"Echoes of a Proud Nation": Reading Kahnawake's Powwow as a Post-Oka Text

Valda Blundell (Carleton University)

Abstract: After presenting one history of North American powwows as sites where aesthetic forms are deployed to transform meanings about aboriginal peoples, an analysis is offered of the powwow produced by the Kahnawake Mohawk a year after their involvement in the Oka crisis.

Résumé: Cet article présente d'abord une histoire des powwows nord-américains comme lieux de déploiement de formes esthétiques qui modifient le sens et la signification des peuples autochtones. L'article analyse ensuite le powwow des Mohawks de Kahnawake qui a eu lieu un an après la crise d'Oka.

In the early months of 1991, the Mohawk Indians of Kahnawake decided to put on a powwow. Held in July of that year and attended by several thousand aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, the powwow took place on Mohawk land that only a year earlier had been under seige by the Canadian Armed Forces. During the summer of 1990 Kahnawake and the nearby Mohawk community of Kanesatake had been involved in those events now known in Canada's political discourse as "the Oka Crisis" or, more succinctly, as "Oka." As many readers will recall, these events were triggered when Kanesatake Mohawks set up barricades to prevent the small Quebec town of Oka from expanding a golf course onto land containing an Indian cemetery which Kanesatake has claimed as ancestral territory for over two centuries. When an armed confrontation ensued between Kanesatake's protesters and the Quebec police, Mohawks from the nearby community of Kahnawake supported Kanesatake by blocking access roads to Montreal's Mercier Bridge that cross Kahnawake. As at Kanesatake, there was a standoff between provincial police and then the federal forces as well as angry demonstrations by non-Native commuters living in the area who had to take long detours around the barricades to reach their jobs in Montreal.

During the Oka crisis members of the Mohawk Warrior Society led the protest and received massive attention in the national and international print and broadcast media. Bombarded with live coverage of Oka on CBC's recently instituted all-news channel, Canadians witnessed endless shots of warriors wearing bandanna masks and the green camouflage "battle fatigues" that many of us associate with Vietnam. The media reported claims by state officials that warriors were "criminals," "terrorists," and even "Hell's angels,"2 but the protestors countered that being a Mohawk warrior is a tradition-based role. For them, warriors are rotiskenrahkehteh ("the men who carry the burden of peace"), and as such they considered themselves to be defending Indian lands against invasion by a foreign state (York & Pindera, 1991, pp. 25, 171).

Given the conflict of the previous year, the summer of 1991 would have seemed an inauspicious time to hold a powwow at Kahnawake. But this was precisely the point. The powwow was promoted as an opportunity for Natives and non-Natives to come together in a spirit of friendship and sharing, an occasion for "healing the wounds of Oka." In this essay, I want to argue that Kahnawake's powwow provided its Native producers with opportunities to challenge through their expressive performative practices damaging views about Mohawks that had been widely advanced by state officials during the Oka crisis. That is to say, I want to "read" the powwow at Kahnawake as a post-Oka "text," a text that can be located in the ongoing (historical) process of powwow producing, but also a text with a specificity derived from its context in the aftermath of the previous year's unsettling political events.

As Kahnawake's Powwow Committee planned its upcoming powwow, it had as precedents the many powwows previously put on in both Canada and the United States. Each summer dozens of powwows take place across Canada, especially in the Prairie provinces and in Ontario. Put on by aboriginal peoples for their own enjoyment and for economic gain, powwows are also attended by aboriginal and non-aboriginal (paying) guests. Preferably held outdoors, powwow's aboriginal producers provide performances of dancing, drumming, and singing, and they set up stands where they sell refreshments, arts, and crafts. Other powwow personnel include elders, emcees, head dancers, and Eagle Staff bearers, all of whom receive a fee for their participation. Many Native people in Canada follow summer powwow circuits, moving each weekend to a new locale as performers, entrepreneurs, or tourists.

Therefore, while each powwow has its own history of inception and transformation, and its own basis in both local and extra-local contexts, there are shared features among them. Like other powwows, Kahnawake's was held over a weekend, and it featured Native performers who wore elaborate outfits and competed for prize monies in dance categories that are recognized at other powwows in Canada and the United States. As elsewhere, each day's dancing sessions began with the dramatic Grand Entry as participants entered the dancing arena in a long line, dancing-while-walking to the accompaniment of the host drumming group. And as elsewhere, a master of ceremonies provided a running commentary on the day's events, inviting the audience to "join in" the Intertribal dances interspersed among the competition sessions.

The Historical Process of Powwow Production

The Emergence of "Pan-Indian" Powwows on the American Plains

One history of the on-going constructions of powwows has been offered by anthropologists who identify multiple sources for powwow's expressive forms. According to James Howard, competitive summer powwows developed on the American Plains after tribes from across the United States were resettled there by the American government in the late nineteenth century. For Howard these powwows were part of an emerging "pan-Indianism" among relocated groups whose distinct tribal forms were undermined by government officials and missionaries. Tribally distinct forms were transformed into widely shared powwow forms, which he conceptualized as part of a "non-tribal `Indian' culture" (1955, p. 215).

