Countless hours of volunteerism lie behind every powwow

Mandy Shawanda, Aundeck Omni Kaning powwow coordinator, speaks on the countless hours of volunteer work by her committee to put on a traditional powwow. photo by Michaerl Erskine

AUNDECK OMNI KANING—Before the last drumbeat had faded into memory at the Aundeck Omni Kaning powwow grounds last year, the powwow committee was already at work on this year’s 27th edition of the popular first Island powwow of the season.

“A lot of people travel a long way to attend the powwow,” noted powwow coordinator Mandy Shawanda. “We ask and invite them for next year.”

Part of that invitation is the offering of tobacco, setting in place a bond. “It is like giving your word,” said Ms. Shawanda. “It is a bond. If they accept the tobacco, you know they will be there.”

Tobacco is an Anishinaabe sacred medicine and it is not given or received lightly. In fact, tobacco figures very prominently in the lead up to a powwow. “We put tobacco down when we are picking the cedar for the powwow,” said Ms. Shawanda. In tradition, it is only women who can pick the cedar boughs, but that’s okay, there are plenty of duties for the men in the community.

There is a bit of a lull in the immediate aftermath of a powwow, but it doesn’t last long. “There is a lot of fundraising that takes place throughout the year,” she said. “It helps a lot with the cost.” Canteen sales, community yard sales and, of course, the ubiquitous bingo fundraisers.

“In fact, we have a big community indoor yard sale coming up this weekend,” said Ms. Shawanda. “It is taking place this weekend (Saturday, May 13, 9 am to 2 pm), here at the Four Directions Complex in Aundeck Omni Kaning.” Yard sale tables are open to anyone and tables rent for $10.

The success of the powwow depends heavily on volunteers, and the core volunteer committee varies in makeup from year to year. “We are up to six members,” said Ms. Shawanda. “The committee members this year are Connie Esquimaux, Lindsay Corbiere, Joanne Audette  Thibideau, Debbie Shawana and Lois Nahwegahbow.”

But there are many other volunteers who step up when their efforts are needed. “The staff here in Aundeck Omni Kaning all volunteer their time,” she said. “There are lots of people who don’t want to commit to sitting on a committee, but they come out to help when and where it is needed. There are about 20 people I can call, I work off a list.”

The volunteer fire department provides security for the powwow. “They are a great help,” said Ms. Shawana, and chief and council step in to lend a hand throughout the weekend where needed.

When it comes to gathering the cedar, it is usually volunteers from the health centre who step up and, as mentioned, they must be women. Since they also must wear skirts when doing the harvesting the lone male at the health centre probably breathes a sigh of relief.

“Darren Madahbee and his brother Damien help out with the sound system every year,” she said. “They really know what they are doing.”

About two weeks before the powwow grand entry a work crew goes out to prepare the grounds. As the first powwow of the season, that is usually the earliest after the spring rains that things can be done. Grass is cut, general cleaning takes place. “Everything has to look good for powwow,” said Ms. Shawanda. A powwow, after all, is the premier welcome into the community event of the year.

The cabins at Endaa-aang Tourism, which are rented through the summer, are called into service for the powwow weekend as well and they need to be in tip top order.

During the powwow there are registration booths to be manned, a steady set of hands on cleanup of the grounds is ongoing and everyone is going pretty much all out for the three days of the powwow, but for the core group it really starts on Thursday.

“I put in about 125 hours on that weekend,” laughed Ms. Shawana. “That’s on top of doing my regular job.” By the time the event is over, all that are left are the real hard core.

“Everybody just wants to go home by then,” she said. “But there are still a lot of things that have to be done when everyone else has gone home.”

The annual powwow is an important opportunity to enhance culture and traditions in the community, and volunteering is certainly a time honoured tradition in Anishinaabe communities.

“I don’t even want to think about where we would be without our volunteers,” said Ms. Shawana. “They are the ones who really make things possible.”

Ongoing cultural events in the community include a Wednesday evening class provided by veteran dancer Sophie Pheasant. “She provides teachings on all of the different dances, their histories and how they developed.”

The 27th annual Aundeck Omni Kaning Powwow will be taking place the first weekend in June, Saturday, June 3 and Sunday, June 4.