Indigenous Educator Deanne Hupfield on the Power of Dance + Regalia Making

November is Native American Heritage Month, a dedicated time to celebrate the contributions and learn about the history of Indigenous people. To kick off the month, we're excited to chat with Indigenous educator Deanne Hupfield. Growing up in Thunder Bay and Winnipeg, Deanne witnessed the harsh realities of generational trauma within the Indigenous community stemming from residential schools and the 60s Scoop. She has spent her life reconnecting to the culture that was taken from her family from those systems. Now, she has been teaching powwow dance and regalia making for over 20 years to help others reconnect to culture as she has.

"By learning my culture, which is connected to powwow dance, I was able to dance through all that hard stuff many of us Indigenous people live through."

Can you tell us a little bit about the experience of your first powwow?

It was 1990 at the Fort William Gardens in Thunder Bay, Ontario. I remember being little and walking in holding my mom's hand. I heard the drums and, when I walked in, I saw a woman dancing and she was beautiful to me. I asked my mom to teach me to dance and my mom looked down at me and said she couldn’t teach me because she didn’t learn that growing up. But she told me to follow the women who were dancing and to do what they were doing, and I followed them around practicing to dance. Over time, they taught me stories about why powwow dancing is so important.

What did learning these dances in the years that followed give to you?

Learning to powwow dance has given me so many gifts. It helped me in a vulnerable time and gave me a pathway to a better life. Sadly, addictions and crime are common in my community. It all stems from generational trauma, and I started out on that path. I was an alcoholic by the time I was 12, and I was incarcerated by the time I was 13. Learning my culture helped me escape that life. It showed me a life I didn’t think was possible. A good life- minobimaadsawin, was one of my first teachings. And by learning my culture which is connected to powwow dance, I was able to dance through all that hard stuff many of us Indigenous people live through.

When did you learn to make your own regalia? What was the journey of reconnecting with your culture in this way like for you? 

I learned to make my own regalia in a program for at-risk Indigenous kids. It was run by an Ojibwe social worker. He brought us to powwows and, each week, we had circles where he would share stories of how he overcame his addictions by learning about being Anishnaabe. He hired Lisa Chum and Dave Moonias to come in and teach us kids. It took me 2 years to finish my first regalia. I finished it when I was 15 years old. His name was Ron and he invested a lot of time in us at-risk youth. He eventually took me in as a foster kid the same year I finished my regalia. He raised me as a daughter. It was Ron and Sharon’s dedication to supporting me in learning culture. I was not an easy kid with my addictions. I always say if you have the means to take in foster kids. We need more Native foster families so kids can grow up in their own culture. 

Due to the effects of colonialism, the Sixties Scoop, and Indian Residential Schools, many Indigenous people have had their culture taken from them, often growing up without access to their traditions, and even to their own language. How does powwow dancing and making regalia allow Indigenous people to reconnect with their culture and heal from generational trauma? 

Well powwow dancing isn’t for everyone. But for those who choose to powwow dance it has many gifts and benefits. I always tell new dancers they need to connect with their own Nation/Tribe because we all have different teachings and traditions. It is our Nation/Tribe who keeps us accountable. Along with connecting with your community, learning the language is the key to reconnection. Our languages are how our ancestors saw the world, so when you learn the language you place yourself in the world like our ancestors did. And you can bring those stories into your regalia through beadwork and applique.  

Niimikaage- dance with a purpose. My community always told me to dance for those who can’t dance. And Ron would tell me to think about all those hard things I had to live through as a kid and to dance through them, and that’s exactly what I did. In my territory, we have ceremonies at powwows when people call on the drum with whistles or fans. That’s the magical time when they keep singing, sometimes for 20 minutes straight. And in those times I would dance until I couldn’t dance anymore, and when it was over, those hard things didn’t hurt as much. Omgosh now though, so many phones lol, like put those phones away for that time and just be present. 

How does dancing and movement in particular help inspire this healing?

I have read a lot about healing trauma and the rhythmic motion of the step,1,2,1,2 on your left and right foot. You are connecting both sides of the brain in those steps. I have done EMDR to desensitize some of my trauma as well and it’s similar. Either looking right and left or having stimulation in your right and left hands. That was the EMDR experience, so similar to powwow dancing.  

Also just the physical exercise is healing. You get those endorphins and community connection. All based around reconnecting to your Nationhood and supporting your community in a good way.

You’ve been teaching powwow dancing for over 20 years. When did you first decide you wanted to help others in your community learn these dances and make their own regalia?

Well, when I was 19, I already saw the benefits of dancing and culture. And sadly my community had a lot of generational trauma. My friends and relatives struggled with addictions as well as overdose, HIV, suicide…  Just all around a lot of not good stuff. And I wanted to share that with others. So my best friend at the time and I decided to teach a Powwow Dance Class. We rented a local gymnasium for $20/hour, which was a lot for a poor kid like me lol. And we had the first class and a bunch of Ojibwe women showed up AND I WAS A TERRIBLE TEACHER LOL. And they never came back -_-.  And me being a financially illiterate kid I never canceled the rental agreement and ended up in $300 debt that followed me for 7 years.  

But I really wanted and dreamed of a better life at that time. I was still struggling with my addictions and I dreamed of being sober and having a good life. And I would go back to juvie and share my story with the new juvie kids and I helped Lisa and Dave teach at the New Experiences Program with Ron. The adults supported me even though I messed up often. And eventually the good life happened.

What does this work mean to you?

It means a lot to me. I am Ojibwe and my community is greatly impacted by the legacy of IRS. I want to use my gifts to help others reconnect to culture through dance. I feel useful in that area. Teaching is one of my gifts and it is fulfilling work. 

You often talk about Land Back, a movement that calls for the return of Indigenous lands to Indigenous people, as well as for a reclamation of all that has been stolen from these communities. How can Indigenous and Non-Indigenous people come together to support this work? 

Land is at the center of Indigenous oppression. It is the reason why the governments created Indian Policy. Policies like IRS or 60’s Scoop, and boarding schools were all meant to displace us from our lands for the benefit of settler states.  Land back is Reconciliation, and it is attainable.10-15% of a landbase is all First Nation communities need to sustain our culture, language and governance. We need to address Section 35 of our Constitution. I love the late Arthur Manuel’s books. His books are Unsettling Canada and the Reconciliation Manifesto. Education is key to moving forward.

What is a hope you have for future generations of Indigenous people?

My hope is that the current generation, my generation, does the hard work so the people coming after us will have a better life. James Vukelich taught me this amazing word in Anishnaabemowin.  Aanikoobijigan- It means great grandparents and great grandchildren, and it connects us to those who came before and those who are coming after us.  We are linked together. So what we do impacts people who we have not met and it is our job to think of how our actions affect them. In English we don’t think that way. The words don’t connect us to our future generations. So learning our Indigenous languages is also a dream for myself so my kids and grandchildren will know.