These so-called pan-Indian forms drew on Plains Indian musical, dance, and clothing types, but these earlier forms were modified, secularized, and combined with artistic forms borrowed from other tribes across North America and from European sources. For example, the Grass Dance had been a sacred Pawnee warrior society dance, but by the late nineteenth century it was a purely secular dance performed on social occasions (Howard, 1951; Kerisit, 1989). When Howard conducted fieldwork in the 1950s in Oklahoma, the Grass Dance was the powwow's major male dance type, but it was now called the War Dance by Indians and non-Indians.

Early pan-Indian powwows were also influenced by Wild West and Indian Medicine shows which had become popular forms of travelling entertainment across North America in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and generally featured Plains Indians (Lurie 1971, p. 449; Kerisit, 1989, pp. 19-22). Aboriginal people also participated in various rodeos and fairs held in the west. These settings provided opportunities for Natives to develop their skills as performers and encouraged the creation of distinctive Native expressive forms at a time when government officials discouraged such activities. Dances and outfits developed for tourists attending these events were also adapted as early pan-Indian powwow forms. Kerisit reports that a faster-paced powwow dance, with its outfit of brightly dyed feathers, emerged in the 1920s in the context of tourists' demands for more exotic-looking performances. She also argues that the cash prizes common at pan-Indian powwows were probably modelled on those awarded to winning cowboys at early rodeos (1989, p. 19-20).

To be sure, early pan-Indian powwows reflected popular views of Indians and promoted the Plains Indian as the North American Indian. However, writing some 20 years ago, Nancy Lurie rejected allegations that these powwows were a form of "crass commercialism to fulfil tourists' expectations," arguing instead that they had become "a dynamic social and esthetic tradition, with local adaptations constantly made on the general pattern and diffused as changing fashions in the Pan-Indian world" (1971, p. 450). Following the lead of Howard, Lurie considered pan-Indian powwows to be "part of a general response to the growing threat to Indian identity, an effort to make continuing Indianness widely known and to reenforce tribal and intertribal unity" (p. 451). She continued that some powwows in the west were staged primarily as commercial enterprises. But especially after 1950 more were put on in Native communities, and while pan-Indian forms predominated at these events, local customs and language were increasingly in evidence (Lurie, 1971, p. 451). After World War II, powwows were put on as "home-coming" events for Native veterans who increasingly participated in powwows, and competition dance categories for women were added (Kerisit, 1989, pp. 21-22). Therefore, while the twentieth-century entrepreneurs of Hollywood relegated Native peoples to hackneyed stereotypes, freezing them in an eternal past-in-the-present, aboriginal innovators of pan-Indian powwows were creating a dynamic popular art form that was responsive to the changing conditions of their everyday lives.

Early Indian Pageants in the American East and Mid-West

While aboriginal cultural producers on the American Plains were constructing these early pan-Indian powwow forms, Native groups in the eastern and mid-western United States were putting on pageants and "powwows" for White audiences, encouraged in some cases by sympathetic anthropologists (Brasser, 1971; Kurath, 1957, 1966; Lurie, 1971). Like early powwows on the Plains, these performances were influenced by popular White views of Indians, including the "literary fashions of the period" (Brasser, 1971, p. 87). Well into the 1950s, published photographs suggest that many dancers purchased their outfits ready-made from Indian shops.

Some anthropologists have minimized links between these performances and earlier aboriginal cultures, even lamenting them as "inauthentic" (e.g., Kurath, 1957, p. 181). But like western powwows these performances helped Native peoples to counter the demoralizing consequences of the American government's policy of assimilation by providing them with a more positive sense of Native identity and with economic opportunities in the rapidly expanding tourism industry of the early twentieth century. For groups along the east coast, Ted Brasser argues that these performances were part of "the birth of a neo-Indian culture" in the early 1900s which was aimed at building "self-respect and group spirit" among Native people who had become impoverished on reserves or in urban slums since the 1700s (1971, p. 87-88). As in the west, these performances were generally deplored by United States Indian Bureau, but as Lurie notes "these affairs were not explicitly religious, and as tourists would pay to watch Indians dance, it seemed hardly fair to forbid a source of earned income" (1971, p. 435). Such events also brought aboriginal peoples from different areas together on a regular basis, laying the foundation for what has now become a North American "powwow complex." Furthermore, these early Native-produced performances in the American east and mid-west provided receptive settings for the pan-Indian innovations that began to influence them in the post-World War II period.

