Arts·Point of View

How to be an ally during pow wow season

With pow wow season upon us, Catherine Hernandez and Waawaate Fobister share their advice for non-Indigenous folks joining in the celebrations.

Catherine Hernandez and Waawaate Fobister share advice for non-Indigenous folks joining in the celebrations

Children being honoured at Vancouver's 5th annual Downtown Eastside pow wow in 2016. (Trevor Jang)

This post begins, as does each day that dawns for me in my journey as an ally, with my acknowledgement of my privilege.

I acknowledge the Indigenous culture from which I was born. I acknowledge the practices and cultural beliefs of over 110 different tribes that originate in the Philippines.

Waawaate Fobister and his siblings dancing at a pow wow in Leech Lake, MN. (Courtesy of Waawaate Fobister)

I acknowledge my being part of the majority of Filipinos who were afforded great privilege in this world by becoming part of the Christian supremacy — this privilege that allows me to eat, to be housed, to be considered and uplifted in ways other Indigenous communities around the world will never experience.

Now, I am leveraging this privilege — as in, the privilege to write for CBC Arts and to have such lovely folks read it — to present this guide to being an ally at pow wows.

With pow wow season finally upon us, hundreds of Indigenous folks are packing up provisions, beading and re-beading regalia and heading to the many gatherings across Turtle Island to celebrate who they are. This guide is a list of reminders for allies like myself, who don't want to be that ignoramus who is so overwhelmed by their own racism that they travel from booth to booth, from dancer to dancer making inappropriate remarks and gestures.

I have enlisted the help of my dear friend Waawaate Fobister — Anishnaabe playwright and performer behind the multiple Dora Award-winning play Agokwe — to generously offer his advice to non-Indigenous folks. He and his extremely talented family dances the usual pow wow circuit every year from traditional gatherings to competitive events, so here are a few great tips for visitors based on his own pet peeves.

The grand entry at the 2016 Pow Wow in Regina honouring grads from Treaty 4 territory. (Neil Cochrane/CBC)

Ask before you touch or take photos of anyone — and be open to a "no"

Do not touch or snap pictures of attendees and their children like animals in a petting zoo. Asking for consent and being open to being told "no" is a great way of recognizing a community's humanity and respecting their boundaries. "We smudge each piece of our regalia and give them life. Each piece is part of our spirit," adds Waawaate. "Everyone has their own energy, so when people take pictures or touch us, you're projecting your own energy onto our pieces. We will have to cleanse it all again. When people disrespect our regalia, you're disrespecting us."

Listen to the MC

Adhering to protocol at a pow wow is imperative. The MC will give instructions throughout the pow wow letting participants know what to do and when. If they are telling you to put your phone away to observe a moment of silence, do as you're told. If they are welcoming spectators into the intertribal dance and if you are so inclined, join in.

"I don't want to say everything is sacred because some things at a pow wow are really just for fun. It's a gathering and it's not always rigid. But there are ceremonies that happen there that must be observed. Listen carefully to instructions given by the MC at all times," says Waawaate.

Three participants at one of McGill University's previous Pow Wows. (Paige Isaac/McGill's First Peoples' House)

Keep it clean

This is not a tailgate party. This is a gathering to celebrate a culture that is not your own. "Any drugs or alcohol use on site is pretty rude. If you are intoxicated, stay home."

Keep it short

Do buy the work of the hardworking crafts people who sell their wares. Do not take up their time asking for stories of origin for every shirt, every moccasin, every smudge kit you buy. You're purchasing the object and not their time. You wouldn't go into Reitmans and say to the clerk "Excuse me, what is the significance of this dress?" Same goes for dancers and other community members. They are there to celebrate themselves, not educate us.

Two performers at a past Pow Wow hosted by McGill University's First Peoples' House. (Paige Isaac/McGill's First Peoples' House)

It's not a costume

It's regalia. A costume is something someone wears when they are pretending to be someone else. Indigenous people are not pretending.

Bonus tips:

  • Bring cash to save the artisans the transaction fees
  • Stop asking "When is the Grand Entry going to start?" — it's going to start when it's going to start
  • Be aware of where you are sitting and give priority to community members and elders
  • Do not crowd the drumming circle
  • Be a good ally and sincerely offer to help with the clean up after the pow wow is finished
  • Keep learning about pow wow protocol here
These photos were taken at the Na-Me-Res annual traditional Pow-wow held at Fort York, in Toronto, Ontario on Saturday June 18, 2016. (David Donnelly/CBC)

What I try to remember overall is that pow wows are not for me — they're for a community that I am not a part of. Being welcomed into an event to witness a culture's pride is generous enough. I do not need to take up space, but instead to support each person's reason for being there. For Waawaate, it's all about his family healing from intergenerational trauma and staying on track to "Anishinaabe Mino-bimaadiziwin" or "the good life."

"When we dance, we're dancing for ourselves," says Waawaate. "We're dancing for our families, we're dancing for our ancestors and we're dancing for the people who cannot dance."


Catherine Hernandez is the author of Scarborough and Crosshairs, the screenwriter of Scarborough the film and the creator of Audible's sketch comedy show Imminent Disaster.