Back on the powwow trail

Far left, Avery Sutherland of Whitefish River First Nation poses with some new friends at the Denver March Pow Wow held last month.

Young dancer pleased with Denver experience

BIRCH ISLAND—I grew up here on Manitoulin and I have enjoyed attending many powwows over the years. Despite being totally amazed at the experience, I have never had the chance to get inside the thoughts of the dancers. I have absently thought that their experiences would have been similar to many of my sports activities. The preparation, anticipation, butterflies, challenge, camaraderie and competition were all part of the reason I competed. I recently had the chance to interview a young dancer with a huge wealth of experience and am finally understanding how it is much more than that.

Avery Sutherland, 17, of Birch Island is a veritable veteran of competition powwows. Avery has always been an elite athlete as a decorated running phenom. She recently combined her athleticism and artistry when she attended the massive Denver March in Colorado last month.

COVID, like everything, has had to put a major damper on all of our activities involving the public. Avery has missed this important opportunity but for more reasons than I would have lost from the lack of organized hockey and cross-country. She was able to be much more articulate about what her experience has meant. “I missed hearing the drums and the singers and dancing to live songs. I missed having really tight braids in my hair and being able to wear my regalia. I was really excited and glad to be able to go to the 46th Annual Denver March powwow as this was my first time attending.”

She extends the experience to just travelling to a powwow with its special feel of anticipation of another amazing weekend. However, the feeling of anticipation in travelling to the Denver powwow for her was 10 times more since this was her first powwow she would attend in three years. ”In order to get to Denver we had to fly, which is always fun but sometimes stressful, especially in a time crunch when you’re trying to get COVID tested before your flight. Then after going through security carrying your regalia (we never check our regalia on planes in case it gets lost), have the security guard check your bag and be totally shocked when they open it, then find and get to your gate.” From there she was on the flight over the next four hours—yet more anticipation.

In Denver Avery competed in the teen girls’ fancy shawl category, which she was really happy about because this is one of her last powwows as a teen before she moves up to the women’s category in June when she turns 18. In addition, she competed and danced in the Memorial Jingle Dress Special for Jennifer Rose Windy Boy in the teen category and the Youth Enrichment Women’s Traditional Special.

Understandably, she was also really nervous that first day, seeing all the people, how big the coliseum was, and trying to remember “how to powwow, like all the little regalia wardrobe things that came so easily before, saving seats for your family to sit, all the food to try, and even remembering all my moves that I like to do when I dance.”

Avery Sutherland in a colourful fancy shawl regalia.

I mentioned that Avery is an athlete—she is always physically active. So when she says the following, I am further amazed. “Here is the thing. I would say I am not out of shape. I run competitively and am currently training for track season. Therefore fancy shawl dancing should not be too hard with all the training I had already done. Right? I was wrong. They do not call Denver the “Mile High City” for nothing. Dancing in that elevation was very difficult the first day. Teens that day were dancing two contest songs and my legs were burning especially in the second song.”

However, by day two it seemed to all come back to her. She got acclimated to the elevation, her nerves went away and could just enjoy the songs and the atmosphere. She had also made some new friends by then and got to see more powwow family that she had not seen for a long time. “My calves were also so sore by that day” as she realized that there is nothing like actually dancing a bit more to get herself fully, ready!

Every powwow Avery goes to she never focuses on placing because she relates that, “it is never a reason to dance. You could say it’s a happy bonus if you do happen to place, but really it’s just being able to go to the powwow, making new friends, seeing old friends and family, that smile you have on your face when you dance and being able to take in as much of the atmosphere as you can. That’s much more rewarding, I think. So when I was called down to the winner’s table for second place in my category it was just the cherry on top of an already amazing weekend.” Always the gracious dancer.

Although going to the powwow has a special feel for Avery, leaving and travelling home also has a special feeling. “It’s the empty feeling as you head to the airport after saying goodbye to everyone as you head back home already missing them. It’s swallowing that hard fact you won’t see each other until the next powwow. On top of that it’s also feeling ‘powwow hangover,’ as we call it; very tired, missing your own bed, but still happy and giddy about the weekend, retelling parts of the powwow and the jokes that were said over and over again and then having a nice brunch in the airport before your flight.”

Avery thinks that Denver March was the perfect start to the powwow season and she definitely knows she has powwow fever now. She wants to go to as many powwows as she can but is also still responsibly, considering school. “I hope to hit a few more powwows before the summer and then as many as I can in the summer.”

Thanks to you, Avery, for my brief look into your experience. I am very excited for you and everyone on the powwow trail. Have an amazing summer, everyone.