The Spread of Pan-Indian Powwow Innovations

Thus during the 1950s, dance and apparel forms developed on the American Plains in the early decades of the twentieth century were introduced to aboriginal groups in the eastern and mid-western United States, whose performances began to take on the pan-Indian characteristics of the west (Lurie, 1971; Kurath, 1957, 1966). As in the west, these events were increasingly put on by Indians for Indians, with their tourist attracting features not unimportant but generally secondary. Conducting fieldwork in Michigan during this period, Gertrude Kurath reported that the pan-Indian War Dance, introduced from the American West, had two forms, a slow, rhythmic one preferred by older men, and a faster-paced one (1957, 1966). These dances were performed along with social couples' dances and local "show" dances that combined Indian and European elements.

Canadian anthropologists Sam Corrigan (1970) and Noel Dyck (1979) have written about powwow's continuing Canadian developments. They document the spread of pan-Indian powwow forms from the American Plains to western Canada in the 1950s, when several reserve-based Prairie groups began to hold their own summer celebrations. These groups had their own histories going back to the late 1800s of performing for white audiences. For example, when tourists travelling by train became stranded at Banff in 1889 by a storm that washed out the CPR line, Stoney Indians from the nearby Morley Indian Reserve were recruited to provide them with entertainment. The Stoneys' performance was so well received that "Banff Indian Days" became a world famous annual event for the next 90 years (Parker, 1990, pp. 5, 56-60).

Indian performers and "an old-time Indian village" were also considered essential at summer fairs and exhibitions popular in western Canada during the early decades of the 1900s, including the Calgary Stampede, first held in 1912. As Bruce Cox (1989) documents, Canada's federal Department of Indian Affairs took a dim view of Native participation in these events, and even got a bill passed by the House of Commons in 1914 forbidding Indians to "...participate in any show, exhibition, performance, stampede or pageant in aboriginal costume."3 But Indian performers were so popular at these Prairie events that the law could not be enforced. As in the United States, Prairie Indians took advantage of opportunities offered by tourism to mould expressive forms to their own purposes. As Cox argues for the "Indian villages" set up at early Prairie fairs:

Perhaps the original stimulus for these Indian encampments came from the American Wild West shows, but there the comparison ends. These encampments were not cowboy and Indian shows, written, produced and directed by White impresarios. They were native exhibitions and performances produced by the Indians themselves, and very much following their own "script." (1989, p. 34, emphasis in original)

After World War II, Prairie Indians followed the lead of Native groups on the American Plains and increasingly mounted celebrations of dancing, drumming and singing on their own reserves, and they adopted the pan- Indian dance and apparel forms that were now becoming widespread across North America. By the late 1960s, according to Corrigan, there were 13 of these reserve-based summer powwows in southern Saskatchewan alone.

By the early 1960s, powwows were being held in Ontario. When I attended powwows at Wikwimikong on Manitoulin Island in the early 1980s, I was told that individuals from this First Nation were responsible for the inception of summer competitive powwows in eastern Canada. In the early 1960s, they had visited Indians on the Canadian Prairies and attended their powwows. The Wikwimikong visitors were impressed by these vivid expressions of Native culture, which they say had remained "strong" in the west. They invited dancers and drummers to come to Manitoulin to perform, they began to learn songs and dances by attending powwows held in the Great Lakes area of the United States, and they began to assemble their own dancing outfits, thus stimulating a revitalization of hand-crafted items on Manitoulin Island. By the early 1980s, Wikwimikong's annual powwow was part of a North American powwow complex, and dancers from Western Canada and the United States followed the "powwow circuit" to "Wiki." As elsewhere, the slower, rhythmic male dance form was now called "Men's Traditional Dancing," and the faster-paced form was now called "Men's Fancy Dancing." The two female dance categories were called "Women's Traditional" and "Women's Fancy" (or "Women's Shawl") Dancing.

Changes in the Purposes and Performing Styles of Powwows

Today powwows are enormously popular among Native peoples in Canada, who describe them as a way of valuing their aboriginal identities and distinct heritages. Across Canada, powwow performers have turned with renewed respect to elders who are knowledgeable about the languages, rituals, and art forms of Native parent cultures, and they have consulted earlier ethnographic studies of their cultures by anthropologists. Each year brings a new array of innovative powwow forms, including the emergence in the mid-1980s of two "new" competitive dance categories called female "Jingle Dancing" and male "Grass Dancing," the latter a re-working of the earlier Pawnee dance (Kerisit, 1989, pp. 22-23).

Importantly, as Dyck notes, Canadian powwows are events where Native people exercise a degree of control that is often more difficult to achieve in other areas of their lives. Unlike activities which are more explicitly political, powwows are now generally viewed by non-Native Canadians as non-threatening displays of remnant aboriginal cultural forms, or as harmless examples of economic opportunism. Such ideas about powwows are misleading, as historical accounts of powwows's dynamic nature indicate. But, ironically, these ideas seem to have facilitated efforts by Natives to establish control over the nature of powwow forms. Indeed, powwows have become sites where aboriginal peoples (re)construct expressive cultural forms that reflect, and allow them to reflect upon, the nature of their aboriginal identities within the changing conditions of the contemporary world.

