Believe it or not, the last federally-funded residential school in Canada was shut down as recently as 1996. Funded by the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches, Canada's residential school system was a network of far-flung boarding schools intended to remove First Nations children from their parents/communities and thus the influence of their own culture. Well in place before Confederation in 1867, the system became official after the Indian Act passed in 1876, and in 1884 an amendment to the Indian Act made attendance at these schools compulsory for First Nations children. Many now describe this as a "cultural genocide," whereby First Nations cultures were systematically exterminated by depriving children of their ancestral languages, beliefs, and their rights as humans. More than 6,000 children died while reports/stories of sexual abuse are rife. The end result has been mass transgenerational trauma that manifests in various ways including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide and substance abuse.
It was in 1961 that band member Rosemary Odjig raised the tradition of the "pow wow" in her hometown of Wikwemikong after witnessing a pow wow in another community and realizing the importance of practicing and remembering the teachings of her community's ancestors. What started as the "Wikwemikong Indian Days" gathering almost 60 years ago is now known as the "Wikwemikong Annual Cultural Festival" and is revered as one of the largest and longest-running pow wows in North America.
Wikwemikong is "unceded territory" on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada, which means that the land has never been surrendered in a treaty or otherwise. It also means the land is entirely governed by the First Nations community. "Manitoulin" means "spirit island" in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway language), and it is the world's largest freshwater island, making it an ideal location for First Nations communities to settle away from the encroaching colonisers more than a century ago.
Rosemary Odjig's vision of an annual pow wow in the spirit of reviving teachings, stories, language and traditions seems to have become a success. Today the Wikwemikong Annual Culture Festival pow wow is a fun way for families and friends to get together, to dance and sing to the hypnotic beat of the drum in the Sacred Circle, eat local food, and share stories, language, knowledge and crafts with each other. Talented drum groups and dancers partake in friendly competition for cash prizes, offering mesmerizing and educational entertainment for spectators. Everyone from all walks of life are welcome to watch, support and participate.
These powerful portraits and images taken just a few days ago at the 2017 Wikwemikong Annual Cultural Festival honour the Wikwemikong Heritage Association, which "is a non-profit organization committed to the preservation and enhancement of Anishinaabe culture through education and the participatory cultural opportunities with both Native and Non-Native people."
Images and story by Danielle Da Silva.
To find out more about the Wikwemikong Heritage Organisation, visit: wikwemikongheritage.org