Patrick Mitsuing is used to performing in front of large crowds.
The Cree dancer from Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation in western Saskatchewan has been travelling along the powwow trail in North America for years gaining awards and followers along the way.
Come Sunday, Mitsuing will be showcasing his Cree culture for what may be the largest crowd yet when he takes the stage with a group of Indigenous dancers from the United States at this year’s Super Bowl.
“I’m super excited to represent our people north of the medicine line,” Mitsuing said referring to the name Indigenous Peoples have given to the border between Canada and the United States.
This year’s game is taking place at the State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Mitsuing has been in Phoenix for the past week taking part in different pre-game festivities including performing at the opening night of Super Bowl week on Monday.
On game day a group of about eight dancers including Mitsuing will be doing three performances outside the stadium to welcome the roughly 70,000 fans attending the game. It’s unclear if it will be televised.
Dancers will be showcasing their respective regalia and dancing styles. Mitsuing does men’s fancy dance, which is a flashy, colourful and high-energy.
The performance is part of the NFL’s collaboration with some Indigenous groups in Arizona, and efforts to recognize who originally occupied the lands that this year’s event takes place on.
The Super Bowl is playing out in a state that’s home to 22 Native American tribes who collectively oversee about a quarter of the land base.
Lucinda Hinojos, who was born in Glendale and is of Apache and Yaqui descent, became the first Native and Chicana artist to partner with the NFL on Super Bowl theme art. Her designs are featured on all Super Bowl tickets and throughout the NFL Experience. She is also teaming up with Wilson Sporting Goods to release a football with her artwork on it.
Colin Denny, a University of Arizona researcher and a member of the Navajo Nation, will perform “America the Beautiful” during the game’s pre-show. Denny, who is deaf, will utilize both American Sign Language and North American Indian Sign Language.
The league is also expected to read a land acknowledgment before the game starts.
“They’re really creating space for us,” said Mitsuing.
Mitsuing was brought on about a month ago to take part in the festivities. He said Super Bowl organizers contacted Indigenous Enterprise, a U.S.-based company that preserves Indigenous culture through powwow song and dance performances, to collaborate on programming.
When he got the phone call his first reaction was to let his feet do the talking, “I was silent and dancing around. Then I said, ‘yeah, I’ll do it.'”
Mitsuing, who now lives in Red Deer, Alta., has spent his life and career advocating for the promotion of his Cree culture and language.
“For me, doing this, I know that some of the kids back home are going to dream pretty big,” he said.
Recognizing the contributions of Indigenous Peoples is something regularly seen at major sporting events in Canada where the inclusion of land acknowledgments and Indigenous programming are included in many NHL and CFL games, “it’s cool we’re creating a framework,” said Mitsuing.
“It all started with truth and reconciliation. I think that movement in Canada helped to start creating spaces for us to be in really big spaces.”
He’s quick to add this hasn’t extended to the Calgary Flames, who are the only Canadian NHL team that haven’t yet incorporated a land acknowledgment in pre-game ceremonies.
“I encourage (the Calgary Flames) to start thinking about their land acknowledgment and getting the Treaty 7 people involved,” he said.
Since being in Arizona, he has heard from Indigenous people that a lot of work still needs to be done to educate Americans.
TMZ reported this week a shop owner in Scottsdale interrupted an ESPN shoot for a Super Bowl promo to mock Native American performers that was caught on video. TMZ said police charged the shop owner with three counts of disorderly conduct.
Demonstrators are expected to gather outside the stadium Sunday to push for the Kansas City Chiefs to abandon the team’s name and fan-driven “tomahawk chop.”
The team has made efforts to address concerns about cultural insensitivities going back a decade but always stops short of altering the team name or fan-favourite gestures and chants.
Mitsuing said the reception to the inclusion of Indigenous culture and history has been positive. Celebrities and fans have approached him to ask questions about his regalia and take photos with him.
When asked who he’s rooting for Sunday he pauses with a chuckle, “I’m not a football fan at all.”