For example, residents of Wikwimikong have told me that their early powwows were "like stage shows," with performances by Native celebrities such as Buffy Sainte Marie. But over the years this "staged" format has given way to a more participatory one which they say more authentically expresses their Native traditions. Similar developments have occurred at American powwows since the late 1960s when the emergence of the militant American Indian Movement sparked critiques by aboriginal peoples of damaging Native stereotypes and linked demands for Native self-government with calls for the revitalization of Native traditions (Kerisit, 1989, p. 22). As this renewed Native consciousness has swept across North America, powwows have become one arena where aboriginal peoples engage in a process of cultural recovery and reformation. During the 1960s performers in Ontario abandoned the stereotypic "war bonnet" that some dancers had previously worn (Kerisit, 1989, p. 22). More recently, some dancers have challenged the "pan-Indian" nature of powwow forms by consciously creating dance, musical, and dress forms that reflect specific tribal heritages, and elders have begun to organize what they refer to as "traditional powwows," where competitive dancing is eschewed in favour of celebrations of Native spirituality.

Powwow performers have also used their artistry to challenge stereotypic ideas about Natives that continue to circulate widely in North America, including those allochronic inscriptions that locate aboriginal peoples in an eternalized past-in-the-present and validate as "tradition" only those practices that are thought to persist from this earlier age (see Blundell, 1989a). Such challenges have been made not by hiding the existence of such stereotypes from powwow viewers, but by incorporating many of the signs that construct them into dance and apparel forms, in some cases in highly parodic ways. In this way, powwow performers expose the distorting meanings of Native stereotypes and construct alternative meanings for the signs that construct them.

For example, I have argued elsewhere that current male dance categories can be viewed as reflections on--rather than mere reflections of--stereotypic ideas about male Indians.4 In the category of Men's Fancy Dancing, the style is active, at times frenzied, as performers jump, whirl, and swoop in gymnastic-type movements. The Fancy Dancer's outfit is dominated by bustles of brilliantly dyed feathers. In contrast, Men's Traditional Dancers perform in a more restrained style, with movements that constitute rhythmic pantomimes of the actions of animals and the stalking behaviours of hunters. Outfits are dark and dominated by natural, undyed feathers, furs, and the claws of animals. Some Men's Traditional Dancers blacken the area around their eyes, producing a sombre, almost sinister effect.

Both of these dance categories reveal components of Indian stereotypes. Through his energetic movements and the warm, rich colours of his outfit, the Fancy Dancer evokes ideas about Indians as exotics who preserve--albeit vestigially--an unbridled quality presumed lost in the more restrained but civilized world. The Traditional Dancer evokes other components of Native stereotypes. His more deliberate movements and the sombre, natural colours of his outfit recall the savage whose lawless ways must fall before those of enlightened Christendom; at the same time, his rhythmic pantomime of the hunt recalls the Native's celebrated link with nature, evoking romantic ideas about Natives as "Noble Savages." And while male Traditional and Fancy Dancers compete in separate dancing sessions, they appear in tandem during Grand Entries, and they dance together in the many Intertribal dances. Seen together by audiences these two types of dancers work together to bring into view, and thereby expose, the contradictory ideas that form the content of these Native stereotypes. It is as though these male dancers were asking, visibly and together: How can Natives be both noble and savage? How can they live in a state of harmony with nature but also carry on in unbridled ways? Indeed, a telling remark by an Indian emcee at a recent Ontario powwow confirms the powwow's semiological attention to the contradictory nature of Native stereotypes. After spurring the dancers on, encouraging their performance, the emcee exclaimed enthusiastically, and with humour: "Now you look like Indians!" However, lest an undesirable image of Indians be evoked, he quickly added: "You look like good Indians."

Powwows as Cultural Texts

While clearly there are other histories of powwows, accounts by anthropologists (including my own) point to ways in which powwow's expressive forms bear the imprint of the broader contexts in which they are produced. In particular, they point to ways in which each powwow's movements, colours, sounds, and decorative forms work together to signify meanings about aboriginal people that are at odds with views advanced in the wider (dominant) society. Powwows, then, are sites where meanings are contested through the deployment of aesthetic, expressive forms. As such, they are sites of on-going and more broadly based struggles in Canada to determine how Native peoples and their cultural forms are to be understood within the wider national context. Importantly, powwows are cultural sites where Natives assert their right to shape these understandings. As Graeme Turner argues, such social practices aimed at controlling meanings constitute a "politics of signification" (1990, p. 203). Or, to borrow a phrase from Martin Montgomery & Stuart Allen, powwows are sites where aboriginal cultural producers engage in "an oppositional politics of meaning production" (1992, p. 195).

