North America's largest shopping mall hosts an exact replica of one of Christopher Columbus's ships—not to mention a rollercoaster, waterslides, shooting range and 800 stores, all drawing about 28.2 million visitors a year—but on January 13, shoppers got a distinctly anti-colonial surprise.
Mobilized by online social media, a good 3,000 people showed up for an Idle No More flash mob at the West Edmonton Mall, staging a full-scale Grand Entry, the ceremonial procession that opens pow wow gatherings.
Led by an eagle staff, equivalent to a national flag for many First Nations, the giant procession included rows of dancers three people wide, many in full traditional regalia and clothes, wrapped all the way around the mall's ice skating rink. These were followed by hoop dancers and accompanied by pow wow drumming.
“It is one thing to do a flash mob round dance,” organizer Conway Kootenay, Cree, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “It's another thing to do a full Grand Entry with everyone in their colors, regalia and feathers. It's a lot more visual for the general public to see it who really don't understand the beauty of our culture, of our pow wow dances and the Grand Entry.”
Also known as hip hop performer Red Power Squad, Kootenay told ICTMN he has danced in hundreds of pow wows over the past 15 years or so, and he made sure this Grand Entry was no different. Starting his day with prayers and a pipe ceremony that morning, plus following the traditional protocol of acknowledging elders, were all important to the event, he added.
“It is a ceremony for First Nations people to show our appreciation for Mother Earth,” Kootenay explained. “The drums are the heartbeat of Mother Earth. When you dance, you don't just dance physically; you dance with your spirit. It's really a form of prayer. You're dancing to show your gratefulness to everything that's given to you; it's a way of giving back.”
For the Cree organizer who coined the enormously popular #IdleNoMore hashtag on Twitter, the Grand Entry flash mob marked a “definite shift” in energy for a movement that has held hundreds of round dances since it began on December 10, including in the West Edmonton Mall.
“I went to the first flash mob round dance at the mall, and then this Grand Entry a month later,” Kappo told ICTMN. “There was definitely a difference in terms of the energy. Generally speaking for Grand Entries, there's always more of a sense of pageantry and tradition. There's ceremony around how you come in: the flags are brought in to recognize the different nations there—always the different nations, no matter what the situation is. Even though we feel we're in a conflict with Canada, for example, we always still bring the Canadian flag. We always acknowledge that relationship. It's at every pow wow, no matter what the relationship is.”
For Kappo, one of the most inspiring aspects of the Grand Entry was seeing non-aboriginals excitedly participating, including one visitor from another country, sporting his traditional clothing and flag.
“There's a strong sense of pride, a sense of deep respect,” Kappo said. “You not only feel it but you also project it. There's an aura or energy about you. It causes [non-aboriginal people] to stop and pay attention.”
Organizers with the Idle No More movement are fighting to transform the relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples, many of whom signed treaties to coexist with Europeans and protect their way of life in the 19th century and earlier. Though First Nations say that many of those constitutionally protected agreements have been broken or ignored, the relationship can still be fixed, Kappo said.
“Even though the treaty relationship has never been interpreted by Canadians the same way it has been by First Nations people, First Nations still behave in the way they feel it should be interpreted,” she said. “That speaks to the sacredness around those kinds of relationships that First Nations always maintain and always recognize no matter what. Being able to go into a public space and bring a really big aspect of our identities there—and to be able to express it in such an obvious and beautiful way—is making our presence known.”
Here, making their presence known via the hoop dance, and below that, two videos of the entire procession, from different angles.