Coastal Dance Festival will welcome Sámi performers and commemorate an Indigenous icon
One of B.C.’s most impressive Indigenous women was Margaret Harris, who died in 2020.
A Cree woman raised in Churchill, Manitoba, she came west and married Kenneth Harris, a Gitxsan chief. She then immersed herself in Northwest Coast Indigenous culture and set out to revive those traditions.
In 1967, the couple founded Dancers of Damelahamid, which embraces artistic practices that couldn’t be presented publicly during a 67-year government ban on potlatches.
“It meant so much to her to work in service to others,” their daughter, Margaret Grenier, tells the Straight by phone.
For Margaret Harris, that involved everything from going into rural communities to share her knowledge to promoting healing through song and dance and making regalia in the Downtown Eastside. Many of the beneficiaries of her efforts were women.
“Her work was so extensive and impactful in that way—and really transformative for so many people,” Grenier adds. “It’s a remarkable strength of character to be able to hold that place for others. That’s something I’m inspired by, but I also know that it is so singular to her.”
Grenier, artistic and executive director of Dancers of Damelahamid, plans to honour her mother at her Indigenous troupe’s 15th annual Coastal Dance Festival. Dancers of Damelahamid will present the initial work of what Grenier expects will be turned into a full-length production over the next couple of years.
It won’t be a literal biographical account, she emphasizes. Rather, it will commemorate her mother’s legacy.
“She was really such a stronghold in not only our family but in all the generations’ work that revitalized dance here on the Northwest Coast,” Grenier says.
In addition to North American Indigenous artists, this year’s Coastal Dance Festival is also presenting Indigenous Sámi artists from Norway and Sweden.
They include Sámi singers Sara Marielle Gaup and Lawra Somby; Sámi contemporary dancers Liv Aira and Marika Renhuvud; and Sámi aerialist Camilla Therese Karlsen, who incorporates contemporary dance and circus arts into her performances.
It’s part of the yearlong Nordic Bridges 2022 initiative, which Toronto’s Harbourfront Theatre is leading, to foster cultural ties between Canada and the Nordic region.
Grenier describes Gaup as "an activist and a voice for her community" by reclaiming the presence of Sámi in northern Norway, where she hails from the reindeer-herding community of Guovdageaidnu in Finnmark County.
"She has an amazing capacity to carry so strongly through song," Grenier says.
Gaup and Somby will be at the ticketed "Friday Signature Evening Performance" on April 22 at the Anvil Centre with Dancers of Damlahamid, Spakwus Slolem, and Rainbow Creek.
Aira and Renhuvud will be at the ticketed "Thursday Signature Evening Performance" at the same location on April 21, as well as a free "Artist Sharing" event with Karlsen earlier.
That leads the Straight to ask if Margaret Harris ever had any interactions with the Sámi people. Grenier replies that she’s not certain about that, but her mom had something in common with Indigenous people from the Nordic region: a connection to a similar northern landscape. She notes that the Sámi people have survived alongside reindeer whereas the Cree have been reliant on caribou—and both endured colonialism.
“I also think there are a lot of connections with the Sámi artists, as well, in work on revitalization of artistic practices,” Grenier says. “You know, shared messages in terms of the importance of speaking through, as artists, our tradition and our culture.”
She says that is even true of more contemporary expressions, which remain grounded in ancestral knowledge and the language, songs, and dance of the past.
“It’s an important focus in the work that they’re doing,” Grenier says.