In arguing that powwows are sites of semiotic struggles, I am conceptualizing them--and thus "reading" them--as cultural texts. This approach is made possible by (re)conceptualizing textual forms, as practitioners in the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies have done. For them "texts" include a range of forms produced and consumed within the contexts of everyday life. As Graeme Turner (1990) proposes, texts include "cultural practices, rituals, dress, and behaviour as well as the more fixed and `produced' texts such as television programs or advertisements" (p. 112). Moreover, within cultural studies the (also reconceptualized) goal of textual analysis is "not to set up a canon of rich and rewarding texts we can return to as privileged objects" (p. 23); nor is it (only) to analyze the structures of individual texts. Instead, texts are approached as sites where cultural meanings become available to the analyst, and especially as "site[s] for examining the wider structures that produced them" (p. 23). Finally, texts and audiences are seen to generate their meanings in relation to each other, within specific contexts, so that ethnographic studies of particular settings are required. Such fieldwork, which I want to refer to as "semio-ethnography," is attentive to the (contested) meanings of aesthetic signs, and to the conventions employed to promote their intended meanings.

If powwows are sites for the politics of signification, then such semiotic struggle is waged (among other ways) through expressive visual forms. Indeed, it seems to me that powwows privilege the visual--and also the aural--over the written word. That is, I believe it is possible to see and to hear powwow signs that bear the imprint of the broader, and the changing, political context, and the imprint of the local setting as well.

Consider, for example, transformations in the semiotic deployment of flags at powwows in Ontario over the past decade. Throughout the 1980s the Ontario powwows I attended began when Indian veterans led the Grand Entry of dancers onto the powwow grounds. Wearing military uniforms or their dancing outfits, veterans paraded the Canadian flag, and when dancers from the United States were participating, the American flag as well. This display at powwows of Canada's national flag, along with military insignia and uniforms, has constituted a dramatic challenge to the widely circulated idea that Indians are surviving primitives who cling to an anachronistic way of life. By parading the Canadian flag, powwow performers have challenged the presumption that a pagan ceremony from bygone days was about to begin.

Instead, such signs have signified actions which aboriginal peoples have adopted in their attempts to survive under conditions that have often been oppressive. The explicit purpose of veteran flag bearers (and of powwow committees who have recruited them) has been to honour aboriginal soldiers who have fought in the armed forces of the Canadian state. This intent has reflected a strategy whereby some Natives have participated in national institutions such as the military in order to enhance their claims for employment, prestige, and other rewards available in the wider society. Given their subjugated position within Canada, such symbolic expressions of Native patriotism have provided an ideological basis for Native access to Canada's dominant political discourse. That is, Natives have sought to legitimate claims for better treatment through these reminders of their commitment to nationalistic values.

The Kahnawake Powwow as a Post-Oka Text

Let us return to the summer of 1991 and the powwow mounted at Kahnawaki. As York & Pindera have documented (1991), not only had this community been involved in the previous summer's crisis, but it has a long history of conflict with the Canadian state going back to the early decades of the twentieth century when it first began to resist the imposition on it of the Indian Act (p. 123). Although categorized as a reserve under the federal Indian Act, Kahnawake's Mohawk have consistently refused this designation; to them, Kahnawake is Mohawk territory and they are members of the Mohawk Nation (p. 115). Since the mid-1980s this conflict has escalated as Mohawks at Kahnawake have set up lucrative cigarette and bingo operations which state officials consider illegal. In June of 1988, warriors from Kahnawake seized the Mercier Bridge after two hundred RCMP officers raided cigarette stores on the reserve "in what became a dress rehearsal for the blockade of the bridge in 1990" (p. 187). Their 1990 blockade during Oka inconvenienced 60,000 commuters living in Montreal's south-shore suburbs and had a devastating effect on nearby businesses (p. 230). Ugly demonstrations against Mohawks by Kahnawake's non-aboriginal neighbours were shown across Canada on TV, including the burning in effigy of Mohawk warriors. When the crises finally ended in September of 1990, relations between Kahnawake's Mohawks and their non-aboriginal neighbours were clearly at an all-time low.

This, then, was the context as Kahnawake made plans to mount a powwow in July of 1991. Interestingly, Kahnawake had never held a powwow, nor are powwows common in the province of Quebec. Nonetheless, it was possible for Kahnawake's Powwow Committee to organize and advertise the event by following a format that has been successfully employed at powwows elsewhere in Canada and the United States. To be sure, this was no small task, given the need to recruit experienced powwow personnel, including a personable emcee, talented dancers and drummers, credible competition judges, and the need to attract aboriginal entrepreneurs to provide refreshments and crafts. It was also necessary to organize security and parking personnel to maintain order among the many thousands of guests who would attend.

