You are now in the main content area

A virtual Pow Wow

Person on a laptop

Season 1, Episode 6


Like many events in 2020, Ryerson’s Pow Wow looked a little different this year. The annual student-led initiative typically takes place on campus, but when Covid-19 hit, they were forced to shift the event online. The result? A full virtual experience, consisting of Ryerson Pow Wow Education Week and a live-streamed pre-recorded Pow Wow, with video submissions from dancers and drummers.

In this episode, Amanda Cupido speaks with student organizer Jessica Sherk and faculty member and mentor Riley Kucheran about the significance of Pow Wows and the importance of bringing Indigenous culture to the forefront on university campuses.

AMANDA: This is the Forefront — a Ryerson podcast about big problems and smart solutions.

I’m Amanda Cupido. So here’s the problem: Post-secondary institutions across the country have to figure out how to move forward on reconciliation with their Indigenous communities.

At Ryerson, they have an annual campus Pow Wow. It launched in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s one way that students, faculty and the community have risen to the challenge of reconciliation.

But bringing Indigenous culture to the forefront on university campuses looks a little bit different this year. Pandemic limitations on gathering in-person meant that the organizers had to find innovative approaches for celebrating indgenous culture, music, and dance. The solution? Ryerson’s first ever virtual Pow Wow.

MCs: Boozhoo, Aanii, Tansi! Kwe, She:kon. Hello everyone and welcome to the 2020 Ryerson University student virtual Pow Wow.

AMANDA: The two MCs for the event ran the show from Ryerson’s sunny quad. They guided viewers through a program of speeches and performances that included singing, drumming and dancing. In this performance, you can hear voices of the Black Bullmoose Singers mixed with the jingle of the bells worn by the dancer, Thunder Jack. He’s a Bear Clan Member. The bells shake as Thunder Jack steps and kicks, his black and white headdress bouncing insync with the drumming. Thunder Jack is doing a grass dance, which hails from the warrior societies of the prairies. Traditionally, grass dances were performed when families moved to a new location and wanted to communicate with the life they found there. At the start of a Pow Wow, grass dancers bless the physical space with their movement. It’s through dances like these that the Pow Wow facilitates a connection to Indigenous culture.

JESSICA: Aanii Boozhoo, my name is Jessica Sherk. I am a master of social work student at Ryerson and I was the chair and education week lead of the Ryerson 2020 virtual Pow Wow. Whatever culture that it is you identify with it — it's important for folks to connect with culture. And I think that as a student who did not grow up with my Indigenous culture, as I'm the daughter of a 60’s scoop survivor, I find these opportunities through university, which is ironic because it's a colonial institution, especially Ryerson with what its name stands for, but yet I'm so grateful for these opportunities and I wouldn't have had my connection to culture and identity without these opportunities.     

AMANDA: And even though the connection to culture that Jessica is speaking about, usually happens in person, the decision to move this year’s Pow wow online wasn’t a hard one.

RILEY: Especially because so many of our Elders and Knowledge Holders might be vulnerable members of our community, it didn't make sense to us to even attempt to do a socially distanced Pow Wow.

AMANDA: That’s Riley Kucheran.

RILEY: I’m an assistant professor of design leadership at Ryerson’s School of Fashion. And I'm also the associate director of Saagajiwe Center for Indigenous Communication and Design. I was the one to help relaunch the Pow Wow in 2018 and since then, I've stuck around as a mentor, a graduate student mentor, and now kind of the unofficial faculty mentor.

AMANDA: Pivoting online this year meant a lot of zoom panels, online performances and a slightly altered production process.

RILEY: Rather than filming a whole bunch of dancers we actually just engaged an Indigenous production company to film some of the kind of key people — so the MCs, the head dancers, we engaged fire keepers, a lot of the elements that would be in a normal Pow Wow, but we pre-produced a film and then we got dancers from all over Turtle Island to submit videos of themselves dancing to some tracks we had commissioned from some drums groups. And then we just edited together into this kind of film that I think captured the essence of 2020.

AMANDA: Riley says the Pow Wow provided an outlet for community members looking for ways to celebrate after being stuck in their homes.

RILEY: The Pow Wow trail, which is the schedule of Pow Wows that happens all over Ontario was entirely canceled. So people didn't have an opportunity over the summer to meet with their family and celebrate their culture and purchase products, which is another big part of Pow Wow is, seeing all the beautiful vendors. So none of that was available to people over the summer so we felt it was an opportunity for Ryerson to be a bit innovative and think about what a shift to a virtual Pow Wow might look like. We had an incredible group of Ryerson students who really just imagined this whole thing and executed this digital event and created a hub for Indigenous culture online, which is really beautiful.

