Family honours longtime elder Jacob Sanderson with special dance at Thanksgiving pow wow

Veterans and flag bearers lead the dignitaries and dancers into the arena during the Grand Entry on Saturday night at the 2023 Northern Lights Casino Thanksgiving Pow Wow. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

B.J. Sanderson and his family have been coming to the Northern Lights Casino Thanksgiving Pow Wow in Prince Albert for years, but this one was the most difficult.

Attending the Thanksgiving pow wow is a family tradition for the Sandersons, but 2023 marked the first year they attended without elder Jacob Sanderson, B.J.’s father. Jacob was a mainstay at the Thanksgiving pow wow since the early 2000s, and B.J. said it was tough being back at the three-day event without him.

“My dad was always here and this weekend, … it was really hard for us emotionally to all be here,” B.J. said during an interview. “Today we’re thankful that we all came together. Watching everybody dance made us all feel good.”

On Saturday night, B.J. and the Sanderson family celebrated their father the way they knew best. They held a special dance for junior dancers at the Thanksgiving pow wow, and awarded the winner a belt modeled after a professional wrestling championship belt.

B.J. said his dad loved pow wow dancing and professional wrestler The Rock, so holding a special dance to crown a People’s Champion after Saturday’s grand entry was a natural decision.

“We got together and we talked about wanting to have a special for my dad,” B.J. said. “We said, ‘let’s get together. We’ll do it at Northern Lights because this is where he always participated and helped out at…. Dad, he always wanted to have a special here, and the one category that I didn’t see that don’t get recognized or honoured here is the juniors, the youth categories, and he said if he would ever have a special here he would call it the People’s Champ. We wanted to honour that.”

Saturday’s pow wow was the first Northern Lights Casino Thanksgiving Pow Wow since 2018. That was also the last pow wow Jacob attended. He passed away in 2020.

A dancer performs during the Grand Entry at the Northern Lights Casino Thanksgiving Pow Wow on Saturday. The event returned to the Art Hauser Centre last weekend for the first time since 2018. — Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

The family also honoured Patrick Sanderson during the ceremony. B.J. said it was difficult, but something the family felt they had to do.

“It made us stronger, to come together and do this for my dad and my late brother. We talked about it and we decided, ‘let’s honour our dad and our brother how they wanted to be honoured.’”

Pow wow president Richard Ahenakew said Jacob was a mainstay at the pow wow, and helped turn it into the successful event it is today.

“He helped us out in a lot of tough times,” Ahenakew explained. “He’s helped a lot of our casinos out, helped a lot of our organizations, but as an elder, he’s always played a pivotal lead role in helping shape this pow wow.

“He was there from the start. He helped us find a lot of the people we used for the events and that, and we care deeply about him. To many of us he’s like a father or a brother to us or an uncle. He’s such a good man. He shared so much of his knowledge with us. We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him.”

Nearly 1,000 people attended the first day of the 2023 Thanksgiving Pow Wow. Ahenakew said they were glad to have the crowds back for the first time since 2018.

“Celebration has always been important to us,” he said. “It just seems to make the year so much better. I’m already blessed at the casino with great hard working staff, and to see them pull off a celebration like this is incredible.

“There’s just no words to describe the feelings that we have and the joy that we have. It’s so nice to see people we haven’t seen for a long time, because we’ve been doing this for 20 years, now, 20 pow wows, and some of these people have become close friends of our, close family members.”