Twenty-five years ago, Don Barnaby was “helpless, hopeless, and homeless,” having spent 10 years living on the streets. He was in the depths of addiction, and didn’t believe he’d ever make it out.
Now, he’s getting ready to organize Kahnawake’s first-ever New Year’s Eve Sobriety Powwow, having himself recently celebrated 25 years sober.
“I’ve officially been sober for as long as I drank, and this year was a milestone for me that I wanted to embrace,” said Barnaby, who is Mi’kmaq. “I see that in most of our communities, with our youth especially, there’s a high rate of drinking and drugging that’s going on. So I really felt that I wanted to do something to help the community, even though I’m just a guest in this community.”
Having organized 11 sober powwows in other communities, Barnaby is confident that Kahnawake’s first will be seamless. The New Year’s Eve event will run at Kahnawake Survival School (KSS) from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. with free admission, as well as food and refreshments.
There will be smoke dance specials with male and female categories, with first, second, and third place cash prizes. Categories include youth aged 12 and under, teens 13-17, adults 18-39, and older adults aged 40+.
Barnaby said it’s particularly important that there are sober activities for community members to enjoy during the holiday season.
“People say that alcoholism is a three-fold disease, mentally, spiritually, and physically, and for me it was a three-fold disease with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s,” he said. “We’re tempted to drink, tempted to go to parties. There are going to be people who are sober and struggling in the holiday season. I wanted to provide this safe space to let people know they don’t need to be drinking to have a good time, and I wanted to also have traditional dancing, to remind the community how ceremony is really important.”
For Barnaby, powwow dance has been a way to heal from his addiction.
“Powwow saved my life,” he said. “And I hope that it saves others.”
The event will see Lance Delisle emcee, with Owen Mayo taking on the role of arena director. Mayo, who recently gave Barnaby his 25-year sober anniversary pin, said that once he learned about the event, he was immediately on board.
“What’s powerful about powwow is that it proves you can live a happy, healthy, sober lifestyle, and all the dancers are going to be sober for New Year’s. They don’t need alcohol, they don’t need drugs to have a good time,” he said.
Mayo has had his own struggles with substance abuse and said that choosing to abstain from hard drugs and alcohol saved his life.
“It’s really very scary to get sober, because your whole life has to change. For myself, if I kept using, I probably wouldn’t have survived to 30, and I’ve lost many friends, even recently, to drugs and alcohol,” he said. “It’s bittersweet that I’ve survived this long, but at the same time I truly think just coming and being sober, asking questions helps.”
Mayo said he’s more than willing to discuss his sobriety journey with attendees.
“Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself. There’s going to be so many sober people there. Go talk to them, ask them questions. They’re all very proud that they’re sober,” he said. “People there are sober, and the reason why is because of powwow. And we’re willing to share that knowledge, to help you in the right direction.”
The night will be one of ceremony, with an honour song in remembrance of those who have been lost to addiction.
“We’re going to ask families to come into the circle to dance for those who have crossed over into the Spirit World, who lost their lives to addiction,” Barnaby said. “They don’t have to, but we want to acknowledge the families who have lost someone to drugs or alcohol; it’s in remembrance.”
As well as holding space for those who have passed on, Barnaby said the night will also celebrate sobriety. Giveaways will be held every 15 minutes, with gift cards supplied by Kahnawake Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services (KSCS).
Barnaby said KSCS’s financial support has been invaluable throughout the planning process, which Rebecca D’Amico, clinical supervisor of secondary prevention at KSCS, said they’ve been more than willing to provide.
“When community members come forward and have these incredible ideas, if there’s anything we can do for sponsorship, that’s the least we can do,” she said. “These are community dollars. This is where it needs to be, injected back into the community.”
A small number of Onkwehón:we vendors will also be at the event, including Aimee Benedict, Tansi Maskwa, East Meets West, and Jojo Fricot, and each will be offering an item from their business as part of the giveaways happening throughout the night.
Kili Ann, an urban Inuk from Montreal and Quaqtaq who will be selling her art and jewellery, said she was delighted to be able to join the event.
“I think it’s a great idea, because I’m sober, and I want sober events,” she said. “I think it’s important for me to be with my Indigenous community during New Year’s Eve. It’s a sober event and powwow at the same time, and I love the spirit of Indigenous gathering and support.”
Barnaby emphasized that the night will be a safe and healthy space for all, and that anybody under the influence of drugs or alcohol will be turned away at the door. He added that children are more than welcome at the event.
“When I was out there drinking and drugging on New Year’s Eve, I wouldn’t remember the next day,” he said. “But this is going to be an experience everyone will remember, and everyone will talk about how we were surrounded by sober people, and we welcomed in the New Year sober. It’s a great message for everybody.”