The resulting powwow, named Echoes of a Proud Nation, was in many ways like other powwows I had attended in Canada. There was the familiar dancing arena, set out as a circle with the drumming arbour at its centre and the speaker's booth at one side. Happily, the weather was ideal--clear and warm with just a bit of a breeze--and a large and noisy audience had gathered around the periphery of the dancing arena or was milling about amongst the food and craft stands located just beyond. The dance categories, as well as the order of their appearance in the Grand Entry, were familiar as well, with performers in each category divided into age groups for the competitions.

But in other--and quite startling--ways, Kahnawake's powwow was like no other powwow I had ever seen before. Instead, its specific innovations, its distinctive reworkings of prior powwow forms, spoke to its specificity as a post-Oka text.

That Kahnawake's powwow was a post-Oka text could be seen as the powwow got under way with its Grand Entry just after 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 13. Here are some of my (sequentially recorded) observations made that day:

Grand Entry begins as dancers enter the powwow grounds; the procession is led by two male Eagle Feather Staff bearers; one wears an Iroquois ribbon shirt, the other a leather outfit.
Following the staff bearers the order of entry is: Head Female and Head Male Dancers, Men's Traditional Dancers, Men's Grass Dancers, Men's Fancy Dancers, Women's Traditional Dancers, Women's Fancy Dancers, Women Jingle Dancers.
There are no flags, no flags at all! The staff bearers carry only their staffs of feathers.
The Master of Ceremonies provides a running commentary, introducing by name the two head dancers, and naming the "Flag Bearer" although no flags are being carried!
The emcee names the six dance categories as the dancers enter the grounds: Men's Traditions Dancers, Men's Grass Dancers, Men's Fancy Dancers, Women's Traditional Dancers, Women's Fancy Dancers, Women's Jingle Dancers.
"Now entering the dance arena are the St. Mary's Hoop Dancers," announces the Master of Ceremonies. They follow after the Women's Jingle Dancers.
Four males enter the powwow grounds, walking, not dancing, including Joe Norton (Chief at Kahnawake) and Ovide Mercredi (Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations).
The drumming stops. The Master of Ceremonies announces: "Please remain standing. Now we are going to have a flag song to honour veterans, so please remain standing."
The Flag Song is performed by drummers and singers.

What was strikingly different about this Grand Entry was the visual absence of the Canadian flag, which I had seen paraded at each of the many powwows I had previously been to in both Ontario and western Canada. However, given the events of Oka only a year earlier, the omission at Kahnawake of the Canadian flag was hardly surprising. By not parading this flag, as had been common at powwows up until then, Kahnawake's powwow producers challenged the power of the Canadian state over their land and their lives, a power that has long been present but had become dramatically apparent the previous summer as the Canadian armed forces occupied lands which the Indians of Kanesatake and Kahnawake consider to be their own. Parading the Canadian flag would also have been at odds with Kahnawake's long history of militant assertions of Mohawk sovereignty and confrontations with state authorities.

This, I submit, is one way to "read" the absence of the Canadian flag from Kahnawake's Grand Entry. As a quintessential sign of the Canadian state, it would have seemed "out of place" given the events of the previous year. Instead, the presence in the Grand Entry of well known Native political leaders promoted the legitimacy of Native political forms.

Indeed, during the Oka crisis another flag became a dominant visual sign of the crisis. This is the Mohawk Warrior Society flag, with its vibrant images of an Indian warrior and a yellow sun against a red background.5 York & Pindera (1991, p. 55) report that this flag was banned by Native leaders when the barricades were first erected at Kanesatake, because it was considered too political, too closely identified with the more militant Warrior Society from nearby Kahnawake. But after Mohawk from Kahnawake came to the support of the Kanesatake protesters, the Warrior Society Flag was frequently carried by Indian protesters at both Kanesatake and Kahnawake. In fact, during the crisis this flag took on a more general meaning as a sign of Native solidarity with the Mohawk on the part of aboriginal peoples from across North America. But the Warrior's flag was not carried in Kahnawake's Grand Entry, as one might have predicted, perhaps because it would have been too pointed a reminder of the conflictual nature of Oka. Nonetheless during the powwow a Warrior's flag was flying over a booth just beyond the dancing grounds.

The visual absence of flags in Kahnawake's Grand Entry was, then, an innovation which revealed the specific context of this powwow in the aftermath of Oka. However, it was an innovation that had potentially problematical aspects. Omitting the Canadian flag from Kahnawake's Grand Entry could have been read as a repudiation of those Indians who have served in the armed forces of Canada (and the United States), and thus as a sign of disrespect for the many veterans who have heretofore been honoured through the deployment of powwow's signifying forms.

