The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

Charles Woods began powwow competitions after a memorable dream a few years ago.

“A calling came to me from a dream and I went from there,” he says.

Woods was one of the powwow dancers participating in an annual celebration at the Siksika Nation east of Calgary Aug. 9 to 11. 

The event draws dancers from across the country for competition, fun and display.

For Woods, who is from the Siksika Nation, participating as a senior men’s traditional dancer in professional powwow competitions is a method of spiritual healing.

“It’s a warrior dance,” says Woods. “It (symbolizes) battle and the different parts of the regalia that I wear is spiritual. The eagle feathers are highly respected in the powwow circle.”

The Siksika competition attracts the world’s best in several unique categories. Women and men compete for the highest scores before a panel of judges in dance types including Fancy, Fancy Shawl, Grass, Traditional and Prairie Chicken.

Powwows happen year-round in First Nations communities, including winter powwows in warmer climates in the United States.

Woods travels to different settings all over the country and the U.S. to dance in competitions. His special move is raising his eagle staff, making loud calls, like the sound of a bird. When this happens, other dancers centre around him.

“It’s a bellow that I do,” he says. “It means victory in battle. Traditional dancers are telling a story of their battle; it could be a victory or defeat. When I raise my eagle talon, it's a victory battle.”

Relationships within the arena are mutual. 

“It means a lot to me when I dance,” Woods says. “I dance for healing, and for the people. We get along very well (as dancers) and always greet each other.”

Woods dances with his face painted in black and white, with black covering most of his face and white around the mouth. He carries a decorated staff with an eagle claw at the end with feathers tied on.  

Profile CharlesWoods Blackhorse1Profile CharlesWoods Blackhorse7 copy copyAnimal parts make up parts of Woods' regalia which includes feathers, beads, an eagle talon and sweetgrass loop. Photo by Floyd Black Horse

He also wears a breastplate, shield and porcupine quills. Woods says the eagle feathers he wears on his head and the eagle bustle on his back represent two birds fighting.

“My bustle is very sacred,” he says. “They’re holy feathers. My regalia consists of different parts of animals as well.”

Spirituality is an aspect of the dance Woods hopes brings healing to his band.

“Our culture is very rich and close-knit,” he says. “The Aboriginals are close-knit here (in Siksika). We all pretty much know each other.”

Woods is part of an extended family on the reserve and a father of four. He isn’t the only family member passionate about dancing; his granddaughter is a Jingle Dress dancer.

“It stems back from our ancestors,” he says. “My daughter’s very (proud of) her culture, along with my granddaughter, who is growing up into it. My family comes from the Aakaipokaiksi clan (meaning many children) and carries on family to family.”

This year’s Siksika Nation gathering drew hundreds to the community’s state-of-the-art Piiksapi Arbour. Featuring decorated panels and flooring with a floor-to-sky ceiling concept, spectators have a 360-degree view of the performances.

After competing in his own community, Woods has his sights set on the next event. 

Profile CharlesWoods Blackhorse6Charles Woods says about competition, "everytime the drumstick beats on the drum its like a heartbeat. It really gets you moving." Photo by Floyd Black Horse

He says travelling from powwow to powwow is part of his life, allowing him to meet all kinds of people and welcoming spectators, who come from as far as North Asia to see the magnificence of the dances.