Together with RAVEN’s executive director Susan Smitten, I was honoured to attend the Beaver Lake Cree hosted pow wow near Lac La Biche on Treaty 6 territory last weekend. We were among just a handful of non-Indigenous guests who attended: mainly, the three-day event was a chance for extended families, pow wow circuit artists and the entire Beaver Lake Cree community to visit, relax, and join together to carry out traditions that give expression and continuation to the antiquity, power and grace of this prairie people.
As we walked in for the procession during Friday night’s Grand Entry, a light rain fell over the grounds. Somehow the rain brought out the colours in the beads, the ribbon skirts, the grass dancers’ headdresses: and then, a double rainbow stretched wide overhead, a celestial reflection of the iridescent colours emblazoned on the bodies of the dancers. This was one of many moments of majesty, power and magic, as the announcer cracked jokes over the loudspeakers in between drum songs and the singsong of Cree language, spoken by Beaver Lake Cree’s Chief and elders, rose to welcome us all.
One of the most striking elements of the pow wow was the sense of mentorship: how much the honoured elders were influencing younger dancers and singers, and how much energy and attention was given to younger participants — from the delicate beading of tiny moccasins to the perfectly plaited waist-length braids of teenagers.
Young boys stood just a few paces behind the drummers, watching their every move and absorbing the vibration of the songs. From elders dressed in pale buckskin, worn soft over years, to the youngest tiny princesses wearing crowns beaded by their mothers and grandmothers, the intergenerational knowledge sharing that is a sustaining element of culture was so apparent. Young toughs in feathered regalia transformed into whirling fancy dancers as they entered the pow wow dancing ring.
Another way mentorship was expressed was in the honouring of the season’s graduates from high school and university: the community publicly celebrated students young and old. The deliberate investment in each other, everywhere apparent, begins to reveal how a community as small as the Beaver Lake Cree has found the tenacity and courage to sustain a challenge to the tar sands behemoth that they are up against in court.
We had a bit of time to explore the surrounding area and tour the community: we took a lunchtime swim in nearby Beaver Lake, fringed on the shoreline with wild strawberry, sage and cow parsnip. We walked through tall meadows to stand by the ghostly silhouettes of riverside tipis, used during seasonal harvesting and medicine camps. Gulls careening in the blue sky, dappled with gathering clouds that let loose, finally, late Saturday afternoon with a proper thunderstorm that quenched the heat and the dust and cleansed the pow wow grounds for a new day.
We know that the work RAVEN does with this community is a tiny slice of the work that goes on, day in and day out, by the community’s elders, organizers and councillors to forge a healthy path forward. It was very special to witness a part of the cultural vitality that sustains Beaver Lake Cree Nation, alive and kicking despite the years of oppression and cultural erasure that Canada and settler communities are only beginning to admit and address. I feel that if everyone could witness this community in its might, taste the berries and drink the sweet water that is at stake in these environmental discussions, we’d understand what Chief Germaine Anderson, band member Crystal Lameman, and other community leaders mean when they say that the tar sands must be curtailed so they can simply exist as a people.
The pow wow is over. The regalia is packed away for another day. In a way, none of those dancers or singers ever takes off those garments. Looking at some of the elders, it’s not the feathers, the beads, the buckskin that define them as Indigenous. They wear their regalia like a second skin, a skein of belonging worn over modern identities, braided together with roots that go down the years, down the millennia, that tie them to this place like umbilical cords.
We go home inspired and with a renewed sense of what’s at stake for this community as they face down some of the most ruthless corporations on the planet. Now it’s our turn, as RAVEN, to find ways to step into our power and raise our voice in support of the continuation and thriving of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. Gratitude for the mentorship we received and for the mission we have to serve these beautiful people.
Director of Communication and Engagement