AMANDA: Here’s Jessica.

JESSICA: From people that I've spoken with, they said that it was an amazing experience and it really brought community together, and it was just really important to kind of have that connection, even if it wasn't the same as last year’s and also for non-Indigenous folks as well, like it's important, for everyone to come to Pow Wows to celebrate Indigenous culture. 

AMANDA: Pow Wows offer up an important connection to Indigenous identity for students like Jessica, for the broader community, and for faculty like Riley.

RILEY: Well, I didn't grow up in my culture. I'm from Biigtigong Nishnaabeg but I was born and raised in Thunder Bay before moving to Caledonia, Ontario, which is in the news right now for 1492 Land Back Lane. So I grew up in very hostile environments towardsIndigenous people. And so for a long time I denied my Indigeneity and it wasn't until coming to Ryerson and meeting people at Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services that I fell in love with my culture again, and grew to love it. So Pow Wows for me were always a special occasion. It would be kind of a family reunion. Our family would all gather in Pic River for our annual Pow Wow, but it definitely didn't happen that often so it was very special to me that at a space like Ryerson, I was able to re-engage. And I think that’s the story of many Indigenous students on campus is that they don't have those cultural connections but they are craving it. And it's wonderful that students with those cultural connections are able to just collaborate with their peers, and show them like what they've been missing really.

AMANDA: And Riley says bringing a Pow Wow to Ryerson’s downtown Toronto campus makes a powerful statement about reclaiming space.

RILEY: Most Pow Wows happen in non-urban centres on reserve and traditional territories. So having an urban Pow Wow is quite significant in the sense of place-making and claiming space because people who might live in downtown Toronto don't make it out back to their homes all the time. And especially students who might be far from home, I think it gives them an opportunity to just reconnect. It is quite a powerful experience to hear the drums of a Pow Wow or to smell the smoke of a sacred fire in such a concrete place. I think there's also a significance that the name of the university is done for Egerton Ryerson, who is an architect of the residential school system. So I think it's another powerful statement on rethinking our institutions and paying more attention to our efforts to include Indigenous people. I feel like we have an extra responsibility to do that given the founder of the university.

AMANDA: In 1998 Ryerson was the first Toronto university to host a traditional Pow Wow on campus, but after a few iterations, the celebrations fell to the wayside. Here’s Riley.

RILEY: It was a much smaller event back then. It was one afternoon and very much resembled a typical Pow Wow. It was just the dancing and drumming and singing and some vendors. We didn't have all of those kinds of education pieces but that was a goal from day one was to rethink what an institutional Pow Wow looks like.

AMANDA: Twenty years later — so in 2018 — the Pow Wow was relaunched by Ryerson’s Indigenous community. Since then it has grown to include an entire week of programming, to extend the experience beyond the Pow Wow itself.

RILEY: Education week is an opportunity to showcase the diversity of Indigenous initiatives across the university. So there's history panels, there's art panels, there's film panels. It is very reflective of our programming at Ryerson. Our theory is if you, you know, hear Pow wow and you fall in love with Pow wow, And you learn about education week, there’s going to be something there for you to continue that journey because the journey to learn more about Indigenous peoples will be different for everyone. My journey has been through learning and practicing Indigenous fashion and learning about our design and how we work as Indigenous designers and retailers and entrepreneurs. So that's been a very specific way of learning about our culture, so I think that's how providing all of those options for people, makes sure that everyone has a journey to take.

AMANDA: For Jessica, putting on this year’s Pow Wow was also a journey in understanding what she is capable of.

JESSICA: I think especially when we think about Indigenous students organizing a Pow Wow, it's important because it gives us an opportunity to learn skills that we may have not otherwise learned. I've never organized the Pow Wow before, especially a virtual Pow Wow, so that was a huge undertaking but I had like mentors as supports and an amazing team to work with. So it went really well.

RILEY: Part of that mentorship role is just working with the students and first off, listening to them, seeing what they imagined for Pow Wow 2020 and then helping them adapt to that vision. So I was happy to just make those personal connections and introduce students to some key people across the university.

