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Dakota Nation’s Winterfest strengthens traditions, emboldens youth

January 29, 2023

Thousands in Brandon for 4-day festival after a two-year hiatus

Dancers enter the Dakota Nation Winterfest Grand Entry on Friday, Jan. 27. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

CBC News: Carrying the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation eagle staff with pride Friday evening, Donny McKay led the first Dakota Nation Winterfest Grand Entry since 2020.

McKay, 67, has been dancing for more than 50 years. Carrying the staff is a great honour, said the traditional dancer. As he dances, McKay looks to the past and future of the Dakota Nation with hope. “That’s what powwow is all about. It’s a place of positive energy, a place where different tribes get together and celebrate.”

The four-day Winterfest event has become an annual tradition in Brandon that helps bring people together to celebrate Indigenous culture each January. Running from Thursday to Sunday, it filled the Keystone Centre with traditional activities like powwow, jigging and moccasin games, paired with sports tournaments designed to help people get active in the dead of winter.

A man dressed in traditional regalia hold an eagle staff.
Donny McKay holds the eagle staff during Friday’s Grand Entry dance. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Growing up, McKay says his grandmother instilled a sense of pride in the Dakota spirit and the legacy of its warriors. McKay’s regalia tells the story of his ancestors and their fight for Dakota identity. He’s now passing this passion on to the next generations.

It’s been a powerful experience seeing Dakota culture, language and traditions strengthen through events like Winterfest, McKay says. It helps keep Indigenous culture strong by bringing experiences like the powwow and moccasin games to an urban centre and to youth.

Men play a traditional Indigenous game with moccasins on the floor.
Men play the traditional moccasin game at Dakota Nation Winterfest Grand Entry on Saturday, Jan. 28. It’s a traditional gambling game where two teams take turns hiding an object under a moccasin or mat. The opposing team tries to guess where the item is hidden. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

He said the event is “getting better all the time,” and it felt like an explosion of pride dancing in Grand Entry for the first time in two years. “We came back strong because here we are back again … most of us are back and we do this for the younger generation,” McKay said.

Dancers enter the powwow arena for Grand Entry.
Flag carriers lead Friday’s Grand Entry. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Urban people that live in the cities have a right to know and embrace their Indigenous identity, McKay said, and Winterfest helps them access and celebrate Dakota culture. “That’s why we bring them to the city, because some of them don’t ever get out on the powwow circuit,” McKay said.

“We have to bring pride to the people, to the younger people, because loss of identity for some of them, loss of language, loss of culture … we are bringing that back through powwow, through dancing and singing.”

A man dresses in powwow regalia.
Fredrick Fox from North Dakota prepares to dance Friday. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

McKay has been dancing at Winterfest since it first began about 25 years ago. One of the biggest changes he’s seen has been the blossoming pride of culture on display. “We have went through a lot of turmoil with our language and culture. It’s coming up again … The pride is strong it’s always going to be like that we’ve opened up a new chapter.”

A girl dressed in powwow regalia holds a baby yoda.
Chloe Redman, 7, holds a baby Yoda doll Friday. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation chief Jennifer Bone said Winterfest sees thousands of people from across Canada and the United States gathering together to celebrate Indigenous culture. The festival also includes a nine-division hockey tournament from youth to adults, along with volleyball and basketball tournaments.

Dakota Nation Winterfest brings thousands together from across Canada, US

“I think everybody feels rejuvenated,” Bone said. “It’s a good weekend to come out and visit with friends and enjoy the different events. You reconnect with people.”

Elders, knowledge keepers gather

Sioux Valley hosted a special elders and knowledge keeper gathering two days before Winterfest with a group of sister Dakota, Lakota and Nakoda communities. Bone says the gathering was an opportunity to talk about culture, language and teachings.

Dancers enter the powwow arena for Grand Entry.
Thousands of people attend Dakota Nation Winterfest each year from across Canada and the United States.(Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

It helped ground the 2023 Winterfest in education and culture, she said, through positive conversations with elders and knowledge keepers from different communities. “There’s a lot of positive energy in there,” Bone said. “That atmosphere was really uplifting and it’s nice to see all the children celebrating our culture and just coming together and enjoying the time here.”

A man ties bells to his powwow regalia shoes.
Kessin Thompson from Opaskwayak Cree Nation ties the bell to his chicken dance outfit Friday. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Youth are embracing and practicing their culture, she said, and it shows that Indigenous people are still strong and resilient. People can approach different dancers and singers if they have questions about the culture, Bone said, and the powwow emcees drive home education by sharing knowledge and teachings and culture.

A man ties his arm piece onto his regalia.
Carry the Kettle Nakoda Nation member Kevin Haywaheat ties an arm band to his regalia Friday. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

“I think it’s like a great opportunity for urban members to come out and enjoy, not only our own urban members, but you know Indigenous people in general as well as non-Indigenous for them to come out and enjoy the powwow and see what it’s all about,” Bone said.

Sioux Valley traditional dancer Ella Wacanta, 15, is grateful to be celebrating her culture back at Winterfest.

Dancers enter the powwow arena for Grand Entry.
Jingle dress dancers enter the Dakota Nation Winterfest Grand Entry on Saturday, Jan. 28. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

“It feels great having it back because being at Winterfest, the powwow here, it’s like you’re being at home where all your troubles can all go away.” Even though the Winterfest powwow takes place indoors in January, Wacanta said, the power of the drum beat remains powerful.

A young girl ties a hair piece to her powwow regalia.
Traditional dancer Elle Wacanta, 15, from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation ties a hair piece to her powwow outfit.(Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

It’s vital to visit different powwows, Wacanta said, because each dance, drum song and piece of regalia has a story to share and teaching to impart. “When I’m dancing and my dad’s drum group is singing, they’re telling a story.”

Dancers enter the powwow arena for Grand Entry.
Fredrick Fox stands in the Dakota Nation Winterfest Grand Entry Saturday. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Chelsea Kemp

Brandon Reporter

Chelsea Kemp is a multimedia journalist with CBC Manitoba. She is based in CBC’s bureau in Brandon, covering stories focused on rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback with