Return of MSS powwow brings community, connection and joy

Almost everyone is on the dance floor for the final dance of the Manitoulin Secondary School powwow.

by Maureen Strickland

M’CHIGEENG—Unfettered joy comes to mind to describe the palpable feeling in the gymnasium at Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) on Thursday, May 26.

In Celebration of Uniting Together was the theme of the MSS powwow.  It was the first MSS powwow since 2019.

High school students packed the balcony and bleachers, while three elementary school classes from Little Current Public School, Central Manitoulin Public School and CC McLean Public School sat on the floor at the edge of the gym.

Three drums were in the centre of the gym, Chi Giizis from Sheshegwaning, Red River from M’Chigeeng and Spirit Bear from Wiikwemikoong.

To the beating of the drum, the grand entry began.

Veteran Harold Debassige began the entry carrying the M’Chigeeng flag.  Three MSS students, Scarllet Shogga, Sage Migwans and Drake Trudeau, were the head dancers. 

The opening prayer was delivered by Ms. Jean Debassige, an elder and a teacher at MSS.

Ms. Debassige told the story of the prayer and how it had been created over six months  by a group of elders from Manitoulin Island and the North Shore.

At the end of the prayer, Ms. Debassige, translated the final line, “we must always honour the past because it cannot change, we must always look forward to the future, we must honour the present collectively.”

Emcee and vice-principal  Neil Debassige told the crowd, “this is a celebration and we are here to connect to the land and the drum.”

A small boy in an orange jacket from Mr.  Fressenden’s  Grade 5 class from Little Current Public School had been stepping to the beat throughout the grand entry. 

He was the first on the dance floor,  behind traditional head dancer Drake Trudeau,  during the intertribal “duck and dive” dance.  He was quickly joined by a growing crowd of elementary and high school students.

Candi Kaiser, a main organizer of the event, said that the younger children are invited so that they can learn how a powwow unfolds and that you always need to listen to the emcee,  as he is the navigator for the crowd.

Heather Jefkins of CC McLean Public School was there with her Grade 2 and 3 class. She said, “It is part of our job, as teachers, to look at reconciliation as an on-going process,” and that coming to experience such an important cultural ceremony was really important.

Ms. Jefkins added that many of her students had never been on a field trip due to COVID and this was their first one.

MSS principal Dave Wiwchar said that the powwow was a day both to, “think on deeper things and enjoy the music and the drums.” He commented that, “it is beautiful to see students learning their ancestry and that of their friends.”

During a break from the intertribal dancing, the potato dance, a perennial favourite, was replaced by the five-dollar pick up due to COVID.

This was a big hit. To the beat of the drums, arena director Shade Kaiser laid down a five-dollar bill on the floor and the challenge was to retrieve it, and win it, without using your hands.

After a few heads ended up on the gym floor,  he folded the bill to make it a bit easier.

Then it was back to more intertribal dancing.

Sage Migwans, one of the head dancers observed, “for us to have this powwow, it keeps the culture alive and spreads happiness.”

Happiness that filled the gymnasium.

During the final two-step dance,  almost everyone in the gym was on their feet.

As the powwow wound down,  the organizers, elders, veteran,  head dancers, drummers, staff carriers and then participants,  starting with Grade 2 were called to the giveaway table to each pick up a gift.

As the final drumming closed out the powwow,  everyone left with their hearts filled with the gift of community and connection.