The Art of Native Regalia
Photos by Thom Pilgrim.
I was concerned when I brought VICE along to a recent Pow Wow that some people might view us as culture tourists. People tend to treat these events like fashion shows—and that’s kind of why I was going. I wanted to check out the regalia that aboriginals wear to represent their identities, and ask them about what that all means to them. As it turns out, asking a Native person about their regalia is kind of like asking a painter why they paint what they paint: you’re not really going to get a straight answer. Being Aboriginal myself, I knew a thing or two about the culture and wanted to share the experience. When I arrived that afternoon at the Four Sacred Colours Pow Wow in Toronto, it quickly became clear that I was about to get schooled in tradition.
The people in these photos and interviews are Anishinaabe—which means “original peoples”, a term which describes the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Algonquin tribes (there’s a lot of tribes in the First Nations, so keep up!). The Pow Wow functions like a big party where members of different tribes can congregate. Traditionally you weren’t allowed to get it on with anyone from your own clan, it was considered incest-like, so Pow Wows became a great place to scout for foreign clan tail. Also, it has and always will provide a great opportunity to get involved with a good ol’ fashioned hoop dance.
Anyway, we met up with the flashiest Pow Wow attendees to get a better hold on what their regalia means to them and why.
This elder’s name is Jackie and she was, hands down, the most interesting person there. Elders hold knowledge and stories of our culture, and give advice and direction to those who need it.
VICE: So maybe we can start off talking about your spirit name, your clan, and where you come from?
Jackie: Well I do have my spirit name—but it’s not something that you give to everybody and you don’t put it out there. You only use it for ceremony or something like this. If you want to know my clan, I can give you my clan: it’s the Martin clan. We’re the warrior clan, we’re protectors, defenders of the people and we also provide food. We’re good hunters.
How important is regalia in a Pow Wow like this?
Well it’s pretty important. It depends on who gives it you or if you made it yourself. It’s not really cool to go and buy it somewhere.
How many regalias have you owned?
I own three. It’s really not mine, it’s for the people, you know? I dance for the people. I fast for the people. It’s never for myself. It’s not an ego thing. We go and sit in the bush, away from food and water and people’s voices, so that we enter into an altered state—and when that altered state is achieved you get to have dreams. The dreams tell you how you’re going to live your life.
What kinds of things can you learn from the dreams?
When a relative dies and goes through the Western doorway, for a whole year, we have to mourn that person, to grieve and a lot of the old traditions are still kept in my family. I go home when a relative has passed and the old ladies will come and chop off my hair, any which way, because it’s to show how much you are going to miss that person.
People say it is extreme, but no, it’s not as extreme. It was like, you know, 40,000 years ago. If someone died in your family you would just chop off your finger. Like if it was your boyfriend or your husband you’d smash your face with a rock.
To collect the teeth?
No, it’s to show people how miserable they are and how much you depended on them and now their gone and you’re nothing. That’s what happens.
Yeah I guess so... Well, we noticed a lot of regalia with bells, what’s the importance of that?
Men wear bells because they want to be cool. Women have what they call a jingle dress. It’s a healing dress. When they dance with their bells they are assuming community or if you have something that you want to deal with—like you have cancer or a rotten tooth—you go give one of the jingle dress dancers a little bundle of tobacco and ask them if they could take care of it. You should have actually offered me tobacco for asking these questions!
Very true, I apologize.
I actually knew about that whole tobacco granting side of Native tradition and completely botched it. Tobacco is not for smoking in this instance. It’s considered a sacred medicine and is highly symbolic.
It was good times when this guy appeared, rocking enough color to put Joseph’s technicolor blazer to shame. He didn’t want to talk and was a bit shy—which seemed crazy to me because his clothes really say otherwise—but we moved on and went to talk with someone else.
VICE: So what’s your spirit name?
NMF: Northern Medicine Wolf
Most people don’t know, but everyone has a spirit name. You don’t have to be born of our race cause that’s what Creator knows us by. This is, for me, my 37th lifetime. It took me this long to get it right. Some people come here 80 to 90 times. But the spirits name is the same.
How long has your regalia been in the making?
Many, many years. 20 years off and on. Bits have come and bits have gone. I got the wolf pelt five, six, seven years ago. He’s done his work. The last Pow Wow I did should have been his last, cause he’s falling apart. He needs to go back to Mother cause he was trapped in the sixties. Young timber wolf pup stuck his nose in the wrong place. He got his snout in a trap. A friend of mine got me a full adult male, white wolf, to match my tail. So I’m waiting for that.
How did you come about your spirit name?
My name is Northern Medicine Wolf, I’m wolf clan, and my spirit guide is also wolf. The wolf is really powerful. Plus I’m a backwards person, a contrary. It’s a particular type of medicine. We have four celestial guardians and the wolf. He sits in the South, he’s all about family, love and loyalty.
We got that great bear in the North, he’s about protection. We got eagle in the East, making sure that sun rises every morning and in the West we put deer but some people put buffalo or turtle over there. Different tribes put it differently. Like most people have the medicine wheel as black, white, red and yellow—but instead of black the Cree people put blue in the west. Just like the blue sky. Black is night; it’s the opposite of birth.
You got birth, you got death, you got day you got night. You got good, you got evil, so it’s about balance you know; four directions.