Manitoba communities go online, outside to celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day during pandemic

By | June 21, 2020

A physically distant community picnic. Virtual jigging contests. Online fiddling concerts.

Indigenous communities in Manitoba are finding new ways to celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although there are a lot of safety measures and protocols we have to take, we still should celebrate our culture and our Indigenous way of life,” said Shyanna Lynxleg, the Thompson Urban Aboriginal Strategy co-ordinator  and the event co-ordinator for Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak.

Lynxleg is putting together the Thompson area’s first virtual celebration for National Indigenous Peoples Day on Sunday, including a full day of contests and speeches.

“Everybody is so very fearful and trepidatious of COVID-19,” she said.

“The celebration is only going to help alleviate some of that fear and take away some of that anxiety people have…. At this point in time, we really do need that laughter and that community spirit.”

The only part that cannot be virtual, said Lynxleg, is the sunrise pipe ceremony at 5 a.m. Only 25 people will be there.

“We don’t want too much activity going on because it’s a sacred ceremony,” said Lynxleg. “It’s meant for the pipe carrier and the sun.”

‘We’re just moving ahead’

Normally, thousands of people would gather at The Forks in Winnipeg for Indigenous Day Live, a day-long, multi-city event. 

This year, however, organizers have postponed the event to an undetermined date, as the maximum size for crowds at outdoor events in Manitoba will be 100 people as of Sunday.

Lake Manitoba First Nation cancelled a powwow planned this weekend over COVID-19 concerns, but Chief Cornell McLean says people have been gathering in groups of 50 or fewer all week celebrating his community’s Treaty Days.

Now, the community is planning a Father’s Day event on Sunday to coincide with National Indigenous Peoples Day.

“We’re just moving ahead,” he said.

“We had the chance to meet one another again, and greet one another and share stories of how it felt to be cramped up at home.… It’s really good to see the members out enjoying themselves.”

Peguis First Nation Chief Glenn Hudson at National Indigenous Peoples Day in 2019 at Kapyong Barracks. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

People in Peguis First Nation will also be gathering outside at the Peguis Treaty Grounds on Sunday.

Chief Glenn Hudson says there will be handwashing stations, hand sanitizer, and staff from the Manitoba First Nations pandemic response co-ordination team to make sure people physically distance from others.

Sunday marks the start of Phase 3 of Manitoba’s reopening plan, which allows for outdoor gatherings of up to 100 outside under provincial rules, but Hudson says they’re expecting about double that.

“Given that it’s on federal land, sure, we do look at the provincial guidelines and how they’re opening up their services, safety first and all the feedback. But for us, we make that decision.”

Manitoba’s premier has said the federal government needs to clarify rules on large gatherings in Indigenous communities.

Indigenous Services Canada said in a statement earlier this month that it “respects the measures the chiefs and councils have put in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within their own communities, based on public health guidance,” and that cancelling or postponing cultural events “remains the decision of spiritual leaders and community leadership alone.”

‘We did not want COVID to steal this from us’

The Manitoba Metis Federation is busting out fiddling and jigging on Sunday with their first virtual Metis Jig & Jam Variety Show. 

For eight hours, the MMF will host live entertainment, workshops and speeches from the Park Theatre in Winnipeg, and different historic locations in Manitoba like the site of the Victory of Frog Plain (which is also sometimes called the Battle of Seven Oaks) and Ste. Madeleine, Man.

“We have pride in who we are, and we just want people to celebrate with us,” said MMF President David Chartrand.

“We did not want COVID to steal this from us.”

These celebrations are much needed, says artist Annie Beach.

“There are so many conversations about Indigenous trauma, violence or police brutality, but I feel that our young, Native population needs more contemporary, happy Indigenous people doing their thing,” said Beach, who is from Peguis First Nation and just graduated from the University of Manitoba’s fine arts program with honours.

“That’s something that’s important to celebrate this year. Not necessarily these hardships that we’ve dealt with and we know we deal with, but pushing forward and celebrating contemporary initiatives and projects.”

Annie Beach is pictured here creating one of the five star blanket murals that can be found in Winnipeg’s inner city. Beach believes that art in public spaces has the ability to inspire Indigenous youth to learn more about their culture. (Emily Christie)

Beach’s work was highlighted by the university as a recommendation for art to seek out on National Indigenous Peoples Day. The artist has been painting murals since 2017, including ones with Winnipeg artist Kenneth Lavallee’s Star Blanket Project, which involved murals around Winnipeg and beyond.

“I remember during the Star Blanket Project in Brandon, Man., it was in a community housing area. There was a little boy who was just blown away by this star blanket pattern,” she said.

“He knew what it was, and was showing it to his dad while they were walking into the building. I was lucky to catch that one, but who knows how many times a young Indigenous kid walked by and felt seen?”

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