Paying it forward at the Similkameen powwow

·4 min read

A couple of years ago, after a long drive home from the Neskonlith Powwow in Secwépemc homelands, Gage Paul was looking for his hair roach — but he couldn’t find it.

“Our pieces of our outfits, they’re a part of us,” said Paul, an 18-year-old from the Osoyoos Indian Band. “It felt like losing a part of me.”

Paul has been dancing at powwows for as long as he can remember. Paul’s mom, Ali Butler of Lower Similkameen Indian Band, said that he started dancing when he was four or five years old.

“We didn’t know anything about dancing,” said Butler. “We really relied on extended family and the powwow community. Lots of people helped us and helped one another.”

She remembers how heartbroken he was when his roach went missing.

“He was really hurting when he lost his roach,” she said.

When word spread about Paul’s missing roach, the community rallied behind him, and he was gifted a new one by Elder Rose Caldwell during a small ceremony hosted by Elder Grouse Barnes.

“That felt so good, to be cared for by Elders in the community that we live in,” said Butler.

Even after his missing roach eventually turned up, Paul was told to keep the new one. He ended up passing on his old roach to his younger brother, Shale.

“When I was his age, I was always told to watch the older guys. Just watch them. I think it’s cool that I’m here for him,” said Paul. “He’s got someone to look up to.”

Ever since receiving the new roach, Paul has been looking to pay it forward and give back to the community. He got a chance to do just that during the September long weekend, when he and his family hosted a men’s grass dance special and giveaway during the Similkameen Powwow of Champions in syilx homelands on Sept. 3.

The Similkameen powwow is where Paul first learned how to dance, and this year was also the first time it has been hosted in two years because of COVID-19.

“I almost stopped dancing for a bit,” said Paul.“A lot of people – they give up on this. I know a lot of people, they grow up and they just stop,” he said. “I just want people to keep going, to keep it alive.”

Butler sympathizes with Paul’s typical teenage reality of being pulled in many different directions. She said that she hopes that her son feels re-inspired by the special, and is glad that he’s committed to moving forward with dancing.

“Now we’re at a space where it really is up to him. He’s coming into manhood now,” she said.

“As a parent, you give your kids everything you can and all the opportunities. Then, after a while, it’s up to them. The values that you instill in them, the values and the teachings, you hope for the best. You hope that it sticks.”

During that two-year wait, Paul and his family collected a plethora of items in preparation to hand out to community members at this year’s Similkameen powwow: blankets, boxes of cereal, candy, steering wheel covers, bathroom mats and hunting gear.

Butler and Paul also pooled together cash prizes for the top four dancers of the grass dance special: $400 for first place, $300 for second, $200 for third and $100 for fourth.

“I was doing this to give back because it’s always better to give than receive,” he said.

Butler also said that it felt good to pay it forward.

“It feels really awesome to be able to give back, especially because people have given so much to us, even if it’s just the roach and their time,” she said.

“They say it takes a community — it actually does. For people to support you and lift you up … I’m glad he doesn’t take it for granted.”

The purpose of the giveaway, Paul said, was to thank the community for the powwow, and to encourage dancers to keep dancing, as they have done for him.

Before the special, Caldwell shared the story of Paul’s missing roach with everyone at the powwow, and commended him for the work that he had done. Paul then took to the centre of the arbour and danced, which Butler said was an emotional moment for her.

“When everybody cheered for him to keep dancing, that’s when I almost started crying,” said Butler.

Paul said what keeps him going is knowing that he is carrying a tradition forward — and he considers that a gift.

“Because neither of my parents danced before me,” he said. “My kids will know how to do this, my grandkids will know how to do this. I like thinking about that.”

Aaron Hemens, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse