According to founding member Marilyn Jensen, the Tlingit cultural troupe known as the Dakka Kwaan Dancers started out as a “mistake”: a failed attempt by some young residents of Carcross, in the Yukon, to capitalize on the tourists who were coming their way from the nearby Alaskan port of Skagway. In a move reminiscent of those old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals, the performers decided to put on a show, albeit one with an aboriginal twist. Their plan, back in 2007, was to animate the Tlingit creation myth of how Raven brought light into the world with little more than one cedar hat, a traditional shawl, and a handful of drums.
“By the end of the summer, we realized that not that many tourists had come to see us,” Jensen recalls, calling in from Carcross. “But we also realized we had the core of something really cool, so we started learning more songs, and the group started building.”
Three years on, the Dakka Kwaan Dancers have become one of B.C.’s most acclaimed First Nations performance troupes. In fact, they’re emblematic of a greater resurgence in aboriginal culture that’s taking place all over Canada—a phenomenon that’s at the heart of the 2010 edition of the Talking Stick Festival, at various Vancouver venues from Sunday to the following Sunday (February 21 to 28). (The Dakka Kwaan Dancers perform with the Nunavut-based circus troupe Artcirq and others at the Britannia Community Centre on Monday [February 22]. For a full schedule, visit the festival Web site).
This movement is of more than merely artistic importance. Many Native leaders see supporting the arts as an important strategy in their ongoing struggle for self-determination, with the traditional arts in particular serving as a vital means of keeping First Nations languages alive. In some regions, like the Inuit communities of the eastern Arctic, troupes such as Artcirq are a much-needed source of employment. And just about everywhere, young Native performers who might once have fallen prey to despair over the near destruction of their culture are finding personal transformation in its ongoing revival.
“I think each of us that are a part of the group has really experienced that,” says Jensen. “We’ve literally changed—all of a sudden, you know, learning how to speak Tlingit is the number one top priority for a 22-year-old who, two years ago, didn’t give a crap about our culture. So, yeah, it’s been a really amazing process.”
Wendy Smith, who’ll perform with Talking Stick participants the Inuvik-based Inuvialuit Drummers and Dancers at the Roundhouse Community Arts Centre on Monday (February 22), as part of the Ab-Original Cabaret, has a similar agenda. “Our group prides itself on keeping everything as traditional as possible,” she explains in a telephone interview from Yellowknife. “We don’t really stray too much into modern, theatrical moves. We ourselves, the Inuvialuit people, are losing our language, very much so, and we all recognize that, so this is definitely a way of keeping our language active in our life. That part is very important to all of us—and the more we can keep, the better off we are as a people.”
Smith has even found a way to quantify the impact that traditional drumming and dancing have had on Inuit youth in the Mackenzie River delta. “We have a terrible problem with absenteeism in our schools,” she says, adding that drum-and-dance classes are starting to turn that around. “And as we believe that education is of foremost importance, we’ve been working with the schools here to track, with the parents’ permission, attendance in schools. And it actually has made an impact on a few students that did have low attendance. I was quite happy with that, realizing that drum dancing is that important to them.”
Cultural survival is also on the agenda of Artcirq, which is exactly what it sounds like: a circus troupe located well north of the Arctic Circle in the Inuit community of Iglulik. Initiated by Quebec-born circus performer Guillaume Saladin in 1998, after a rash of youth suicides horrified the tiny, close-knit village, the company blends rock music and modern circus techniques with traditional Inuit pastimes such as juggling and high-kicking contests.
“Guillaume calls it ”˜social circus’, and I think that’s an excellent way of describing it,” says Artcirq spokesperson Lynn Elkin, on the line from Iqaluit. “It’s not just circus: it’s circus to enrich the community, and there’s no question that having Artcirq in the community has been a very positive thing. It’s positive for the folks who are involved in the troupe, it’s positive for their families, and it’s positive for the community, because they are excellent ambassadors when they travel and go to other parts of the world.”
Jensen probably says it best when she describes the Dakka Kwaan Dancers’ work as part of a larger process of “healing and strengthening and finding ourselves”.
“We’re working really hard at taking it up a few notches,” she adds. “We practise twice a week; everybody’s learning to speak the language; we’ve gone from knowing six songs to 42 songs. People in the group are composing songs now, too, which is great, because we have to sing songs about our time.
“We’ve all had to really commit ourselves to this,” she continues, “and the best thing is that we make our people happy. When we dance for them we can see them smiling, with these looks on their faces that just look so proud—but in a good way. That’s what makes it worthwhile, because we know that we’re doing really important work.”