The 33rd Annual Ben Calf Robe Traditional Powwow got underway in spectacular fashion on Saturday, May 10 as hundreds of dancers from around the province gathered at the Commonwealth Community Recreation Centre to strut their stuff before a full house of participants, including Elders, dignitaries, guest speakers,
Aboriginal leaders and spectators from many of Edmonton’s ethnic communities. Accompanying the colourful array of costumed dancers were the song and drum beats that filled the large room thanks to the outstanding performances delivered by the 18 different drum groups in attendance, led by Host Drum Northern Cree.
“This is an outstanding powwow; I really didn’t expect to see so many people here so early in the day,” commented Cameron Francis, one of the principals of the Sunchild First Nation-based Drum Group, Rock Creek. “This dancing and drumming,” he explained, “isn’t just a bunch of movements and twirls, it has significant meaning, spiritual meaning. The regalia is the same; each outfit represents something important, like a family, a community, a region or a revered ancestor. The powwow is a special time, a meaningful time
where culture and tradition are honoured; it is important to share these things with all Canadians so it is nice to see so many non-Aboriginal people here today.”
The popular annual Ben Calf Robe event was once a competitive undertaking that saw dancers vie for an array of cash and
merchandise. It reopened last year after a three-year hiatus. This year, as in 2013, the powwow did not involve competition, at least not for prize money.
“It’s not really a competition,” laughed Francis, “but it is competitive in a way. It’s human nature to want to look and sound better than the next guy, so yes, we do want to sound good. Prize money or not, we still want to sound the best, but having a good time and sharing a great experience is more important than anything else. The powwow season is a great time to come together, to see friends, visit with family and meet new people.”
The 1 p.m. Grand Entry got underway on time as dancers, dignitaries, special guests, and others made their way into the middle of the spacious rec centre. MC Eugene Alexis proved to be a polished professional who not only announced the names of the various dignitaries, Chiefs, Elders, dancers, staff carriers and others deserving recognition, but also filled in as a lost and found administrator and a comedian who kept the action going all day long.
More than 1,200 people filed into the recreation centre stadium to take in the action before the chimes hit 3 p.m. and that number increased to about 1,800 by the supper-hour.
“It’s a remarkable event; it always has been,” noted Victor Haineault, a former Ben Calf Robe Board Member who attended this year’s conference as a spectator. “I was on the board for five years, and I still enjoy coming out to the powwow each year. I am really pleased to see how large it’s grown; it’s getting bigger every year. It’s a spectacular sight, so much colour, so much meaning. Kudos to the organizers and the organization for a great job once again.”
Powwow dancers come in all shapes and sizes, their regalia in a rainbow of colours. Masks, headwear, buffalo horns, feathered staffs and an array of splendorous costumes moved across the vast dance floor like waves across an ocean. Some chatted, some chanted, most danced, moving to the rhythm of the drum. Others glided slowly across the dance floor as they escorted the junior dancers they’d brought with them.
“This is his second year participating in powwows,” explained Alexander First Nation member, Koori Leigh Arcand, commenting on the achievements of her young protégé, nephew Cayden Arcand-Neepoose. The youngster, now just four years old, had a broad smile on his face as he walked around the dance area, his buckskin and beaded jacket and colourful headpiece proving that he is in it for the long-run.
“Yes, he really enjoys dancing; the powwow has always been one of his favourite outings,” smiled Arcand. “It is something that he’ll probably carry with him long into the future.”
Betty Lafferty, a well known and respected Elder who works with Edmonton Catholic Schools (ECS) offered the gathering a few welcoming comments and a prayer during the opening ceremonies portion of the day’s lengthy agenda. Elder Lafferty, who was honoured with the Rose Auger Lifetime Achievement Award last year by the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women’s Esquao Awards program, has worked as a member of the Edmonton Catholic School Board since 2004.
“It’s an honour to be here today to take part in this extraordinary event,” she exclaimed. “It is so nice to see so many of our young people out here today to celebrate their culture; it’s a great day and a sign of many more to come.”
Hoop Dancer Mnookmi Severight, working with a set of eight different sized hoops, made her way around the edge of the dance floor, spinning and weaving and walking her way through a variety of exercise routines.
She explained that “practice, practice, practice” is the key to moving so many hoops so smoothly and without stumbling.“It might look uncomfortable (to the untrained eye) but it really isn’t,” she noted.
The Ben Calf Robe Traditional Powwow is a sight to behold; if you missed out on it this year be sure you plan ahead for next year. But the annual powwow is just one of the things that the Ben Calf Robe Society is involved with. Their motto reads: Our children are sacred: our work strives to protect and enhance this sacredness by providing children and their families with holistic education, supportive social services and programs of high quality and cultural relevance. The organization offers several important programs and initiatives to help support children, women and families. The society continues to support the Ben Calf Robe School but its primary purpose is to serve the larger community through its unique programs.
The society’s programs include Ketotayminawok (In-home family support), Group Homes (Safe and Secure Living Environments), Kichi Awasisak (Family health and parenting), Foster Care (Placement for Aboriginal children and youth) and Youth Intervention (Cultural after-school activities).
Ben Calf Robe Society was established in 1980 by a group of concerned citizens who looked at Native education in the City of Edmonton and discovered that approximately 80 percent of Aboriginal children did not complete high school. Their solution was to establish a school where Aboriginal children felt accepted, culturally comfortable and were encouraged to remain in school and complete their grade twelve. With the collaboration of the Catholic School Board, the Ben Calf Robe Society school was created.
For more photos from the Ben Calf Robe Powwow see: https://www.albertanativenews.com/ann-2014-ben-calf-robe-powwow-coverage/
by John Copley