The Dynamism and Transformation of "Tradition": Factors Affecting the Development of Powwows in Southwestern Ontario (1)

By Hoefnagels, Anna | Ethnologies, Spring-Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Dynamism and Transformation of "Tradition": Factors Affecting the Development of Powwows in Southwestern Ontario (1)


Hoefnagels, Anna, Ethnologies


Cet article examine les origines de certains powwows du sud-ouest de l'Ontario a partir d'entrevues avec les organisateurs et les participants autant qu'au moyen d'une analyse des medias. L'auteur illustre l'histoire complexe de ces rassemblements et les influences qu'ils ont subies, en eclairant egalement certaines des difficultes persistantes inherentes a l'organisation de ces rassemblements. Les nuances du terme << tradition >> s'appliquant aux rassemblements culturels contemporains, lesquels se modifient continument d'annee en annee, sont egalement explorees.

In this article the origins of selected powwows in southwestern Ontario are examined drawing on interviews with organizers and participants as well as media analysis. The author illustrates the complicated history of and influences on these gatherings, and she also highlights some of the ongoing challenges inherent in organizing these gatherings. The nuances of the term "tradition" vis-a-vis contemporary cultural gatherings that continue to change from year to year are also explored.

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"Tradition" is a label that is frequently applied to celebrations, practices and activities that include music, dancing, arts, foods, crafts, and other cultural expressions. However, "tradition" is a problematic concept, especially when activities or practices that are considered or labeled "traditional" are newly created or borrowed. As cultural theorist Eric Hobsbawm explains, the term "invented tradition" might be applied to various activities with a comparatively short history.

   The term "invented tradition" is used in a broad, but not imprecise
   sense. It includes both "traditions" actually invented, constructed
   and formally instituted and those emerging in a less easily
   traceable manner within a brief and datable period--a matter of a
   few years perhaps--and establishing themselves with great rapidity
   (1983: 1).

Anthropologists, ethnomusicologists and folklorists have explored and problematized the "inventedness" of traditions in various cultures, examining the factors that shape practices that are considered traditional by people in those cultures, while demonstrating the dynamism of cultural customs. (2) Powwows, the focus of the current study, are not indigenous to southwestern Ontario, yet they are now firmly established celebrations in most Native communities in this region; in many ways powwows could be considered an "invented tradition." Indeed, when examining powwow practices, meanings and teachings, it is important to recognize that although many similarities exist between powwows throughout North America, it is necessary that "they be understood in local contexts and as products of local histories" (Fowler 2005: 68).

Contemporary powwows in southwestern Ontario share many similarities to powwows throughout the rest of Canada, including a blend of social and ceremonial activities, music, dancing, crafts and arts vendors, and a general renewal of Aboriginal culture and pride. However, the local history of the powwow in this region is uniquely shaped by a series of relations between First Nations people geographically and historically, propelled by various social and political factors. Through an examination of the history and development of First Nations practices at competition powwows (3) in selected Anishnabek (4) communities in southwestern Ontario, this article highlights the variables that contributed to the establishment and development of this "foreign" tradition in this region, and illustrates the complexity and, in some cases, invention, of "tradition." While questions of authenticity often arise in discussions of tradition and cultural practices, this article reinforces the fact that authenticity, like tradition, is a complicated and nuanced concept, one that is rarely considered by the powwow practitioners themselves. Indeed for most of the people with whom I discussed the history and practices of powwows in southwestern Ontario, their comments focused on their pride in their cultural practices and the importance of the powwow celebration and its meanings; authenticity never arose as a concern to participants, despite the fact that many of the dances, outfits, music and practices are borrowed from distant Native groups. …

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