Dancers of Damelahamid fire up Coastal First Nations Dance Festival

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      As the artistic director of the annual Coastal First Nations Dance Festival, as well as leader of the Gitxsan Nation’s Dancers of Damelahamid, Margaret Grenier is understandably conscious of her role in furthering and fostering an ancient tradition. But there’s a more recent heritage that she wants to honour: that of her parents, Ken and Margaret Harris, whose Haw yah hawni naw festival, held in Prince Rupert from 1967 to 1986, played a pivotal role in what has since become a glorious revival of First Nations dance artistry.

      “It’s not the same time or the same place, and it’s certainly in a different venue,” says Grenier, whose event will be held under the Museum of Anthropology’s expansive roof. “But to me, it holds a lot of the same underlying values. I feel it’s so essential to come together and share our traditions.”

      Forty-five years ago, those traditions were, arguably, in a bad way. What ceremonial masks and rattles hadn’t been pillaged by collectors had been stashed away for generations, thanks to a culturally genocidal ban on the potlatch that lasted from 1885 to 1951. Native lineage stories, religious practices, and dance traditions were passed down in secret, when they were passed down at all. It was a bold step to make that heritage public, but one that the late Ken Harris, a hereditary chief of the Gitxsan people, felt necessary—and there’s no disputing that he and his wife were right. Exposure has fostered growth, and next week seven different troupes from the B.C. coast, along with Cree hoop dancer Jesse McMann-Sparvier and Australian Aboriginal performer Robert Bramblett, will make the CFNDF a colourful and celebratory occasion for performers and audience alike.

      The dances of the Gitxsan, the Haida, the Kwakwaka’wakw, the Salish, the Tsimshian, and other coastal groups are essentially narrative in nature; some are considered sacred, available only to certain moieties, or clans. Those won’t be performed at the MOA, but, as Grenier points out, most First Nations dance groups have developed programs that are both deeply rooted in tradition and ready to be performed for culturally diverse audiences.

      “When I look at the work my parents did from the 1960s to the ’80s and ’90s, you really saw efforts for revival,” she explains. “There had been such a long period in which all of these practices had been banned, so the focus was in looking at the knowledge and trying to reawaken it. That was an expression that my grandmother used to use: that the culture had been asleep and that it was time to awaken it. And what I think you’re seeing now is that more public songs and dances are being created, based on the traditional forms, in order to ensure that they can be shared.”

      In other words, the festival is a gift to the general public, but the dancing itself has a larger purpose: to invigorate First Nations pride and healing.

      “As we all know, there’s a very broken history in our province,” says Grenier. “And I feel that by sharing and expressing and celebrating in songs and dances that in themselves carry teachings, carry history, you are also giving all the witnesses present the ability to partake in that healing process. And I think that’s imperative in order to move forward as a community—aboriginal and nonaboriginal. It’s only through the positive that we have the ability to move past what we may be still carrying in our injuries.”

      The Coastal First Nations Dance Festival takes place at the Museum of Anthropology next Friday through Sunday (March 9 to 11).