One way of addressing this semiotic issue was to cleverly juxtapose visual and aural signs. Thus, although neither the American nor the Canadian national flags were paraded in Kahnawake's Grand Entry, a flag song was sung and a flag bearer was named by the emcee as performers entered the dancing grounds during Grand Entry. Through these combined signs, Mohawk sovereignty was (visually) signified by absenting the Canadian flag (a symbol of the dominant federal state) while presenting (making present) both local and national Native political leaders. But lest the absence of flags be read as a repudiation of the actions of (past) Native "warriors," a flag--albeit an indeterminate one--was nonetheless aurally present, through the performance of a flag song. In this way, Native veterans were not only honoured (again), but Kahnawake's powwow producers diplomatically promoted their own specific nationhood while reconfirming the service they have given to the Canadian state. Finally, this indeterminate aural sign left open to alternative interpretations the question of which flag was being "sung." Indeed this flag song could be heard as an honour song for the Mohawk Warriors of the previous summer's "war."6

That Kahnawake's powwow was a post-Oka text could therefore be heard as well as seen, as its aural signs defused unwanted messages about veterans that its visual innovations might have provoked. And there were other meanings to be heard as well, including those that opposed the view that Mohawks are criminals. But significantly, as these challenges were heard, aural signs also worked to close off, and locate firmly in the past, the antagonistic events of Oka and (re)assert the peaceful intentions of Native claimants. That is to say, while the powwow's visual signs promoted a politics of separateness that is central to Native claims but could not but recall the more militant aspects of Oka, its aural signs promoted a politics of accommodation that could "heal the wounds" of Oka.

This, I submit, was the central message of the (male) spokesperson for Kahnawake's Powwow Committee, who addressed the audience from the speaker's booth shortly after the completion of Grand Entry on July 13:

We have a tradition of bringing all people together so that they might live in peace, harmony and friendship. Our theme [is] renewing our spirits...and healing the wounds created by last summer's crisis....During the last four months our committee has worked very hard to make this memorial event. Your presence here has made this dream a reality. Please join with us in this celebration of life as we show our appreciation for everything that the Creator has given us. Ladies, I'm not going to do too much talking, but I just want you to know there is a few of us that started this powwow and the purpose of [it] is to show you people that we Indians don't like wars, don't like trouble. We're a peaceful people and that is the reason we want to prove to you by putting on this powwow....You're going to see some wonderful dancers coming from different sections of the country, the United States, British Columbia. Ladies and gentlemen, by working together we're going to make Kahnawake a better place to live because we want everyone to respect one another, to live peaceful like one human being. I'd like to add that the powwow committee that worked so hard, the names should be mentioned [which the spokesperson then does]. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. I want to thank you nice people in patronizing our powwow. I hope you do have a wonderful day. Thank you very much for coming. Yow-wa. (Fieldnotes, July 13, 1992; emphasis added)

This speech is in itself a brilliantly composed text, replete with reference to the central themes of Oka. The powwow is presented as a "memorial" event thus acknowledging, but in a muted way, the loss of life that occurred during the crisis. The depiction of Mohawk warriors as criminals is rejected, again gently, by asserting the peaceful nature of Indians and implying that Oka was not a criminal uprising but a "war" between nations. And, importantly, there is the unmistakable message that Oka was not a confrontation that Natives had wanted to have ("we Indians don't like wars"), that their goal is to achieve a peaceful solution to their legitimate claims.

In this way the Powwow Committee's spokesperson set the (accommodating) tone for the afternoon performance. But when he was finished, the powwow's emcee again promoted Native claims through his references to Native political structures and economic practices. He introduced both local and visiting Native political leaders (including Ovide Mercredi, named as "the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations"), and he listed the aboriginal sponsors of the powwow, including Native businesses. And, as he called people from the audience to join in an Intertribal dance, the emcee linked aboriginal politics and aboriginal cultural forms in an unequivocal way: Thus, as the drums beat strongly, he remarked on the different "nations" that had come to the powwow ("Walpole, Wikwimikong, and all the others") who "were gathered here to demonstrate the fine dancing and Native dress."


Other post-Oka powwows in Canada have also revealed their specific responses to recent political events. For example, two weeks after attending Kahnawake's powwow, I attended the annual powwow on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario. Again, in contrast to previous powwows held on this reserve, no flags were carried in Grand Entry, although veterans did march behind the Eagle Staff Bearer. At the afternoon Grand Entry, three veterans took part, two wearing slacks and shirts and one in camouflage, the latter reminiscent of Oka's Mohawk warriors. In the evening Grand Entry, a single veteran took part, this time wearing grey slacks, a white shirt and a navy blue beret. And, as at Kahnawake, while no flags were seen, the flag song honouring veterans was performed. A different response to the (semiotic) issue of whether to parade the Canadian flag was in view at the Wikwimikong Powwow on Manitoulin Island that same summer of 1991. Here individuals leading Grand Entry did not omit the Canadian flag but modified it by parading flags which aboriginal people refer to as "Indian Joe" flags. These flags superimpose the image of a male Indian on the maple leaf of Canada's national flag and on the stars and stripes of the American flag, and they recall the more militant activities of the American Indian Movement during the 1960s. Indeed, parading these "Indian Joe" flags seemed a more assertive counter-appropriation of national symbols than would have been prudent for Kahnawake's powwow performers, given Kahnawake's more direct participation in the events of Oka.

