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The sweet, earthy smell of burning sage wafted through the air early Friday morning, as more than 40 people gathered at Lake Devo for a sunrise ceremony.
The ceremony kicked off the Ryerson powwow 20th anniversary relaunch. Though the university was the first in Toronto to host a powwow on campus, in 1998, it has not had one since, something organizers Riley Kucheran and Laura Heidenheim worked tirelessly to change.
“We got the powwow because of reconciliation and increased visibility, and knowing that we need to be doing more,” said Kucheran. “But I think that the stars kind of aligned. The 20th anniversary was super special, and I think the right people were here.”
Monica McKay, the director of aboriginal initiatives at Ryerson, organized the first powwow in 1998 when she was aboriginal student co-ordinator. Kucheran says the group’s busy schedule and funding issues caused the event to fall to the wayside.
The event took place in the Kerr Hall gym and was hosted by Saagajiwe, a transdisciplinary Indigenous centre for research and creation based in the Faculty of Communication and Design. The powwow relaunch began with the sunrise ceremony at Lake Devo, and later moved over to Kerr Hall. The event consisted of speeches, traditional dances, throat singers, drummers, dozens of vendors, and food.
For Kucheran, being able to engage in these traditions on a university campus is imperative to true reconciliation.
“It’s just really important to show on campus, this can happen here. It’s concrete, and urban, and downtown, but Indigenous people are here, and we get to be present and celebrate that.”
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For fourth-year sociology student Katya Nemtseva, the event was an exciting way to not only acknowledge Indigenous culture and peoples, but to actually celebrate them.
“It’s so powerful. It reminds people that it’s not just the acknowledgements at the beginning of class, or a speech. People get to experience why it’s so important to acknowledge and see the beauty in the culture and this community.”
Angela DeMontigny, who was a vendor at the event and is the first Indigenous designer-in-residence at the Ryerson School of Fashion, says relaunching the powwow is a positive step forward in the school’s relationship with the Indigenous community.
“It’s recognizing the need to honour and help heal the relationship with the Indigenous community here,” she said, referring to the issue of the university being named after a man who had a controversial relationship with Indigenous people. “It shows me that they’re actually doing the work. They’re not just talking about it, they’re putting it into action. And that’s really important.”
Hosting the annual powwow was one of many recommendations made by Ryerson’s community consultation report in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The school also installed a plaque next to the statue of Egerton Ryerson, contextualizing his role in Canada’s residential school system.
Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi spoke at the event about Ryerson’s commitment to forging new and improved relations with the Indigenous community.
“The powwow is a wonderful symbol of Indigenous presence, both on our campus and at the centre of this important city. Today we mark a milestone… gathering to celebrate our community’s relationship of old and new. There is a long journey ahead, but we are making important steps together.”
Damien Lee, assistant professor in the sociology department and associate fellow at the Yellowhead Institute, Ryerson’s First Nation-led research centre, says that the powwow is especially important for creating an Indigenous presence on campus.
“A powwow taking place here, in this physical area, is really important because it is Indigenous presence making itself known and taking up space, as opposed to having some sort of acknowledgement done by non-Indigenous communities or non-Indigenous people,” he said.
For Lee, the event is especially significant because it shifts the power to Indigenous people to define and create their own narratives.
“This is very much about Indigenous agency, self-determination, and presence… This is being done by Indigenous people for Indigenous people, regardless of what anybody else thinks. And that’s so important.”
Organizers hope that the annual powwow is the first of many events of its kind, and that they’ll be able to incorporate more traditional celebrations into the fabric of the school year.
“We’d like to stretch it out a bit, like a whole week or even weekend of events,” said Kucheran. “There are schools that have three powwows, like an orientation powwow and a winter powwow. We’d like to have as many events as possible.”