Nestled in with The Pas along the Saskatchewan River, Opaskwayak Cree Nation is a vibrant northern Manitoba community with more than 4,500 residents and, among other things, a Junior A hockey team called the OCN Blizzard.
As lively as OCN is year-round, it really lights up in August when it hosts the seven days of celebration and competition known as Opaskwayak Indian Days. This year’s festivities run August 17-23.
“It’s a celebration of our community,” Indian Days events coordinator Kirby Sinclair says. “It’s a weeklong event open to everybody and anybody. We’ve had people come from as far away as England and Germany, with good reviews from them.
“We have canoe teams that come from Minnesota and Quebec and B.C. to race in our big Canoe Classic. We have people coming for the square dance contest from Prince Albert (Saskatchewan), Moose Lake, Cross Lake and Peguis. So it’s basically for everybody.
“We showcase our traditions and we open it up for the public so the public can see what we do as First Nations people and they can partake as well.”
This year’s Indian Days is the 50th anniversary edition. It’s bigger than ever before, and far bigger than the first one.
Indian Days started as a one-day event with running races, canoe races and “a little more,” Sinclair says, adding that organizers planned to expand it in subsequent years.
It certainly has grown in participation and scope, with numerous components that now include fishing, jigging, softball, soccer, bicycling, a parade, a scavenger hunt, archery, singing and much more.
Opaskwayak Indian Days 2015 kicks off Monday, August 17, with a pageant to crown Princesses in three age categories: Tiny Tots (5 to 9 years), the mid-level Juniors and the Senior category of 14-18. The Princesses are selected after speeches and talent demonstrations.
Featured on the last day, Sunday, are the finals of slo-pitch and soccer tournaments and a fun fishing derby.
In between, there’s a panoply of activities that appeal to all ages. The agenda for Wednesday for instance, includes bicycle races, canoe races, indoor events at Gordon Lathlin Memorial Centre, and a parade from the Otineka Mall to Pike Lake.
At the parade’s end, everyone’s greeted by OCN’s chief plus dignitaries from The Pas and the provincial government. “They make opening remarks, and then our chief shoots a flaming arrow into the lake, starting off celebrations officially,” Sinclair says.
“Then with that we have canoe races for the kids all day, and a few races for the adults,” he continues. “And on Wednesday evening we go back to Gordon Lathlin Arena, where we have adult and children events going on.”
Other events include archery, flour packing, horseshoes, a youth singing competition, bannock baking and (on Friday evening) a community talent showcase.
And there’s so much more – “at least 40 events in total, and we’re striving to have a bit more every year,” Sinclair notes.
What’s in it for city folk? Why should they consider Indian Days for their summer travel plans?
“Well,” says Sinclair, “for one thing, there’s a weeklong schedule of competitions and culture. People from out of town could see the way we showcase our events, not only with the competitions going on, but with other things like the powwow demonstrations where people can see how our culture is.
“It’s not only for native people but it’s for others as well, and they can partake in the events. It’s friendly competition, not fierce competition. We are opening up our culture to everybody in fun competition ways.”
He adds that “all competitions are basically from the way we live our life.”
Opaskwayak Indian Days saw tremendous growth in its first couple of decades, expanding to a seven-day event by the 1980s. “To this day,” Sinclair says, “we’re still adding events – one or two a year. Sometimes we’ll take some out and put on new ones.”