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Digital pow wow honours the past while reaching for the future

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Ryerson student Phyllis McKenna, who is one of the head dancers participating in this year's virtual Ryerson pow wow. Image: Nendujan Ratnarajah

Kwe', Tansi, She:kon, Aanii, N'it, Wachiya, Asujutilli, Boozhoo! Hello! These greetings will be welcoming everyone to Ryerson University's online Indigenous education week (Monday, September 21 to Friday, September 25), which will culminate in its first digital pow wow and online vendor market.

Hosted by Saagajiwe, the faculty of communication and design's interdisciplinary centre for Indigenous research and creation, the student-led celebration provides a safe space for community to gather to share knowledge, ideas, skills and good times over the course of the week.

With 22 events to choose from, each day features a variety of videos, live workshops and panel discussions covering everything from legal tips for entrepreneurs to the intersections of Afro-Indigeneity, beading circles and an online pow wow dance lesson. Parents will want to tune in on Monday for the all-day kid's corner featuring nine children's authors.

In fact, parents of kids and youth of all ages should take advantage of the incredible lineup of events. There's a semester's worth of lessons for kids or youth learning from home.

This year's pow wow, "Honouring the Past, Reaching for the Future," features jingle dress, fancy shawl, traditional and grass dancers, a variety of drum groups, two incredible masters of ceremony, and much more. There will also be an online vendor's market that will remain open for the rest of this year.

According to Jessica Sherk, chair and education week lead of Ryerson's 2020 pow wow, "It's important for community to come together and celebrate -- especially in COVID-19 times. This helps keep us together."

Pow wows are more contemporary events influenced by rodeos and Indigenous Plains groups. It's a chance for Indigenous and non-Indigenous nations, families and friends to get together to share news, food, friendship and celebrate Indigenous cultures through music and dance.  

In 1998, Ryerson made history by being the first university to host a pow wow. The event was celebrated for an additional three years and then took a hiatus until 2018 when it was revitalized in response to recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report.  

This year, when the pandemic began, Pow Wow organizers across Turtle Island shifted their programming online. Inspired by digital events like Stanford University's online pow wow and social media pow wows on Facebook, the Ryerson pow wow re-imagined its programming as well.

The week-long events are free and Sherk and her team made every effort to make the program as accessible as possible, especially for elders who may not have access to tablets or internet.

As for the future of Ryerson's pow wow Sherk says, "We are focused on continuing for the next 25 years and will adapt to changing conditions because pow wow brings people together, strengthens communities through community-based events giving space for community to come together."

Sherk's team is also coordinating a food, supply and PPE drive with donations going to a variety of Indigenous resource centres. From September 21 to 24, donations of masks, hand sanitizer, non-perishable food, socks, hygiene and first aid items, school supplies, sleeping bags, and tents can be brought to 80 Gould Street between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. (entrance across from Metro grocery store).

Doreen Nicoll is a freelance writer, teacher, social activist and member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

Image: Nendujan Ratnarajah

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