Meet the artist: Powwow dancer explains the importance of Indigenous dance form

Adorned in a powerful, statement regalia, David Whitebean shared the powwow dance at the National Indigenous Peoples Day event in Maple Ridge. 

His extravagant regalia caught many people’s attention but whether that attention was to understand his culture or exoticize it is a question Whitebean is now asking. 

He has been a member of the Wild Moccasins Dancers group along with Shyama-Priya, who inspired him to learn powwow dancing.

Although Whitebean works as a nutrition sales consultant full-time, he ensures that he continues to learn and share his culture with people around through dance. 

“I was first introduced to powwow style dancing when I was in grade 10. We had school performers coming in to present their style of dance by the Indigenous department and they got Shyama Priya to come and teach us. I have been learning and taking classes since,” he said. 

But he recalls that while growing up, he only attended one powwow but there weren’t any dancers. 

Powwow dancers on stage
David Whitebean (L) and Shyama-Priya (R) explain their powwow dances to the audience/Photo by Camila Castaneda

Understanding powwow as dance form

His mother is a residential school survivor and she decided it was better for the family to move to the east coast from Montreal, where they lived on reserve, Whitebean shared.

The powwow is a Prairie-style dance and even though he is from Mohawk First Nation and Bajan First Nation (from Barbados), he feels privileged to carry forward the tradition of the powwow.

“It’s a blessing to be able to continue living in the footsteps of our ancestors who weren’t allowed to do their own dances or speak their own language. It’s a privilege to continue sharing the teaching especially because of colonialism,” he said.

Explaining the dance form, men’s fancy style represents the power of the dancer. The regalia along with the dance steps represents an untameable power of a horse that has its own majestic powers, making it the fastest style of powwow dance.

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Talking about the music, he shared that there’s variation in the drumming of north and south Indigenous music.

“Southern music drummers will have a lower tone whereas northern will be higher pitches and faster drum beats are for powwow dancers. Without the drum, there is no powwow. It represents the power of mother earth,” he said.

That is what he encapsulated as he presented this dance at the NIPD event at Memorial Peace Park.

people join in to learn powwow steps
The dancers invited people in attendance to learn some powwow steps/Photo by Camila Castaneda

Presentation not a performance

He’s carefully choosing the word “presentation” instead of performance and I asked him why. 

“I have been able to feel the difference between the two over the past couple of the weekends. A presentation has a purpose, it’s for something. Traditionally people were doing this with family and friends and at gatherings to celebrate or mourn, not in front of a crowd of strangers.” 

He added that a Chief at another NIPD event said that as much as the powwow looks like a performance, it’s entertainment but there is a lot going on behind the scenes that people might not know. 

“When we share, it’s to educate. I am sharing about myself – the crowd may not know and I don’t think there is any disrespect – but it’s an opportunity to share with those who are present and be a part of it. We are presenting stories and education,” said Whitebean.

powwow dancer in regalia
This is David Whitebean’s first regalia that was gifted to him with the Bussle made from eagle feathers/Photo by Camila Castaneda

Powwow dancing has healing powers, too and part of his active educational efforts is to include that when he is part of workshops or events.

He expressed a desire to continue teaching children about Indigenous culture through dance and what the dances represent through workshops at schools.

“As Shyama-Priya would say, we always want to leave you feeling inspired to pursue what is meaningful to you, no matter what your passion might be.”

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