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Remembering the golden dancer  

Bernice Diabo Montour was a powwow dancer in the Women's Traditional Golden Age category. Courtesy Noreen Montour

Wherever Bernice Diabo Montour was, her next adventure couldn’t have been too far away. 

Her daughter Noreen Montour remembers this well, with her childhood punctuated with travels across Turtle Island. 

“She was always game for everything. She just wanted to always go places and experience new things,” said Noreen. “She was a very vibrant, colourful person who lived in the moment. She always embraced the lighter side of things.” 

Most often, they’d drive to powwows together, from one side of Canada and the US to the other. It’s something they did together for the 15-plus years Noreen danced, with a lineup of country songs keeping them company on the hours-long drives.  

Eventually, it was her older sister Vicki Wahienhawi Montour, who danced in the jingle category, that became Bernice’s powwow and travel partner.  

“It’s always travelling, we always travelled,” said Vicki. “She’d just hop in a car and go.”  

Bernice was no stranger to the powwow circuit; she’d been attending for decades with her daughters. But it’s only at the age of 70 that she began dancing herself – even her granddaughter Keysa Parker was already dancing by then. 

“We both supported each other in our dancing careers. We were both each other’s biggest cheerleaders,” said Parker.  

“Whenever it was her contest time, I would make sure that I stood across from her in the arena every single time,” said Parker, adding she always danced along with her as a show of support. And Bernice did the same in return for every one of Parker’s contest songs. 

They had an unspoken tradition between them: Parker always tended to her grandmother first. “That was how we did things. I took care of her first, do her hair first and make sure she was ready to go, so that I was ready to go.” 

When Bernice truly committed to dancing, her family got behind her to put together her regalia. Bernice had always sewn; Noreen was always the beader. “We invested and we started to get her feathers together,” said Parker. Bernice was gifted a straight black and white eagle feather from family in Saskatchewan.  

Soon after, Noreen, her husband Timmy Norton, and Bernice also worked on making her a beaded top featuring the design of the American flag, a dedication to her late husband Roy Montour who served United States Marine Corps. It’s a project that took over a year to finalize. Slowly, it all came together, and Bernice added pieces to her collection as the years went on.  

“She always encouraged me to dance. She was the wind beneath my wings. And then after she turned 70, I became the wind beneath her wings,” Noreen said. “Powwow dancing gave her the opportunity to be able to meet new people. And that’s something that she just loved.” 

In many ways, Bernice defied the convention of age. “My mom’s life only began when she got older,” Noreen said, suggesting that dancing breathed new life into her.  

Bernice found her second family on the powwow trail once she began dancing – and her circle only grew from there. 

“She never met a stranger, let’s put it that way. Everybody she met, she loved,” said Sharon Roberts of Chickasaw Nation, who lives in Ada, Oklahoma. “She loved laughter, she loved to tease. She was a very, very happy person,” she said of Bernice.  

The two met on the powwow trail in the early 1990s as they both competed in the Women’s Traditional Golden Age category and crossed paths on the circuit over the years that followed. “It was like we felt like we knew each other our whole lives,” said Roberts. 

“It’s an amazing life,” Roberts said of their years travelling on the powwow trail. “I don’t know of any other people or any other nations that could do the things we do and get the love we do and still keep their ways. It’s an amazing life. It really is.” 

More than her magnetism, it was Bernice’s inventiveness that Roberts admired most.  

“She would take something and create something beautiful out of it. She was a lady, and she always dressed like a lady.” 

In 2009, Bernice won first place at the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the crowning achievement of her dancing career.  

“It was a feat that no one in our family has ever been able to accomplish,” said Noreen, adding it’s the largest powwow in North America. “She was the one that did it so we’re all really proud of her.” 

Right before the pandemic, Bernice’s family hosted a women’s golden age special to honour her at the Grand River Champion of Champions Pow Wow in Six Nations, and they plan to continue it in her memory.  

When she wasn’t dancing, Bernice kept busy; she was always working and active. Even at home, sitting still or lounging were nowhere near her vocabulary. She led a modest life and did secretarial work as a day job. In the 1980s, she earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.  

“She wanted to have experiences and go to different places and live life to the fullest.” 

She loved Las Vegas, and casinos, but her favourite place of all was Hawaii, which she and Noreen visited together in 2017.  

Bernice passed away peacefully on March 2 at the age of 90 at the LaSalle General Hospital, surrounded by family and loved ones. She is survived by her children Laurie, Vicki, Burt (Sophie), Curtis (Veronica) and Noreen (Timmy), and her seven grandchildren, including Wade and Keysa. 

A common sentiment among those who had known Bernice was a conviction that she lived life to the fullest, a testament to her youthful, joyous, and spontaneous spirit.  

“She lived a beautiful life, and she also experienced a beautiful death if there’s ever such a thing,” Noreen said. “There was nothing that was missing at the end.” 


This article was originally published in print on March 15 in issue 33.11 of The Eastern Door.

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Nanor is a reporter and copy editor with The Eastern Door. She was previously the managing editor and creative director at The Link.

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Nanor is a reporter and copy editor with The Eastern Door. She was previously the managing editor and creative director at The Link.