Conne River Pow Wow

Conne River Pow Wow: Discovering the spiritual and the spectacle

Despite growing up in Bay d’Espoir, the Conne River Pow Wow was one of those things I never fully appreciated. 

Conne River is a First Nations reserve on the south coast, officially named Miawpukek Mi’kamawey Mawi’omi. Every year in early July they host their official Pow Wow celebration to honour their culture — including traditional song, dance, and drumming. 

I’ve attended many times, but this year felt like the first time I ever really saw the Pow Wow. Growing up in St. Alban’s, the Miawpukek First Nation had felt like a foreign world to me, despite the community being literally across the bay. I could see the town from the end of my street, but I knew very little about Miꞌkmaq culture. 

Over the years, Miawpukek has fought tooth-and-nail to revitalize their community. With strong leaders and a very willing community, it’s now one of the main draws in the Coast of Bays area (and all of Newfoundland). 

Song, Dance, and Drumming at the Conne River Pow Wow

The main draw of the Pow Wow is the daily drum, dance, and song circles. Bands from all over Canada (and even the United States) come together to participate in these soul-stirring rituals. 

Strong voices carry over the pounding of drums as participants express themselves through dancing in colorful, delicately sewn regalia. Men and women dance with elaborate headdresses made from eagle feathers, sequined skirts, golden shawls with dangling bells, lovingly crafted mocassins, and the finest beadwork you’ll ever see.

a man at the Conne River Pow Wow in a bear suit

The Grand Entry usually starts each day around 1 PM with the elders and other important community members leading the dance. During this time, you have to put away your camera. Seriously. The Grand Entry is a sacred ceremony and you’ll get yelled at for taking photos.

The merriment carries out all day, with ceremonial events throughout. This year’s event was themed in tribute to Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women of Canada — an incredibly emotional affair after the community’s recent loss of Chantel John to domestic violence. 

Chantel’s family carried a portrait of the young woman as the procession moved onward. Men were invited to step into the inner ring to perform a protective circle around the women. There was a moving prayer in the Miꞌkmaq language. It was touching, somber, and an apt tribute to a life gone too soon. 

a woman talks with a warrior chief at the Conne River Pow Wow
“We are still here.” I absolutely love this.

The history of Canada’s First Nations has not been a good one under colonialism. Events like the Conne River Pow Wow are key to learning and appreciating a culture we once tried to erase.

Other Events at the Conne River Pow Wow

You should know that the Coast of Bays region is an incredibly isolated part of Newfoundland and Labrador. Tourism development is minimal. This isn’t a negative — I truly believe it’s one of the final travel frontiers on the planet. 

You might be hard-pressed to find a schedule. Facebook groups tend to provide the most reliable information out there. The Newfoundland tourism website may also be a good source (they already have the 2020 dates listed for July 3-5).

Generally, though, the schedule each day is about the same: Thursday night is the social night, with events like karaoke and a big craft sale (BUY THE MOCCASINS THEY ARE AMAZING). 

dancers in colourful regalia at the Conne River Pow Wow

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday always start out with the dancing, drumming, and singing. At 5 PM there’s a massive feast that everyone’s invited to (and it’s free!). After that, there’s the closing ceremony. Friday night also hosts a big Bingo event.

This is a drug-free, alcohol-free event. Don’t be at it. 

The Spiritual Versus the Spectacle

This was my first year ever diving into the spiritual side of the Pow Wow. 

It started with a Sisters of the Spirit walk through the woods. We all wore red to commemorate Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, and then I joined a handful of women and men on a short trek filled with prayer and drumming.

The walk ended at the sacred fire, where we were handed medicine like pine and tobacco to toss into the fire. Then a talking stick was passed around for anyone wanting to speak internally or out loud.

Sisters of the Spirit walk in Conne River
Note: I took this image before the walk began

Later that evening, I found myself attending a sweat lodge experience with Chief Misel Joe. He’s one of the most iconic people in Newfoundland, known for being a strong voice for the Miꞌkmaq people. Just being in his presence was an honour — although he’s so laidback and humble, you’d never guess he’s such a prominent figure.

