Preserving the traditions of Northwest Canada’s aboriginal dance
By Joshua Bartlett
Hear the word “aboriginal” and you’re likely to
think of Australia. But the generic term refers to any native people, and that includes the Gitxsan nation, inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada. With territories including the Babine, Bulkley, Kispiox, and Skeena Rivers in British Columbia, covering more than 20,000 square miles of interior land rich in salmon fishing, the Gitxsan people lived peacefully for centuries, preserving their traditional culture.
But infiltrating cultures can occlude, alter, or obliterate existing traditions. Enter Margaret Grenier, who in 2003 founded Dancers of Damelahamid, a troupe dedicated to preserving and showcasing traditional and original choreography based on Gitxsan ceremonies.
In 1884 the Canadian government implemented the Potlatch Ban, in essence forbidding Native Canadians from engaging in their ceremonial dancing, singing, and spiritual rituals. The ban was repealed in 1951, but while it was in place some of the aboriginal people had discreetly passed along the knowledge of their ancestors to the next generation. Benefiting from that lineage is Grenier, whose father was a hereditary chief in the Gitxsan Nation and cherished his nation’s customs. Dancers of Damelahamid keeps those customs—narrative dancing, rhythmic singing, intricately crafted masks, and full native regalia—alive.
“In the 1960s, the work of my parents and grandmother had maintained the songs and the dances and the practices through performance,” says Grenier. “That was the foundation for the work we do today.” Dancers of Damelahamid, a non-professional troupe until 2003, emerged in the 1960s out of a need to preserve and maintain the ancient cultural wealth of the family lineage. There are currently eight company members, all extended family. The original non-professional troupe was much larger, because it was open to all family members.
Traditional Gitxsan dances were usually performed with button blankets (wool blankets, worn as capes, embellished with mother-of pearl buttons) and colorful traditional regalia.
Damelahamid (pronounced dam-lah-HAM-mid) refers to the city in the Gitxsan (pronounced GIX-an) origin story. “ ‘Damelahamid’ means paradise,” says Grenier. “It is an actual place, connected to the land. You can go to that site and see where it is.”
Most of the dances and rituals were preserved in potlatches, exclusive ceremonies of sharing among invited chiefs or members of the community, held in Gitxsan ceremonial feast halls. (The potlatch confirmed status and rank and substantiated claims to titles, privileges, and gifts.) “Fifty years ago, just the idea of starting to do public performances was a huge and significant transition within the community,” says Grenier. “Oral tradition can very easily be lost. This has allowed it not to be lost forever.”
Dancers of Damelahamid, based in West Vancouver, performs regularly in Canada and has toured internationally to Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, Peru, and Germany. Every year since 2008 the company has hosted the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival, co-produced with the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, which features other coastal and international aboriginal dance troupes. The troupe also performed at the XXI Olympic Winter Games in 2010 and at the 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad.
In addition, Dancers of Damelahamid does outreach to local schools. “Every year we’ll do 20 to 25 performances during the school year,” says Grenier. “It’s been a really rewarding experience. We do an hour program: half performance, half interactive teaching, using songs, dance, language, cultural context, and stories that emphasize the moral teachings of the songs and dances.” In addition, the company performs at community festivals, corporate events, and conferences.
Most of the company’s dancers are trained solely in aboriginal dance, although one of them, Starr Muranko, is also a contemporary dancer with her own company, Starrwind Dance Projects.
Prior to 2010, Dancers of Damelahamid’s standard repertoire for regular performances consisted of full-evening works arranged by Grenier, based on traditional Gitxsan dances that she learned as a young girl. Setting the Path (2004), Sharing the Spirit (2007), and Visitors Who Never Left (2009) showcased the colorful, celebratory dances that often featured a masked dancer, representing an animal spirit, at the center. These works were collections of short dances that ran three to five minutes apiece; the dances belonged to Grenier’s father, represented the family lineage, and were ceremonially connected. They were usually performed with button blankets (wool blankets, worn as capes and indigenous to Northwest Coastal aboriginal nations, that are embellished with mother-of-pearl buttons and often given as gifts at ceremonial dances and potlatches) and colorful traditional regalia.
“There is diversity within the form,” says Grenier. “Some songs are welcome songs or songs done as a blessing, followed by a warrior dance.” It is not unusual to see performers gliding in a circle with whale fins on their backs or costumed as goats. The lilting melodies of the chanting provide a soothing counterpoint to the grounded chugging and stamping steps.
In 2010 Grenier began creating original dance pieces that honor the Gitxsan tradition from a new perspective. An example is Spirit Transforming, an hour-long dramatic dance about rebirth. In it a man in a mask searches in the wilderness. An otter spirit arrives with fluttering hands, swaying side to side. As the man feels the spirit’s presence, he removes part of the mask; he becomes more animated and removes another part of his mask. The man and the otter spirit face each other and dance to the chanting, and the man finally takes off the remaining mask piece.
