas and Charles Belisle came to dance from the Cattaraugus territory near Buffalo. Photo: David Sommerstein

Pow wow singers, drummers, and dancers travel all around North America, sharing their tribe’s styles with others at meets like this one: “There’s an old story about where the drum came from. It came from a really difficult time in our history. We used to fight a lot with our neighboring tribes. It was through a dream that we were given this drum and it would bring peace to our peoples. So now it’s evolved into a really positive social gathering where everybody can come together and celebrate as one.”

A few paces away from the drum tent, dancer Charles Belisle is warming up. He playfully hops and kicks with his little daughter. His partner, Casey Thomas, sits, resting a nagging leg injury. She’s changed events from the high-energy jingle dance to traditional: “It’s a lot of jumping on one leg in jingle, and this one, I did stationary northern traditional, so it’s really a lot easier on my tendons.”

I want to know more about how the dancers and drummers relate. Thomas says, like all things native, it’s about balance, one’s not more important than the other. “It’s like, you have to have dancers, but to dance, you need music, and to have music, you need your instrument, and for pow wows, they have the big drum, and they call it the heartbeat, because the beating of it is what we’re dancing to.”

Drummers have to have an encyclopedia of songs in their repertoire. And Thomas says the dancers have to know how to feel each song. Some may be in another tribe’s language that you don’t understand. Many modern ones are in English, but it’s not always easy to make out the words. He says it’s like a poem: “They draw it out to the beat, so you’ll have to hear it, put it together, like instead of saying “heart”, they might say “hee-aah-rr-t”. Like that, so you have to pay attention a little. It depends on the song.”

As part of the pow wow, the Akwesasne Singers perform the Alligator Dance, a song from tribes in the Everglades in Florida. But Thomas says in the end, the pow wow promotes unity among so many different native peoples and non-native neighbors. What comes through is that the pow wow’s a sharing event, and a family event, a competition that brings people together for good food, good art, and the graceful balance between the dance and the drum.

 

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