A knowledge keeper and former chief in Lake Manitoba First Nation worries the plan to go ahead with the annual powwow in June could bring the novel coronavirus to his community.
“The risk is there. That’s the bottom line,” said Robert Maytwayashing.
“Anything can happen between now and three weeks, but right now I’m not impressed.”
On Monday, the current chief Cornell McLean and the band’s council decided to go ahead with the annual traditional powwow June 19-21 in the community about 150 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.
Maytwayashing said he worries the powwow will attract large numbers of visitors who could potentially bring the virus.
He said there have been five deaths not related to COVID-19 in the community in the past few months and that people struggled to maintain physical distance through the funerals. He said a larger event outdoors will be hard to manage.
“How are they going to control social distancing in the community?” asked Maytwayashing.
“Just the support staff alone to run a powwow, you need a lot of people there. And then if you have vendors, the dancers, are they going to come from anywhere?”
Maytwayashing said he wholeheartedly believes in traditional teachings and ceremonies, but said that being safe also requires “common sense.”
“Whether you attend ceremony or not, if someone carries a bundle that’s infectious, you are going to catch it, whether it’s a cold or something else.”
As of Thursday, there had been a total of 294 COVID-19 cases in Manitoba; 14 are considered active.
Potential for a big powwow
“We’re the first powwow to confirm this year. Everyone is looking forward to it for the cleansing,” said Lilly Swan, who has been organizing the powwow for over 15 years.
Swan said the powwow has grown in popularity over the years. She said on average about 20 drum groups and 200-300 dancers show up every year.
Since the announcement was made on the reserve’s Facebook page this week, she said she has been inundated with messages.
“My phone has been going off the hook,” said Swan.
“I’ve been getting messages from people that I’ve never met and people asking for directions.”
She said she usually starts the planning in early May, but is up to the challenge of organizing a powwow on short notice.
“I’m the one that does all of the running around. I have [six sons] and so my boys are out there, most of May and June, cleaning and cutting and doing whatever needs to be done,” said Swan.
She said there are plans to hire security and ask people to stay in their own camping areas.
She said it will be up to the vendors to make sure they put physical distancing measures in place, and those who attend will be asked to bring their own sanitizers and cleaning supplies.
McLean said he has been keeping tabs on the number of cases in the province since March and said they plan on following the provincial public health guidelines.
Manitoba is implementing phase two of its reopening plan and now allows gatherings of up to 50 people outdoors.
“We’re not going to go beyond capacity; If it’s 50, it’s 50,” said McLean.
“Having said that, the cases [in Manitoba] are dropping dramatically.”
McLean said it’s important to celebrate and keep the culture going during the pandemic, but also cautioned against people showing up if they are sick.
“Everybody is welcome, but if you’re not feeling well, stay home,” said McLean.
Planning for physical distancing
Dr. Marcia Anderson, vice-dean for Indigenous Health at the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences and the public health lead for the Manitoba First Nations Pandemic Response Co-ordination Team, wouldn’t comment specifically on the Lake Manitoba powwow, but urged organizers of any large gatherings like powwows or other ceremonies to be cautious.
“It’s important to know that those types of gatherings are still subject to the public health orders,” said Anderson.
She said organizers are going to have to plan how to keep physical distance between singers, dancers, vendors and spectators.
“If you are imagining a powwow arbour, how are you going to instruct the dancers to keep their space? Maybe there are no intertribals with a whole bunch of people out there,” said Anderson.
“Maybe you are going to have your arena director manage the actual dancing differently to limit the size of people in the space so they can stay appropriately spread out.”
In an emailed statement, a provincial spokesperson said the federal government had indicated Indigenous ceremonies are not banned during the pandemic but need to occur within current public health recommendations.
“Manitoba Health, Seniors and Active Living will work in consultation with First Nation communities to provide public health guidance,” the statement said.
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