The Wabasca Canoe

Many of the pioneer village museums I’ve visited have outdoor exhibit spaces that display their vintage farm equipment and wagons, and their earliest vehicles. The Frenchman Butte Museum is no exception. Their collection is similar to the others, but also includes an interesting item captioned The Wabasca Canoe. And, what I especially liked about it was that its early history of ownership had been recorded, and was now on display.

Constructed by First Nations canoe builders at Wabasca, AB in the 1920s, the canoe was purchased by Wilfred Hunt, a trapper, and possible fur-trader working in the Liard River watershed. It was subsequently sold to Loren Cornell of Kinuso, AB who eventually passed it on to Erven Fester, who donated the canoe to the Frenchman Butte Museum in Saskatchewan.

More from the artifact description:

Hand-made, these lightweight canoes were 12 to 14 feet long. The ribs were hand-carved and steam bent over a frame. Before fur trade days they were covered with birch bark or moose hide… They were used for muskrat trapping, fishing and hunting.

Birchbark Canoe, Journey of Learning 2016
Photo submitted by Josie Cox

Wabasca is from the Cree word wapuskau, which means white water, and refers to the Wabasca River. Today, the majority of the residents of the hamlet of Wabasca are still Indigenous, and bands of the Bigstone Cree Nation occupy 6 reserves on Treaty 8 territory in northern Alberta. Although, the practice of building traditional birchbark canoes in Canada today can still be a for-profit enterprise, many Indigenous canoe builders are re-learning the craft as part of their journey towards cultural reclamation.

Poundmaker Powwow 2012

About

In July 2012, the Poundmaker Cree Nation hosted, what they hoped would become, the first of many successive Annual International Powwows, and was produced in commemoration of the 125th Anniversary of the Northwest Resistance.

Powwows are celebrations that showcase Aboriginal music, dances, dance apparel, food and crafts. Commonly hosted by First Nations communities (either on reserve or in urban settings), Métis and Inuit also participate in contemporary powwows, and smaller powwows are hosted by educational institutions…

The two main types of powwows are traditional and competition, the primary difference being that competition powwow dancers (and often the musicians) compete for cash prizes. Both types of powwow have ceremonial and social elements, and both serve to foster pride among Indigenous peoples, and preserve and enrich traditions and culture. – The Canadian Encyclopedia

The Event

We found a parking spot in the field, then wandered through the rows of vehicles and campers, past the food kiosks and craft vendors, by the kids and the dogs and, finally, around the dancers making last minute costume adjustments, to the circular structure in the middle of the sports field. The performance area was protected from the sun by a canvas roof. Bleachers were set up under the tent on the periphery of the dance floor with the MC’s booth located at the southwest corner. The drumming and singing groups were set up next to the dance area, in front of the bleachers. Slowly, the spectators finished their visiting, and eating, and shopping, and came inside to fill the stands.

Grand Entry 2012

The Grand Entry always begins the event. This is the parade of dignitaries and dancers who enter to the accompaniment of the singers and drummers. First, the Flag bearers, then, the Chiefs, followed by the Warriors (a.k.a. the Veterans), the Princesses, and the male and female dancers grouped according to age and dance type: Men’s Fancy dancers, Grass dancers, Chicken dancers, Traditional dancers, and sometimes, Hoop dancers; Women’s Fancy Shawl dancers, Jingle dancers and Traditional dancers. The Grand Entry is followed by a Round Dance that invites all spectators, and dancers to share in the healing properties of dance and community. It’s during the Round Dance that the music groups are judged. Then the dancing begins in earnest.

Poundmaker Powwow Grand Entry2 2012

It’s difficult to describe how powerful the dancing can be. There are beautiful costumes, beaded, fringed and feathered, whirling and jingling, adorning dancers whose performance is, at once, both athletic and spiritual. The drum beats are loud and deep and rhythmic while the singing is high and pure. It’s just an amazing and unforgettable experience for everyone involved. If you have an opportunity to attend a powwow, don’t pass it up.