SFU-led projects

Students create first Burnaby Mountain powwow in honour of Indigenous students

April 18, 2023
Sisters Raven (left) and Kali (right) King Stierle are the lead organizers putting together the first powwow at Burnaby campus.

The SFU First Nations, Métis and Inuit Student Association (FNMISA) is excited to host an inaugural powwow at Burnaby campus, to celebrate the end of the school year and honour the achievements of Indigenous students past and present.

“This is something the association has wanted to put together for a long time,” says Kali King Stierle, a fifth year student at SFU and treasurer for FNMISA. Her older sister, Raven King Stierle, is in her first year at SFU as a transfer student, and serves as FNMISA’s Indigenous Community and External Affairs, Special Events Coordinator. The King Stierles are of German, Métis and Cree descent, from Peepeekisis Cree Nation in Treaty 4 territory, Saskatchewan. Together, they make up the FNMISA Powwow organizing committee.

Kali, who has been on the association’s board for four years, describes past members’ efforts to bring this form of ceremony to Burnaby campus, unfortunately set aside by the COVID-19 pandemic. While many are now alumni, they have continued to support the organization of the powwow.

For the pair, the ceremony’s purpose is not only to honour the journey undertaken by Indigenous students, but to share culture, build relationships and celebrate as one.

“It’s about community, and it’s not just for the Indigenous community,” says Kali, who emphasizes that settlers and newcomers are also welcome to attend. “It’s about promoting awareness and sharing knowledge about Indigenous community and culture. This is about building and strengthening connections.”

Powwows are a ceremony and celebration involving drumming, singing and dancing. There are two types of powwow, explain the King Stierles – traditional and competition. In the traditional format, all performers receive a small honorarium for their participation, while in competition, the performers compete for larger monetary awards in their respective categories.

By hosting a traditional powwow, the King Stierles hope to make the event accessible to all and support their goal of building bridges among community members.

“Competition powwows can be a little intimidating to new dancers because they are competing for money, and it’s not just the dancing that’s being judged. It’s the regalia you’re wearing, how well you carry that regalia, how you honour that regalia,” says Raven. “Traditional powwows are a little bit more accessible to new dancers or dancers that may not have a full regalia set yet. So you see a more diverse mix of dancers who have been dancing for years and dancers who have just started.”

“Both are ceremonial,” says Kali, “but competition has higher stakes.”

“It’s not a performance that we’re putting on, it’s a ceremony that we’re actively taking part in,” says Raven. “Even for those who aren’t dancing, spectators and attendees are actively participating.” She adds that this powwow is intertribal. “It’s something we can share with all nations."

While powwows originate from the prairies and are not traditional to the west coast, the diaspora of Indigenous communities in B.C. have led to its practice locally.

“It becomes a fusion–it is that exchanging of culture across territories,” says Raven. “There’s almost a west coast taste. It makes the ceremony feel like it’s rooted in place and is specific to this community.”

Community has been central to the sisters’ learning and planning. The pair frequently attend powwow nights in Vancouver, gifting tobacco as thanks for others’ teachings.

“We can’t take credit for all this,” say the King Stierles. “There are a lot of other Indigenous community members who have helped us conceptualize this and also make it happen.”

Emily Noon, a sociology major and Indigenous studies minor at SFU and head lady dancer for the powwow, in Fancy Shawl regalia.

Emily Noon, another SFU student and FNMISA member, grew up among powwow. A member of Thunderchild First Nation in Treaty 6 territory, Saskatchewan, Noon’s parents brought her on the “powwow trail” from a young age, travelling to competition powwows hosted across North America.

“My dad is a powwow singer and my mom is a powwow dancer, she dances fancy shawl,” says Noon. “They also grew up in the powwow world.” When questions about the FNMISA ceremony came up, Noon often asked her parents, and brought their advice back to the organizing committee.

Noon will serve as the head lady dancer at the event, a designated leader for guests during the powwow.

“It's a huge, huge honor to be asked to be a head lady dancer,” says Noon. “This is my first time, and my family is really excited about it. My dad’s been helping me put together my special (a dance lead by the head lady), and my parents and sister are coming out to B.C. to attend.”

“I love dance,” says Noon, who has also trained in “western” styles of dance including ballet and hip hop. “My parents always told me that when I was younger, I used to watch Jennifer Lopez or Honey Daniels and emulate them. Then I started with powwow, learning by just watching.”

“That's the best way to learn how to dance, is to watch the older dancers, pick up what style that you like and then try to make it your own.”

FNMISA encourages all to come participate in the ceremony and share in the celebration of culture. As another feature of traditional powwow, the association will also be hosting a meal for all attendees.

“The fry bread is the part I’m most excited for,” jokes Raven. “But we’re excited to have the non-Indigenous community come out to our event and see what our culture is, what plains culture is, and to see the difference and the complexity–Indigenous culture is not just a monolith.”

The committee was warmed to see support for the event from across the SFU community, specifically thanking Chris (Syeta’xtn) Lewis, Director, Indigenous Initiatives and Reconciliation, as well as the many SFU departments who have helped to sponsor the event.

“Everyone really respected that this is an event organized by students, hosted by students, honouring students. They gave us our space and let us take the lead while offering help where it was asked,” says Raven. “All the support we’ve received makes us hopeful for the longevity of this event for future years.”

“Being Indigenous students ourselves, we know how hard it is to go through the process of pursuing an education, especially as these institutions are not traditionally designed for Indigenous minds and bodies and hearts,” says Kali. “I’ve seen amazing changes over the five years that I’ve been at SFU, and there are many supports available.”

“This powwow will now be just one of the supports that we’re providing–by students, for students,” she continues. “An opportunity for visibility, to gather with our friends and family and to experience the healing medicine of witnessing dance and hearing that drum.”

For more information on the Honouring Indigenous Students Traditional Powwow, visit https://fnmisa.ca/powwow/