Romaine Mitchell is confident that a summer without powwows will be “just a small blip” in the cultural history of Indigenous Peoples.
Mitchell has been a fixture on North America’s powwow circuit for more than 30 years, but restrictions on public gatherings because of COVID-19 have led to the cancellation of all 12 of the events he planned to attend this summer.
Although losing an entire season is disappointing, Mitchell says First Nations culture was able to survive colonization and having such cultural celebrations outlawed — so losing one year for the common good is a relatively minor problem.
“The embers have been there for years,” said Mitchell. “Given the colonial movement’s attempts to assimilate all people into one melting pot, many of the traditions and cultures that we have in order to maintain them and for them to survive had to be taken underground.
“Our celebrations and our ceremonies we had done in secret.”
Mitchell is the co-chair of the powwow organizing committee for the Akwesasne First Nation, a territory that straddles the borders of Ontario, Quebec, and New York state. The reserve is predominantly inhabited by Kanien’kehá:ka — commonly known as Mohawk — and the community puts an emphasis on respect for its elders and veterans.
Given that the novel coronavirus can have particularly severe effects on older people, Mitchell says Akwesasne’s powwow will likely be cancelled this year.
“As a committee that’s what we’re watching — what’s the tail end going to look like of this?” said Mitchell. “Yes, you’re going to have your apex and then you’re going to have your tail.
“But how far is that tail going to go? At what point will we as a community be safe to open our gates? It’s looking like that tail is going to go just beyond the date of our powwow.”
Josee Bourgeois, a dancer who performs at powwows across the continent, was holding out hope that she would be able to make her planned schedule of events. That optimism dwindled as the end of May — the usual start of powwow season — drew near.
“We are just now experiencing that sense of loss because weeks ago it was still like, ‘Well, you never know! maybe they’ll still happen!'” said Bourgeois. “But no, that’s not the case.”
Although Mitchell and Bourgeois aren’t especially worried about the cultural impact of having no powwows, they do have other concerns.
Bourgeois said she’s worried that the cancellation of powwows will have consequences for people who have been housebound all winter.
“It’s something that people look forward to so much,” said Bourgeois, who is from Pikwakanagan. The territory just outside Ottawa is inhabited by Omàmiwinini, more commonly known as Algonquin.
“There’s a lot of reasons why people would be spiritually, emotionally and mentally affected from this.”
Mitchell said he’s concerned with the economic impact, as powwows are a financial boost for the host territories as well as neighbouring communities. As an example, he said Akwesasne’s powwow draws approximately 6,000 visitors every year, filling hotels in nearby Cornwall, Ont.
Also, as a vendor of traditional First Nations clothes and accessories, Mitchell said the cancellation of powwows will also affect his family and other Indigenous-owned small businesses.
“Many of them are independent contractors and performers that are impacted by it,” said Mitchell. “It’s a ripple that’s affected and felt throughout all of Indian country.”