Inclusive powwows create a ‘safe world’ for Saskatchewan youth

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Arius Toews, who is two-spirited, was thrilled to show his identity in his insignia – a pink and blue robe to represent masculinity and femininity.

PRINCE ALBERT – Under a large red and white striped awning in Kinsmen Park, Prince Albert, in front of thousands of spectators, 11-year-old Arius Toews donned his fringed dress and danced at his first powwow.

When he dances, he says, “I feel open and free.

And being in the circle for the first time was like “feeling my dreams come true”.

Toews, who is two-spirited, was thrilled to show her identity in her insignia – a pink and blue dress to represent masculinity and femininity. The robe also had a pink bear paw print sewn onto the blue half of the robe and a blue paw print in the pink half to represent where these spirits overlap.

“Being two-spirited is fine,” he said.

This year, organizers of the Heart of the Youth Community Pow Wow wanted to make it easier for kids like Arius to feel welcome and safe in the circle.

To do this, they got rid of their gendered dance categories. The dances themselves did not change – jingle dancers still danced in the jingle category, and fancy dancers still danced the fancy shawl or fancy bustle. But none of the categories were introduced as “male” or “female” dance.

Two-Spirit elder Marjorie Beaucage said the shift is one of the ways the powwow has become more inclusive.

“Not all dancers have to be male or female,” she said. “They can just be dancers – they don’t need labels. And like that, everyone can take their place.

She also emphasized thoughtful and respectful language.

“I just want to remind everyone that there’s room for everyone in the circle,” she said at the start of the powwow, which took place on May 27.

But in the recent past, she says Two-Spirit dancers have faced stigma, sexism and hurtful jokes on the powwow circuit — which is a loss for the entire community.

“People have gifts and the dances are for healing – especially the jingle dress; it’s a healing dance for people,” she said. “And two-spirit people carry a very special medicine.

“So for them to be able to dance the jingle is really special and does medicine to balance the circle.”

The Heart of the Youth Pow Wow began in 2018 and was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19 and held virtually in 2021.

On the morning of her first in-person powwow in two years, elder Liz Settee, one of the main organizers, said the energy in the park was “indescribable”.

“I’m excited,” she said. “I’m amazed. I’m impressed. I feel blessed that time has cooperated. I feel grateful. I feel humbled – and I don’t even know what else I feel. I’m just a wave of emotions; I could break down in tears at any moment, I’m so happy.

However, while we missed the powwow dearly, Settee says the past two years have provided the organizing committee with an opportunity to work on inclusion.

For example, the powwow featured the pride flag in the grand entrance in 2019, but still separated the dancers by gender — which didn’t sit well with Settee.

“Everything you do, you do it right,” she said. “That’s what my dad said – if you don’t do it right, don’t do it at all. And it just wasn’t suitable for showing the flag, but not for doing the action with it. So we considered it very important to take action.

Settee had a message for any two-spirit dancer who would like to join the circle at next year’s powwow.

“You are more than welcome at the powwow to dance in any category you feel comfortable in,” she said. “You’ve got gifts and you’ve got talents – get out there and show them off. …

“[And] stay yourself. This is how Creator gave you a gift, and Creator doesn’t do junk.

At the start of this year’s powwow, seven-year-old Hudson Penner beamed as he carried the Pride Flag in the grand entrance.

Hudson, who is also two-spirited, has been dancing the fancy shawl since she was five years old.

Going to powwows “makes us feel good…in our hearts,” she says.

Her mother, Jade Penner, was happy to see that the powwow had dropped its gendered categories this year.

Penner says inclusive powwows are part of creating a “safe world” for Hudson, where she can celebrate her culture, community and skills with nothing but joy.

“That doesn’t rule it out,” Penner said. “When it’s just a ‘fancy shawl’, and that’s what she dances to and that’s what she likes to do, it makes her feel better.

“It makes her feel like there are no barriers, there is no stigma, and she can just go out and be herself.”

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