Tornado-damaged powwow arena repaired just in time for Swan Lake First Nation’s celebrations

Rising out of the wreckage of a mid-June tornado, a southwestern Manitoba First Nation didn’t let the aftermath of the storm stop its 26th annual powwow.

A tornado ripped through the west side of Swan Lake First Nation on June 12, destroying the aluminum roof of its powwow arbour — an open-air arena where powwows take place.

Powwow committee member Wanda McKinney-Cameron says there was slight worry and disappointment that the arbour was damaged, but she trusted her committee would come together to get it back up for the start of the 26th annual Swan Lake First Nation Competition Pow Wow Friday.

“This is what we do in times of need, times of crisis, the community always comes together,” McKinney-Cameron said. “I … never thought that we wouldn’t be able to get it done because I just know what my community can do.”

They began cleaning up the powwow grounds the same evening the storm passed, McKinney-Cameron said. By Friday morning the damage was cleared and assessed so they could get to work repairing the arbour.

The frame of a red and yellow structure shows damage, with large platforms and metal sheets piled up on the ground.
The arbour where Swan Lake First Nation holds its annual powwow was heavily damaged by the tornado on Wednesday, June 12. (Submitted by Jordan Carruthers)

A week later on June 21, a new structure was in place.

Swan Lake First Nation chief Jason Daniels praised the powwow committee for coming together to ensure the arbour was rebuilt for the long weekend.

He says it was crazy when the tornado touched down in the First Nation located about 160 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg. Residents were watching the skies all day waiting to see when and if a tornado would touch down, as heavy rains and winds slammed the community.

A fancy dancer.
Drew Pinacie competes in fancy dance. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

He says they are fortunate and grateful no one was injured or died during the storm.

If they had been unable to erect a new arbour, Daniels said, they would have cancelled or rescheduled the powwow — which can be tricky because it would intrude on other powwow weekends.

“Without [the powwow committee], you know, we wouldn’t have a successful powwow this weekend,” Daniels said. “It’s something that people look forward to. We have people coming up to us … saying, ‘You know what, we’ve been coming for many years and we were very grateful to see that it came and continued this year.'”

Celebration of culture

Old-style single dancer and powwow committee member Emily McKinney said it was sad to see the arbour destroyed because it was unforeseen devastation.

But the community came together in a beautiful way to rise from the wreckage because they know how important the powwow is for dancers, drummers and visitors, McKinney said.

Inter tribal dance at a powwow.
Inter-tribal dance begins at the powwow. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

“It’s very empowering … there’s a lot of strength and a strong will of culture amongst our community. Like we want to see culture and we want to have our annual celebration,” McKinney said. “I think that’s such a lovable feeling.”

McKinney said as a dancer she wants people to share the joy of entering the powwow arbour arena. When she enters it’s a rush of emotions mixing love, healing and community.

Daniels is a former traditional dancer. He says when a dancer enters the arbour arena it’s a chance to come together that feels very powerful.

They wanted to ensure people had that experience at Swan Lake, Daniels said. It was especially important because a lot of people have been coming to the powwow for decades.

“It’s their weekend,” Daniels said. “There’s a lot of events Canada Day weekend, but they chose to come, you know, to our community, which we’re very grateful, very honoured.”

The Grand Entry at a powwow.
Chief Jason Daniels say there was an impetus to get the arbour reparied for dancers, drummers and visitors that have been coming to the powwow for decades. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

The final week leading into powwow is always hectic even without a tornado, McKinney-Cameron said.

There was a sense of relief when Saturday’s celebration was about to begin. They had some bad weather forcing the cancellation of the Grand Entry Friday, but it was moved to noon Saturday when the weather was more agreeable.

“It’s important, I think, for our community as a whole because it is our annual celebration,” McKinney-Cameron said. “You can feel the excitement in our community members, you know, the pride in their home, in our community.”

Dancers participate in an intertribal dance at a powwow.
The powwow commitee says the arbour was fully repaired about two weeks after the tornado. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)