Part of the inspiration for Spirit Transforming came from Grenier’s reflection on the significant sense of loss she felt when her father, Chief Kenneth Harris, died in 2010, just after the company’s performances at the Olympic celebrations.
“Everyone who engages in traditional practices has gone through loss,” she says, referring also to the disenfranchisement and displacement of native people. “This piece is symbolic of when you are stripped of everything. The mask comes apart and the dancer can reveal himself. It’s not based on a traditional story, but it symbolizes how we move forward from our hearts when everything is pulled away from us. There is also the understanding that we struggle within our community with a very high youth suicide rate.” (According to a report issued in 1995 by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the rate of suicide among native youth is five to six times higher than the Canadian average.)
The otter is often featured in the oral histories of several aboriginal communities on the Northwest Coast. “In most cases the otter is linked to death in that to follow an otter leads you to another world or to the afterworld,” says Grenier. “In Spirit Transforming it is important to me that audience members with a cultural understanding of the otter might bring in their own interpretations. For me it represents a spirit who draws the main character in and invites him to the afterworld. His decision not to follow represents his character’s decision to continue to live in this world.” Although the story is not literally traditional, Grenier says it’s still very rooted in those traditions.
The Gitxsan spirits, such as the otter, are morally neutral, unlike the angels and demons of European-based cultures. “The spirit is sent to do work and to do a job,” says Grenier. “Sometimes it can have a sad ending or a positive ending. But the spirit in itself is neither good nor bad.”
For the most part, the Gitxsan community has embraced Grenier’s work as the artistic and executive director of Dancers of Damelahamid. But she says there has been some division within the Gitxsan Nation. “There are individuals who would like to see a very strict way of maintaining things,” she explains. “But there are so many people who don’t fall within that very limited way of including community. Part of my effort is to bridge that as well.”
Grenier has had to find her own path within the community, partly because her mother, Margaret Harris, is a Cree Elder without Gitxsan lineage. “For myself, dance is an expression that has become a way for me to find my place and speak for myself,” says Grenier. “I can’t necessarily place myself in the old system.”
For the eight members of Dancers of Damelahamid, much of the performance training has to do with understanding the history of the community, an intergenerational process. “We consider ourselves a dance company and dance is certainly the focus of what we do,” says Grenier. “The training involves a lot more than movement. We dance and sing and have to have a strong understanding of the visual arts, which is a huge part of the regalia we wear. It is very rooted in an oral history.” The dancers do all of the singing, whether taped or live.
And most of the stunning costumes and decor are handmade by the performers. “As you create the regalia, the younger people are witnessing that and participating in [their creation],” says Grenier. “You can’t fully experience it if others are creating them for you. We do use some of the older items, but for the most part they are always being re-created.” (Grenier and her husband, Andrew Grenier, hand sew most of the regalia.) The masks, carved in the traditional form out of cedar and alder, are mostly crafted by family members, although some are commissioned.
The Canadian government has provided some support for Dancers of Damelahamid, one of the few traditional aboriginal dance companies on the West Coast. The company receives grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the British Columbia Arts Council.
In addition to its upcoming hosting and performing duties at the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival in March, the troupe has a busy performing schedule. This season it will be working on a unique collaboration with the contemporary aboriginal dance company Raven Spirit Dance on a new dance piece titled Confluence. Damelahamid will conduct a residency at the Scotiabank Dance Centre and present Spirit Transforming at the center’s Faris Theatre on June 15. The company will also develop a new dance production for young audiences that teaches traditional ecological knowledge, to be presented with ArtStarts in Schools, a not-for-profit organization that brings professional artists into British Columbia schools. In addition, Damelahamid will perform a 30-minute version of Spirit Transforming at the 2013 Vancouver International Dance Festival in March.
Grenier realizes that audiences can sometimes find the symbolism and mystery of aboriginal ceremonies and dances hard to penetrate. She advises clearing the mind and embracing the experience. “One of the unfortunate things about the history of North America in general is that a lot of stereotypes have been created over time and they feed into people’s expectations,” she says. “It makes you unable to watch and be open and learn from what you’re seeing. This is an artistic practice, but it is so much more than that. It’s a lifelong commitment. In giving so much of yourself, it becomes a personal sharing—you want them to receive you for who you are.”
What is most important to Grenier is continuing and expanding upon her lineage. “I try to make choices and create in a way that honors my parents and grandparents,” says Grenier, who has two children. “They wanted to make sure it wasn’t something that came to an end with their generation. It’s an exhausting process. It’s a work of the heart.”