Wiikwemkoong turns to TikTok instead of annual powwow and cultural festival

Morning North5:43Northern Ontario First Nation hosts traditional TikTok dance competition in lieu of annual cultural festival

A business owner from Wiikwemkoong, Manitoulin Island, Ontario, launched a virtual dance competition on TikTok to help community members stay connected to their culture instead of the annual cultural festival. CBC reporter Warren Schlote has a short documentary on the project. 5:43

Wiikwemkoong has again canceled its annual cultural festival this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. So a community member started a TikTok virtual dance competition for Manitoulin Island, Ontario. First Nation instead.

Buzwah Variety owner Rick Leedham is no stranger to contests and competitions. He says he found inspiration for this project when a community member took part in a viral trend.

“I saw a video posted online by Wesley and Tracy Cleland,” he says. “They did a TikTok in their full outfit and I just thought it would be great to do a contest like that.”

Cleland’s video on Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances” has racked up nearly 10,000 views on the platform. That’s an impressive total, but it doesn’t compare to some of the biggest hits from one of TikTok’s most popular trends: #NativeTikTok.

Popular Indigenous Culture on the App

TikTok is an app that allows users to upload videos up to one minute in length. Many involve dance trends, song remixes, or lip-syncing with music.

Many Indigenous content creators have embraced the platform as a way to celebrate traditional cultures, share humor, and educate a wider audience about Indigenous history.

As of July 23, posts tagged with #NativeTikTok totaled 2.7 billion views, and even Duke Peltier, the ogimaa (chef) of Wiikwemkoong, had an account.

Leedham posted an article on Facebook about his interest in sponsoring a virtual dance competition on TikTok, his store covering cash prizes for the winners. Community members quickly took note and started pledging their own support and sponsorships, including Wikwemikong Tourism.

“I just thought it was important to have something in place with the absence of the powwow this year. A few other ideas crossed my mind, but this is it, this TikTok video, that got the ball rolling for me, “Leedham said.

The travel agency offered to run a Facebook group and promote the contest on its social media accounts.

Competition structured like a powwow

The virtual dance competition for all ages, open only to members of the Wiikwemkoong group, runs July 26-30.

People are encouraged to wear badges and record their video with family-friendly sound or music. They upload their clips to TikTok and share links on the event’s Facebook page.

And, like a true competitive powwow, there’s zhoonia – the Anishinaabemowin word for money – at stake. Total cash prizes in the adult and youth categories are over $ 2,500.

Peltier says it was an easy choice for the travel agency to support the virtual event.

“Our community, with the whole COVID situation, has been looking for ways to really get out there and practice the culture again,” he said.

Wikwemikong Tourism is also treating this as a kind of pilot project. He had already thought about hosting a TikTok virtual dance competition before Leedham started moving forward with his plans, and he’s still considering a role for himself on a larger scale.

“If we see it as a success, we might consider taking it provincially or nationally with a big virtual dance competition,” Peltier said.

The video behind it all

Tracy Cleland says she didn’t expect her TikTok content to reach many people. His account now has over 715 subscribers and tens of thousands of views.

Cleland often dances at powwows. She and her husband decided to try and have a TikTok in their badges and it quickly reached a big following.

Beyond the original short humorous videos that populate much of the app, Cleland says she has realized the potential of TikTok to create deeper connections.

“Then I started doing others that were promoting a healthy lifestyle, walking, just promoting our culture and, you know, in a positive way and a healthy lifestyle, ”she says.

Cleland says she also sees promise in the adoption of the platform by the younger generation.

“They use it as a platform to talk. I think it’s great,” she says. “I hope that maybe our young people can get really creative on TikTok and have fun and use it as an outlet to share feelings or share something positive in their community or in their life.”

Powwow healing abilities are especially important now.

The combination of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the distressing news of residential schools across Canada this summer has contributed to worsening mental well-being, among many Indigenous people, in particular.

“I just feel like we really need it here where people are starting to suffer from mental illness and isolation,” Cleland said. “I think maybe that’s why I even went to TikTok and things like that, because I was bored and needed something to entertain myself.”

Leedham agrees. While a virtual competition can never replace community feeling at an in-person powwow, Leedham says it could brighten up some people’s summer.

“I know people want to go out dancing and celebrate their tradition, so I think that would help them,” he says.

The Wiikwemkoong Cultural Festival is one of the main annual events on Manitoulin Island. It takes place over the August long weekend, but has been canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions.


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Darcy J. Skinner

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