James Smith Cree Nation youth shows passion for powwow

Keaton Constant and his father Kirby (both centre) carry the eagle staff into the Prince Albert Exhibition Centre during the PAGC Fine Arts Festival grand entry on Monday. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Keaton Constant has lived up to his name on the Saskatchewan powwow circuit.

The nine-year-old from James Smith Cree Nation has been a constant presence at powwows across the province, but on Monday he had a chance to do something he’d never done before:  carry the eagle staff for a grand entry.

Keaton carried the eagle staff in with help from his father, newly elected James Smith Cree Nation Chief Kirby Constant, to kick off the Prince Albert Grand Council Fine Arts Festival.

“We’ve been to numerous powwows (and) we’ve never been granted the Eagle Staff for him personally to carry in,” Kirby said. “I was pretty emotional because it’s a big honour to get that Eagle Staff, especially from the elders, and to carry it in as the first grand entry was very uplifting for me, knowing he was included.”

Keaton was born with PFFD-Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency, a rare condition the affects less than 0.2 per cent of all births. As a result, Keaton suffers from a Congenital heart defect, among other health issues, but he hasn’t let that keep him from taking part in powwow traditions.

Kirby said the family was “blown away” when the elders asked Keaton to carry the eagle staff in. He also said Keaton hasn’t stopped talking about it.

“He’ll probably just be talking about it until the next powwow,” Kirby said with a laugh. “He’ll be saying, ‘oh, I got to carry the Eagle Staff.”

Despite his health struggles, Keaton maintains an active life. He’s always talking about powwows and watching videos, but he’s also mobile enough to take part in them too.

PAGC Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte said Keaton is a great example for other youth, and a great representative for Indigenous people.

“He’s been around the powwows—I’ve seen him so many times—and he’s such an ambassador for the powwows and the culture and the values too,” Hardlotte said. “You see him there shaking hands, and he’s really respectful.”

For Kirby and the rest of the Constant family, honours like carrying in the eagle staff are a bonus. They’re just happy he’s able to join the family at events like the PAGC Fine Arts Festival.

“He’s pretty remarkable,” Kirby said. “What we’re told when he was in his mother’s womb was he was going to take one breath and that was it kind of thing,” Kirby said. “Going through that was quite emotional, and for him going forward now, it’s just like every day is a new breath for him to be alive.”

PAGC Fine Arts Festival highlights need for new facility

The Constants were among hundreds of Prince Albert Grand Council youths, teachers, and chaperones who arrived in PA for the PAGC Fine Arts Festival on Monday.

Kirby himself participated in the event as a youth 31 years ago. His mother was in charge of organizing and teaching dancers in preparation for the event.

As an adult watching his children and their friends take part, Kirby said it’s vital to keep events like this going.

“(It’s) a big draw for students in these remote communities,” he said. “It’s something to look forward (to).”

This year’s event was held at the Prince Albert Exhibition Centre, where crowds filled every seat in preparation for the first day of competition. Grand Chief Briand Hardlotte said it’s great to see such a turnout, but also a reminder that the PAGC needs a bigger facility.

Prior to COVID-19, the PAGC hosted their annual Fine Arts Festival at the Senator Allan Bird Memorial Centre, which was destroyed by fire in 2022. Hardlotte said the PAGC has formed a project team and funding has been approved. However, they still need to work out a few design details.

When addressing PAGC youth following the Grand Entry, Hardlotte encouraged them to write letters to the project committee advocating for a new facility.

“We had over 1,500 students and chaperons here, and it’s a big building, but we need a bigger building,” Hardlotte said. “I asked the teachers to help their students and to write up the letters—either email or however they can do it—and send those letters to myself and the project team to speed up the project so we can get a new building in.”

The Fine Arts Festival wraps up with a dance Thursday evening.