I never attended a sweat lodge ceremony before, so I had no idea what to expect. I wore jeans. As luck would have it, a friend-of-a-friend whom I met years ago was there, and he helped me prepare for it. First, he told me that I needed a towel to put over my head if the heat became too much. The jeans were a terrible mistake, but I could deal with that.

a wigwam without its coverings along the water in Conne River
The incredible setting for the sweat lodge

At one point, I had lifted my camera to take a photo of Chief Joe tending to the fire. My friend reached out and gently lowered my camera, shaking his head. I was mortified. Everyone in attendance was a seasoned sweat lodge goer, and here I was being the annoying blogger. When someone handed me sage for the smudge, I stood there looking helplessly at it until I asked the elderly man next to me what I was supposed to do.

“Purify yourself,” he answered, looking at me with surprise. Obviously.

Bottom line: you take nothing from the sweat lodge ceremony. No photos, nothing.

Despite that, I survived two out of four rounds in the sweat lodge. I won’t describe the experience, because it’s truly a personal journey — but I spoke up and asked for prayer, and that is something I would never do if I hadn’t been so moved. I went home that evening feeling like something inside had shifted significantly.

If you want to participate in the Pow Wow’s spiritual activities, you need to keep your eyes and ears open. There’s no such thing as an announcement to “join Chief Joe at the sweat lodge for 8 PM” (although there was a quick announcement for the Sisters of the Spirit walk). Don’t intrude, and let things unfold naturally. Everyone is welcome, as long as you keep an open heart and open mind.

A Learning Experience

One of my goals for the Conne River Pow Wow was to meet a traditional canoe builder. Through the jigs and reels, I met Billy Joe who offered to meet me at the old school in Conne River so he could show me his handiwork.

[Here’s a fun small-town anecdote. Myself (and my friend Matt) didn’t know if we were at the right meeting location. So we waited for awhile, but since we didn’t have Billy’s phone number, I suggested going to the local gas station and asking if anyone knew him there. Of course, they did. The wonderful gas attendant called Billy up, and within five minutes we were back at the school to meet him. We had just missed each other.]

Billy Joe shows one of his canoes in progress
A birchbark canoe in progress

Billy Joe refers to his canoes as “100% organic.” These stunning vessels are an unbelievable work of craftsmanship built entirely with cedar, as well as spruce bark, gum, and root. The bindings are held together and made watertight with a mixture of spruce gum and bear fat.

I had expected him to tell me a long story about how canoe building was passed down through the generations, but as he said, “We evolved like everything else.” The art of canoe building was lost for years until a Miꞌkmaq elder named Rene Martin from Quebec arrived in 1996 to revive it. Now, Billy Joe is a master canoe builder.

Canoe building only takes place in the summer months, outside. If you’re around Conne River in July or August, you may find Joe or other band members working on a new build along the trails in Jipuj’ij’kuei Kuespem Park.

And yes, the canoes are very seaworthy vessels. Billy Joe himself paddled one all the way to Nova Scotia in 1998.

Tips for Enjoying the Conne River Pow Wow

  • Do NOT take photos of the sacred fire.
  • Do NOT take photos of sacred ceremonies or the sweat lodge. When in doubt, ask someone! You WILL get called out publicly if you’re taking photography during sacred moments.
  • Don’t expect healthy food options here. Other than the feast, the grounds mostly have food trucks selling deep-fried (and delicious) food. The Indian Taco (deep-fried dough with allll the toppings) is worth the calories though. If you want healthier options, I recommend packing your own lunch.
Indian Taco in Conne River (Fried bread dough)

The Logistics of the Conne River Pow Wow

The Conne River Pow Wow takes place every summer at the beginning of July. All the activities on the grounds throughout the day are free.

The Pow Wow takes place in Jipuj’ij’kuei Kuespem Park. You’re welcome to camp out on in the park with other Pow Wow goers! The grounds are alcohol-free.

There is on-site tenting and RV capabilities, but electricity or running water. Campsites are equipped with fireboxes, and firewood is available to purchase.

While you’re at it, climb the steep staircase to the top of Clem’s Lookout. It’s worth it.

The view from Clem's Lookout, Conne River

If you don’t plan on camping at Jipuj’ij’kuei Kuespem Park, the nearest communities to Conne River are Milltown, Head of Bay d’Espoir, and St. Alban’s. Your best chances of finding a hotel/motel room are there, BUT book far in advance. Accommodations are limited in the Coast of Bays, especially during the summer months.

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