A powwow comes to Abbotsford

A Sixties Scoop survivor, Bear Paw discovered a sense of belonging at powwows. Now she hopes to bring that feeling to her students and the rest of Abbotsford.

By Tyler Olsen | May 24, 2022 |5:00 am

At powwows, Bear Paw found belonging, pride, and her people.

Even when her knee ached, when she needed a cane or a walker to move, Bear (who also goes by the name Marilyn Klassen) would be out on the floor dancing during the intertribals, when all audience members are invited to dance together.

A Sixties Scoop survivor, she had taken a cultural journey to rediscover her family and her Dakota roots. Powwows—a place where people from different communities came together to share, celebrate, and dance—were a big part of that.

She had long wanted to share those feelings in Abbotsford, where she lived and mentored students as an Indigenous Support Worker at a local high school.

So when a friend asked her a big, deep question—”What’s your dream, Bear?”—amid the start of the school year, she didn’t have to search her brain.

“Well,” Bear told Connie Serviss, another Indigenous Support Worker, “I’ve always wanted to have a powwow.”


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A cross-cultural tradition

Abbotsford hasn’t had a powwow in recent memory—though that fact is not particularly surprising. Powwows began on the prairies, and aren’t a traditional Coast Salish gathering. In recent decades, though, coastal communities in BC have adopted the celebrations as a way to bring a diverse range of people together and honour their heritage.

(One of the biggest local ones is usually held in conjunction with the Seabird Island Festival, which has been cancelled this year for the third time due to COVID.)

Bear Paw, who is Dakota-Ojibway and hails from the Canupawakpa Dakota Nation in Manitoba, wanted to bring such a celebration to Abbotsford and her students. The idea was first sparked a couple years ago. Bear and a colleague got the ideas down on paper, and sketched out what would be needed to make a powwow happen. Then COVID hit and the idea, like so many others, was shelved.

The conversation with Connie rekindled that idea.

”Let’s do it!” Connie had replied. The planning started almost immediately, and their hard work will come to fruition this weekend, with the first Wac’ipi C’ante Was’te Yuhapi—the “With a Good Heart Pow Wow.”

“That’s kind of how I’ve come into this whole thing, is with a good heart,” Bear told The Current last week. “In the native way, the cultural way, you can’t do something when you have bad things coming into your heart and things you need to work on. You need to let that go.”

Powwows are, by their very nature, cross-cultural gatherings, and Bear’s is emblematic of that fact. The name is Dakota, Bear’s own language. The event will be held on the Sema:th First Nation; the host drum, Cree Confederation, is coming from Alberta; dancers will hail from all over.

From the first mention, the idea gained a momentum of its own, Bear said.

“Once I started talking about it, all of a sudden I had all these people reaching out to me saying, ‘I have some money to back you up,’” she said. “Some days I have to take a little break, like my phone just won’t stop. When I hang up one call, I have another call. It’s overwhelming, but in a good way.”

Bear said she feels like Abbotsford is behind her. The first person to offer help, she said, was Abbotsford’s police chief. And from there, “it just kind of snowballed,” she said. (Bear organizes an annual canoe trip with students and police officers to build bridges.)

“People feel like this kind of event needs to happen, for truth and reconciliation, all the stuff that has happened to First Nations people in the past: let’s all come together and make this work.”

On Friday morning, buses will bring hundreds of students to Sema:th to learn about just what a powwow is. A powwow is a gathering and celebration, but it’s also a series of competitions, with dances and costumes and drumming judged. Everyone is invited.

“We’re going to talk about the dancers, different dances, we’re going to talk about the regalia that they’re wearing,” she said. Bear has brought in an experienced emcee, a Blackfoot Elder and former Chief from Alberta who has given her a full checklist of things for her powwow. There will also be dozens of vendors, and lots of food, particularly bannock and Indian tacos—”something you have to have at a powwow,” she said.

Bear is looking forward to sitting down and watching the dancing. But her duties won’t be all behind the scenes. She will be speaking to students, of course, and during the grand entry it will be Bear leading the way, carrying a specially made eagle staff. (You can see a video of an eagle staff used in an Okanagan powwow here.)

“When powwows happen, because they are so loved by so many people, people come from all over the place. I know there are people coming from Saskatchewan, from Manitoba, from the Island, from the Sunshine Coast,” she said. “I’m just overwhelmed and happy. I don’t even know what to say. It’s an honour to be the first one to do this.”

The powwow runs Friday and Saturday. You can see a schedule here. More volunteers are still needed. You can fill out a form here, and Bear can be reached at 604-614-0298 or BearPaw51@outlook.com. The entire public is invited, though Bear suggests coming after the first grand entry at noon on Friday, given the number of students on site in the morning.

Attending your first powwow? In 2014, CBC put together a list of five tips for first-timers.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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