Campus Spotlight, Student Life

McGill’s Indigenous Awareness Weeks return virtually

Song and dance filled McGill’s Lower Field again on Sept. 18, as the First Peoples’ House’s (FPH) Virtual Pow Wow launched the university’s 10th Annual Indigenous Awareness Weeks (IAW), focussed on showcasing Indigenous cultures and traditional perspectives on wellness. Every September since 2001, Indigenous community members across Canada have united at McGill to contribute to the Pow Wow ritual. Previously two weeks long, the events of IAW 2020 were shortened to take place over the span of under a week to adapt to the virtual limitations. 

Most people watched the Pow Wow live from FPH’s social media accounts, while others gathered at a safe distance from one another around the performance on Lower Field and donned masks. The Red Tail Spirit Singers drum group accompanied dancers of all generations, including Don Barnaby, Marian Snow, and Ray Deer and his family. Basked in sunlight, Barnaby addressed the audience. 

“It was supposed to rain, but the Creators said, ‘You know what, they need to go out and put some medicine out there, so I’m not going to literally rain on their parade,’” Barnaby said.

Behind the dancers, the Hiawatha Wampum Belt flag was raised on the McCall-MacBain Arts Building to recognize the land that McGill occupies as the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations. The flag emphasized the university’s growing, but still limited, space for Indigenous expressions. 

In his virtual welcome to the Pow Wow, Christopher Manfredi, McGill’s Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic), spoke on the importance of celebrating Indigenous cultures. 

“While [this] cluster of events each September is an important opportunity to welcome Indigenous community members to our university to share in celebration and to raise awareness of Indigenous teachings, cultures, and customs, we are also working hard at ensuring that Indigenous experiences, forms of knowledge, and ways of teaching are integral to the academic fabric of the university,” Manfredi said. 

The final event of this year’s IAW was a virtual discussion on Sept. 24 featuring Healers Geraldine and Mike Standup. The presenters shared their traditional knowledge on the connection between mind and body, highlighting how this bond can improve overall well-being. With the year’s many uncertainties, this wisdom comes at a time when achieving inner reflection and peace is crucial but difficult. 

The team at the FPH have worked to facilitate the expression of distinctly interactive Indigenous cultures through the limitations of a screen. Terry David Young, McGill’s Indigenous Student Advisor, recognizes both the constraints and opportunities created by this new online reality and describes the connection created by face-to-face and hand-to-hand exchanges that is integral to Indigenous culture.

“For Indigenous peoples, there’s always a component of social interaction that’s a part of our cultures,” Young said. “[It’s] a very interactive, hands-on experience [of] dancing, singing, and creating.” 

The loss of these tangible, mutual forms of connection is especially difficult for new Indigenous students at McGill. In previous years, the Pow Wow provided a celebratory space for Indigenous students to feel recognized and welcomed. With this event shifted to an impersonal cyberspace, Young mourns the inability to meet new and returning students face-to-face. 

Despite their constraints, however, virtual platforms have allowed the FPH to engage with and learn from people they would not have been able to before. 

“We’ve accessed Elders from across the country,” Young said. “Adapting online has both widened and limited our reach.”

The image of community may look different for the FPH this year—a grid of faces on Zoom, a sparse Lower Field once crowded with students now dispersed across the country—but moving forward, their team plans to continue expanding the potential of virtual methods to express Indigeneity and nurture friendships among community members. 

“I look forward to next year,” Brady said in his welcome to the live Pow Wow. “Hopefully things will be better, things will be changed, and there’ll be more people because we dance with the people.” 

Students can keep updated on FPH’s events and programs through their social media or website.


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