More than Family

This last Saturday I went to the Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre Pow Wow again. I say “again” because I’ve been there other years but also because I mistakenly made my way up to Waterloo Park for it last week. I had the wrong weekend for some reason, or another. The poster at Luther, the posts on Facebook and Twitter all had this weekend down as the due date, but still I erred.

When I got there last weekend, I noted a lack of signs, usually aplenty for this event, so I wondered if the pow wow was in a different part of the park. I wandered about it for a bit, and finally came back to the place I expected it to be. A medieval fest was taking place instead. That part of the park was awash with faux medieval tents and folk were sporting costumes fitting for the occasion, I suppose. It seemed that all were having fun, and some helpful people at a booth helped me to know that the pow wow was due the next week.

This week the same field was awash with folk in regalia: many Indigenous folk were wearing clothing vibrantly on display as they danced to the big drum. These clothes, of course, are not costumes but proper to Indigenous cultural identification. I walked about for an hour and a half, or so, enjoying visiting friends Indigenous and not, who were taking in this yearly event.

Pow wows, like medieval fests, are not a part of my background. But I find myself more at home in the former than the latter. I’m not altogether certain why that is, but if I was to take a stab at it, it would be because I know that I attend a pow wow as a guest, and a welcomed guest at that. MCs at pow wows have always, in my experience, been quite intentional in honouring and welcoming all who are present: noting especially elders and veterans, and then the first peoples of this land and others of us. Yesterday’s MC, at the close, commented on how powerful it can be when Indigenous and non-Indigenous people join together to celebrate, and a pow wow is – from my perspective – profoundly celebratory and inclusive.

As a person of faith, I wonder whether the church might learn a little something from a pow wow. Here people are accepted as they are and are welcomed from time to time to join in the circular dance. The pow wow is a place where I receive warm hugs, as well as a good bit of wisdom from this person or that. Of course, many churches work hard at being welcoming, and often understand themselves to be a big happy family. But a pow wow is conceived as a meeting of peoples, of nations. It is more than a family.

Families are nice, but if you’ve ever been an outsider at a family gathering, your identity as an outsider is pretty marked. I don’t feel like an outsider at a pow wow. I feel like a member of another nation, invited into this circle for this time. I am accepted for who I am and not expected to be someone else. There is something attractive in this, something for the church to ponder.

Futile Wisdom, Clever Folly

“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” I Corinthians 3:20

Yesterday I stopped by the 4th Annual Pow Wow at Conestoga College. If you have never been to a Pow Wow, I highly recommend it. Here is an event teeming with life, the drum beating like a heart at the centre of the circle, and all around the community gathers, as a body: to celebrate, to mourn, to reconnect, to sing, and above all, to dance.

As I watched those with winged feet whirl about the circle – ever clockwise in this territory, I chatted with my good friend Jim. Jim grew up in Haudenosaunee territory years before I was born. As a young lad he attended the Brandford Mohawk Institute, one of the many residential schools committed to the infamous Canadian policy of assimilation. He commented that as an Indigenous child he never saw such dancing. It was, of course, deemed illegal. The “wise” ones of those days had outlawed the traditional practices of those who have loved this land for many, many generations before settlers arrived. In their “wisdom” – both futile and horrific – they imposed rules that have inflicted pain on too, too many of Jim’s generation and those that followed.

I came home from the event with a purple ribbon on my jacket. My wife asked what it meant, and I told her that I purchased it at the Wilfrid Laurier University Aboriginal Services table. I also bought a cookie there, and the money from the cookie, and the donation for the ribbon were being used to pay for the funeral of a young woman in the community who had taken her life. Only the Lord knows the reason for such despair, but certainly generations of Indigenous cultural denial by mainstream settler “propriety” and greed inform the why of such a tragedy.

As Jim and I watched the dancing, I pointed to a young man, whose whirling and intricate foot work mesmerized me. He brought to my mind a bird, nesting a world. Jim said that this was Scott, the son-in-law of his youngest sister, and that Scott wouldn’t have grown up dancing, but clearly mastered it along the way. About that time a little one, maybe four years old, feathered and sequined and at one with the drum ran and danced and danced and ran. Jim smiled and said that this one will always know dancing. And I thought, this is how it should be: dancing your way into life, foolishly losing yourself to the drumbeat, the heartbeat, the heart, the hearth, the fire, the flame.

Such is hope: folly to the “wise.”