MSS celebrates school spirit at powwow

Visiting students from Lakeview School assisted in drumming for a number of the dances.

M’CHIGEENG – The 2019 powwow season is officially underway following an impressive, energy-filled showing at Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) for its 24th annual event.

“It’s all about unity and identity,” said Wiikwemkoong elder Josh Eshkawkogan in his opening remarks following the grand entry ceremony. “Today is a day where we can look at each other as one, as one spirit.”

Mr. Eshkawkogan made note of the numerous birds which have returned to Manitoulin Island after a long winter and the smelts that are now running in many streams in the area.

“These are signs of spring, signs of life, so we honour that,” he said.

MSS vice-principal Denis Lafleur walked in alongside Mr. Eshkawkogan and addressed the gymnasium next. This was his first time participating in a powwow.

“This is just one of many activities we do here at MSS to celebrate our diverse cultures,” he said.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to have our cultures intertwine,” Mr. Lafleur told The Expositor. “Being a high school on the Island, it’s of great importance to highlight the cultural knowledge our Indigenous students bring.”

MSS students Elisa Stirling and Ceara Aelick took part in a number of events at the powwow. photos by Warren Schlote

The MSS powwow, which carried the theme of ‘Kinomaa Aadzowin’ or ‘school spirit,’ was a well-attended event. Students had travelled from Charles C. McLean Public School in Gore Bay, Central Manitoulin Public School in Mindemoya, Little Current Public School and M’Chigeeng’s Lakeview School to participate in the festivities.

Howie Debassige was the head veteran and carried the M’Chigeeng staff during grand entry. Martin Panamick carried the UCCM staff, Tierra Abotossaway carried the MSS flag, Phoenix McGregor carried the M’Chigeeng flag, Jalen Waindubence carried the Sheguiandah First Nation flag, Travis Corbiere carried the Ontario flag and Becky Abotossaway carried the Canadian flag.

Ethan Mejaki served as the emcee for the event, Shade Kaiser was the arena director and Pierre Debassige and Brittnee Waindubence were the head dancers. Redman was the host drum and Nimkee was the invited drum. Lakeview School Drum and Thunder Earth were also present in the centre of the gymnasium.

M’Chigeeng Ogimaa-kwe Linda Debassige, also representing her new role as First Nations trustee for the Rainbow District School Board, said the powwow was an uplifting occasion that encouraged moving forward.

Miss Wawaskinaga herself, Brittnee Waindubence, represented Whitefish River First Nation during the powwow.

“This is something I look forward to every year,” said Ogimaa-kwe Debassige. “It demonstrates the resilience of all students and their ability to overcome challenges. Especially bringing secondary and elementary school students together in a social atmosphere—that’s what powwows are for, they’re social gatherings.”

She added that more work still needed to be done to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures together in unison, such as the peace pole that stands outside the front door of the school. Ogimaa-kwe Debassige said she was unsure of the meaning or the history of the pole, and that items of cultural significance such as this should be celebrated and understood.

“It’s important in our culure to understand the roots of things and how they evolved,” she said. “More work needs to be done for items of importance like that, so they’re not just put up and forgotten. But in time, that’ll come.”

Ogimaa-kwe Debassige said she was hoping that more trustees in the Rainbow board would visit Manitoulin Island to attend functions such as these, to show them how life on the Island differs from the majority of schools within the board that are located in more developed areas.

During intertribals, hundreds of participants took to the floor and joined in with the regalia-clad dancers.

“It’s important for them to experience what we have here on the Island. I want to bring awareness to rural schools especially, and the gaps in economic levels and some of the transportation issues we face,” she said.

The students from the many Island elementary schools in attendance were eager to jump off their seats and join in the dances throughout the afternoon. One particular favourite event was the potato dance, where partners had to shuffle while holding a potato securely between their foreheads with no hand contact. The team of Morgan Kezeyah and Kyra Bayer were the last two standing in this event.

Outside the gym, Kenjgewin Teg’s Amy Debassige and MSS teacher Peter Tallman had set up a sampling station for syrup produced this spring by outdoor education students, a class that is run jointly between the two schools. 

Kyra Bayer and Morgan Kezeyah took the lofty title of the last team standing during the potato dance, a victory that came coupled with a great deal of cheers from the audience.

The program received an Indigenous Student Learning and Leadership Project grant from the Ontario Ministry of Education this year for new sugaring equipment. These grants are for projects that enhance student understanding and pride in Indigenous cultures, enable opportunities for land-based and traditional learning and increase engagement, success and well-being at school and in their home communities, among other key outcomes.