As these examples show us, powwows provide their aboriginal producers with a rich legacy of signifying materials which are modified for deployment in the changing political contexts of Canada. Through processes such as omission, addition, juxtaposition, and the superimposition of expressive forms which provoke alternative ideas, powwow producers signify meanings about aboriginal peoples that "echo" the contemporary world. As both the present--and the absent--flags of recent Canadian powwows reveal, powwows are telling sites/sights in the politics of signification where culture is deployed for political ends.

Such promoted meanings can also be "echoed" in the souvenir forms offered for sale at powwow's arts and crafts stands. On sale at Kahnawake's powwow, for example, were T-shirts bearing celebratory inscriptions, Kahnawake--Echoes of a Proud Nation. There were also souvenirs for sale at Kahnawake's powwow that more directly challenged state promoted views of Oka, including picture postcards, produced by "Fresh Pine Productions of Kahnawake, Quebec," which reproduced photographs taken during the 1990 occupation of Kahnawake by the Canadian army. Here the images are of Canadian soldiers and their weapons, barbed wire barricades, army helicopters and tanks. Along with captions such as "Forces of Oppression" and "Canadian Apartheid," these postcards were yet another challenge by Native cultural producers to the state's view that during the Oka crisis Mohawk warriors, rather than the Canadian army, had engaged in illicit acts.

But such explicitly confrontational forms were not common at Kahnawake's powwow. Indeed, at one souvenir stand the events of Oka were "echoed" in a seemingly humorous way. Thus among the distinctive corn husk dolls long made by Mohawk craftspeople, there was a (new) doll that can be read as both promotional and ironic. Dressed in Oka-type warrior garb, this doll brandished not a gun but a golf club! Like other expressive practices on this July afternoon, these dolls could not but recall the opposition of many aboriginal peoples to current political arrangements between their nations and the Canadian state. But the very playfulness of these dolls softened this message, and in this way helped to "heal the wounds of Oka." And this, after all, was precisely the meaning(ful) task that Kahnawake's powwow producers had set out to accomplish on that sunny summer day.


I attended the Kahnawake powwow as part of research funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council on aboriginal cultural forms and tourism. I am grateful to Michele Kerisit who assisted in this research, including collecting data on the powwow held on Manitoulin Island the summer of 1991, and to Bruce Cox and Simon Brascoupe for commenting on a draft of this paper.
For example, a July 24th Ottawa Citizen front-page article headlined "Criminals' Control Oka" reported remarks by Department of Indian Affairs officials that Warriors were "a criminal organization." In August Southam News reported remarks by Federal Justice Minister Kim Campbell that protestors were ignoring the criminal law, and that Quebec's Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau had called the Warriors "terrorists" and "Hell's Angels" (The Ottawa Citizen, August 24, p. A3). Some media accounts were more sympathetic, but others reinforced the state's "official" view by depicting the Warriors as criminals, including the late Marjorie Nichols who wrote a scathing account of Indian claims, referring to "this outbreak of native disobedience and lawlessness [and efforts to elevate it] to an international human rights cause celebre [as] downright repugnant" and arguing that Natives were "in danger of being coddled to death by an overprotective state" (Ottawa Citizen, July 24, 1990, p. A3). Editorials in The Gazette (Montreal) were particularly inflammatory; one on July 17, 1990 compared the Warriors to the mafiosi and called them a "gang of thugs." Analysis of media coverage of the Oka crisis is beyond the scope of this paper, but note York & Pindera's argument that "[d]espite the intense coverage of the Oka crisis in newspapers and telecasts across the country, the central facts of the crisis were obscured by a torrent of absurd allegations from politicians, police officers, military commanders, and media commentators" (1991, p. 414).
Revised Statutes, 1914, Chapter 35, Section 149, 4 George V. Ottawa: King's Law Printer. Cited in Cox, 1989, p. 32.
In Blundell, 1985-86 and 1989b, where my analysis draws upon Clifford Geertz's (1976, p. 1499) argument that art forms act semiotically by giving material form to peoples' experiences of the world and thus allow them to reflect upon them.
Regarding displays during Oka of the Warrior Society Flag, see York & Pindera 1991, pp. 31, 55, 60, 129, 208, 227, 397, 400; and MacLaine & Baxendale, 1990. Also, Chapter 11 of York & Pindera provides a history of the Warrior Society Flag.
It is also the case that many powwow performers consider the Eagle Staff the equivalent of the Canadian or American national flags, and so the flag song could also be "heard" as honouring this First Nations "flag."


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