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Rosseau Powwow - Sharing the Traditions of Indigenous Culture

Article by Dawn Huddlestone / Photography by Shannon Tobin-Haughey

A photo isn’t always worth a thousand words. A textbook can be worth even fewer – neither can possibly tell the whole story. Experience, as they say, is the best teacher. That’s particularly true for learning about Indigenous culture where teachings are passed from generation to generation through stories, songs and dance.

That’s why Courtney Tabobondung, a student at Rosseau Lake College (RLC), wanted her schoolmates to not just read about her culture. She wanted them to see it and hear it, taste it and feel it. She wanted them to experience a powwow.

“People really needed to see what the Aboriginal culture of Canada is like, rather than what they read in textbooks,” she said, adding that she wanted them to know “the fun parts about our history, rather than just the super sad ones. They can really get a bigger picture of who we are as people.” And because her school is located on the traditional land of the Anishinaabeg, she felt a powwow would be the best way to honour that land.

RLC’s headmaster, Robert Carreau, was immediately supportive of the idea.

“The school has been here 52 years, and we’ve never done such a thing,” he said. Rosseau Lake College has had a strong relationship with Wasauksing First Nation, where Tabobondung is from, since the mid-1980s, he added. Several students from Wasauksing, which is located on an island west of Parry Sound, attend the private school each year, as do some from the Wahta Mohawk Territory near Bala.

Tabobondung asked Johna Hupfield, the Indigenous studies teacher at Parry Sound High School who organizes powwows at her school with her students, for advice on running a powwow at RLC. And, as a former member of the Little Spirit Singers, she invited the Wasauksing youth group and their mentor, Deina Bomberry, to perform. Bomberry also led the powwow.

There was a drum from both Wasauksing and from Parry Sound High School, accompanied by singers. There was a dancer in full regalia. And there was food that reflected First Nations culture – scone dogs, bannock and chili, corn soup and wild rice-stuffed peppers.

Almost 200 people took part in the powwow in mid-June, including members of the Wasauksing First Nation, RLC students, staff and parents. “(The students) learned more that day about Indigenous ceremony and teachings than they could ever have learned any other way,” said Carreau.  

He added that teens can be tough to reach at times, and the teachings and songs at the powwow were a powerful way to deliver the message. For example, Shane Tobobundung, one of RLC’s board members, sang a song of gratitude, “and he said, ‘we all need to understand, this is not the first time that these trees, and this lake, and this land have reverberated with this song,’” recalled Carreau. “(We’re dancing) on the same ground that’s been danced on for centuries by Anishinaabeg people. That’s powerful.”

RLC plans to host a powwow again next year, making it even bigger and inviting other schools to participate. Tabobondung, who will start grade 12 in the fall and plans to be a youth worker on isolated reserves in the future, hopes it will lead to greater understanding and inclusion. “Making sure that Indigenous students are being represented,” she said. “Making sure that we have a voice in the classroom.”

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