My First Powwow

My First Powwow

Posted on June 18 by admin
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One of the most formative summers of my life was the one that I spent as an assistant to adults with intellectual disabilities in the L’Arche Community on Cape Breton Island. The experience was challenging and liberating and I learned a great deal about myself and about the world around me.  I also learned the value and rewards of living within a community.

The l’Arche community in Cape Breton is of about 50 members living in several houses within a few miles of each other. One of the members was a small Mi’kmaq man named Ed who loved the Beatles and playing the hand drum. He also had a temper that flared up and so had to have personal time in the afternoons.  I was assigned to be his companion on certain of these afternoons and we would often take walks or visit other community members. I was never afraid of Ed but when his temper flared he seemed to go to a different place, and I had to know how to control the situation.

Because Ed had grown up in the Mi’kmaq community down the road, he was well-known on the reserve. One day I accompanied Ed to a powwow; he had of course been to many throughout his life but this was my first one, and I was feeling a little out of my element, unsure of myself and afraid of doing the wrong thing or disobeying customs. Ed had also been acting temperamental and I felt the need to keep a close eye on him. As soon as the powwow began, however, Ed joined in, and I was still feeling too shy and unsure of myself to keep up with him. But then Ed grabbed someone’s drum, and for a moment I panicked, not sure if I should intervene. Then I noticed something: Ed was leading the drumming. As a man of about 60, Ed is an elder in his community, and is treated with deference. I am glad that I didn’t make a fool of myself by taking my (self-perceived) role as “protector” too far. The irony in this context would be glaring.

I also realized that I was a welcome guest at this ceremony, and that there was no need to feel embarrassed by being there. As in so many situations, it is our own insecurities that prevent us from fitting in. Once I stopped being so aware of myself as an Other I had a great time, and the privilege of an experience that I may otherwise never have had.

On Common Ground, by Richard D. Merritt, explores the history of a tract of land at the mouth of the Niagara River known as "the Commons". In chapter 7, Merritt discusses relations between the First Nations and British settlers, citing ceremonies in which the two parties made efforts to come to agreements and preserve the "Covenant Chain of Friendship".