No time to dance around barriers to inclusivity

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The Kamloopa Powwow held on Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc territory is usually a big deal — maybe not so much this year.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/07/2022 (202 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Kamloopa Powwow held on Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc territory is usually a big deal — maybe not so much this year.

Held in the middle of summer, the powwow near Kamloops B.C. is normally one of the best attended in the country with nearly $100,000 in prize money for dancers and drum groups.

Last Tuesday, the Kamloopa Powwow Society organizing committee announced its schedule and rules for dancers for the 41st annual competitive powwow.

Anyone competing must have at “least one-quarter Native blood” and “be in full regalia during competitions, grand entries, exhibitions/spot checks and to be of the correct gender for that category.”

It was all downhill from there.

The reaction on social media was swift, with thousands of posts and videos by Indigenous peoples calling for a boycott due to “colonial ancestry rules,” “body control,” and “excluding two-spirit people and promoting transphobia.”

An explosion of internet memes emerged. My favourite: “Must have Bannock bum to prove lineage and dance.”

Soon after, hundreds of dancers, drum groups, and sponsors of the powwow – including the company hired to keep scores for the dancing prizes – announced withdrawls from the event.

Then came the tipping point, when leadership of the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc issued a statement that the powwow committee was “independent” of the First Nation.

Ouch. In 48 hours, one of the Canada’s largest powwows had become one of the smallest; if it is even held at all.

A committee representative responded and argued the rules had been in effect for twenty years, adding that the demands for “Native blood” were the result of a non-Indigenous dancer from Germany winning a category and the “correct gender” stipulation was because an “elder” wanted “the jingle dance category to be a women’s only event.”

In all powwows, there are seven competitive dance categories: fancy bustle, fancy shawl, grass, jingle dress, chicken, and two different traditional styles.

These are most often gendered, with men dancing fancy bustle, grass, and chicken in their own traditional category and women dancing fancy shawl, and jingle dress in their own traditional dress.

LGBTTQ+ peoples, and in particular the two-spirit community, have pointed out that gender binaries didn’t originally exist in Indigenous cultures, with the categories “male” and “female” being more about role in traditional society – the work one does – than biology.

Activists argue that to incorporate these in powwow is to import western and Christian ideas of sexuality and gender and goes against the ways Indigenous cultures function.

To add to this, Indigenous society has also inherited legacies from residential schools of policing bodies and clothing. The idea that Kamloopa powwow judges would “spot check” dancers to verify the wearing of regalia when not dancing has some terrible precedents.

This is not to mention how most forms of gendered violence often targets Indigenous women and is full of messages like how women must be modest and wear skirts to “cover up” areas of their body – while men do not have to do the same.

The Kamloopa powwow – and many others who enforce similar rules – received a big message by Friday, and needed to change.

This change has been happening for a long time now. In Winnipeg, the two-spirit community has held their own powwow since 2016, allowing Indigenous dancers to dance their own style.

Like the term niizh-manidowag, or “two-spirit” (also birthed in Winnipeg in 1990), other communities have followed suit.

But, the lure of the “powwow trail,” which features tens of thousands of dollars for dancers competing in Indigenous communities from coast to coast, is powerful.

Now, powwows are being forced to confront these questions around gender, sexuality, and identity, too.

Most now have opened up categories, making them effectively genderless. Judges are told to determine winners based on dance style and dress — not a person’s genitals.

Some offer the “switch dance,” a special event where males dance female styles and vice-versa. Others hold two-spirit honour dances. These are good steps, but miss the point of inclusivity.

These are the steps the Kamloopa Powwow Society announced they would take, after apologizing on social media.

By Saturday, organizers issued a statement announcing “we have removed outdated and discriminatory language regarding gender and updated the rules to welcome all self-identified Indigenous people.” Organizers added as annual committment to a switch dance special and 2Spirit round dance, as well as the appointment of youth and a 2Spirit Member to its committee.

And, to update: non-Indigenous Germans can dance, but can’t win a category.

It’s uncertain if the Kamloopa powwow will recover. This will become clear on July 29-31, when it is held.

The movement to make Indigenous celebrations and ceremonies more inclusive of all of our relations, however, cannot be stopped because it is driven by love.

niigaan.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair
Columnist

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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