AMANDA: Relationships with Indigenous agencies and community partners — beyond Ryerson — were also key to the success of the Pow Wow. And despite the logistical challenges of the pandemic, the team was still able to incorporate a give-back element

JESSICA: last year they did a food drive and this year we wanted to continue that. And especially with COVID for folks who were homeless or at risk of homelessness and we were still able to do that. We got medicines and PPE and food supplies to go to, I think, five or six Indigenous agencies across Toronto which was really amazing that we pulled it off given with COVID and everything, and certain restrictions and trying to navigate volunteer logistics and stuff like that. But we still managed to do it. And, and the amount of support that we got from the Ryerson community and, and beyond, was so amazing.

AMANDA: Now that it’s all wrapped up — looking back, there was one specific moment for Riley that really stood out...

RILEY: one of my highlights from 2020 was one of our student team members actually spent most of their summer at 1492 land back lane, the land defenders site in Caledonia. So this student was in charge of community outreach so they are very much a key part of the Pow Wow team and they chose to spend most of their summer working directly with land defenders on the front line. And at times it was challenging because they couldn't zoom into meetings from this open field where these protests are ongoing but it was so important to have them there and in my mind it was very clear that this is your calling. This is your role for 2020, is just helping those land defenders. So someone might not think that is, you know an event planning task, but supporting community in that way is the reason why we have Pow Wows and it was our obligation as Indigenous people to just show solidarity for that movement. It showed for all team members — or reinforced — why we do it and how this isn't just an event. It's not just like a fun occasion. There are serious implications for needing our land back. And that was a part of the conversation in our team meetings. And that was really special.

AMANDA: That experience was just one example of how the Pow Wow has a ripple effect

RILEY: I think the diversity of our student body really makes the Ryerson Pow Wows special because we ended up getting students from all over the world so we're able to engage Indigenous Indigenous students from everywhere. So globally Indigenous students, in addition to Canadian Aboriginal students. So we get this wonderful, hybridity of Indigenous culture. And then we also just get this multiculturalism from being a downtown Toronto that meshes with that. So it's beautiful to see these kinds of international connections grow. And I think some of my fondest memories of Pow Wow are when volunteers from other countries take me aside and talk about how they had no idea about these histories or they find Indigenous culture just so beautiful and that's something they didn't get when they first came to Canada. So I'm glad that we can provide that kind of international solidarity, I guess you might call it

AMANDA: At Ryerson, the momentum is carrying into their latest Indigenous initiative called the Global Solidarity Series. It’s a video series that fosters conversations between Indigenous communities and land defenders, globally. They’re going to have guests from across the world talk about Indigenous solidarity. So good! Wrapping up, here’s a final word from Riley on reconciliation at Ryerson...

RILEY: I very much see The Ryerson Pow Wow as, um, like an embodiment of the spirit of the university in the sense that we offer this diverse program that focuses on innovation and entrepreneurship. And we curate this education week that is reflective of who we are as a university and what we want to become. I think a different university might have just seen the Pow Wow as an event. It's a party, it's a celebration,and we're not really going to, you know, fund it or support it beyond that. But I've seen Pow Wow from the beginning as much more than that. I actually kind of think of it as a bit like a zone. It's an incubation space for Indigenous creativity and entrepreneurship, and there's all these incredible projects that grow from Pow Wow because we plant seeds. So conversations we've had in 2018 led to panels in 2019, which have led to like programming changes or changes to the way services are delivered at Ryerson and Pow Wow is changing the university itself. And I think they've been very receptive to that. And it just goes to show like how, I think, devoted we are to the reconciliation process and taking it seriously and it's been a wonderful kind of catalyst for indigenization. .

AMANDA: This podcast was created for alumni and friends by University Advancement at Ryerson. Special thanks to our guests on today’s episode: Jessica Sherk and Riley Kutcheran. I’m your host, and proud Ryerson grad, Amanda Cupido. To learn more about the Pow Wow, and more episodes of this podcast and others, visit

The Forefront — Ideas for cities

Our new podcast, The Forefront, showcases how Ryerson is tackling the big issues facing Canadians through bold research, innovation, and collaboration. From cybersecurity to finding solutions to the problems facing our ageing population — The Forefront will shed light on how Ryerson is addressing these issues.

The Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education (CCAE) Prix d’Excellence Award medallion

The Forefront is a proud recipient of the Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education (CCAE) Prix d’Excellence Award.

Listen on Spotify or wherever you get podcasts.

Listen on Spotify    RSS feed link