Coastal First Nations Dance Festival Shares Diverse Performance Arts Of Pacific Northwest

damelahamid screenshotThe Coastal First Nations Dance Festival is a weeklong celebration that honours rich cultural traditions through transcendent performance. Presented by Dancers of Damelahamid in partnership with the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA), the annual event features a line-up of captivating performances showcasing the vibrant and distinct stories, songs, and dances of Indigenous peoples of the northwest coast.

Headliners this year included two of Canada’s most electrifying young performers: James Jones and Tesha Emarthle. Ontario-based Tesha Emarthle presented a smoke dance, a traditional and dynamic heart-pumping style of war dance featuring lightening-speed footwork. James Jones from Edmonton has performed extensively with pow wow drumming-infused electronic group A Tribe Called Red. He was a 2009 finalist with So You Think You Can Dance Canada and recently performed in the 2015 Pan Am Games. Jones and Emarthle worked together for a series of school performances, introducing K-12 students to the rich history and traditions of First Nations dance and storytelling.

“As we near a decade of festival performance, it’s truly a thrill to witness the evolution of the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival and its vital role in the cultural fabric of Vancouver,” says Festival Artistic Director Margaret Grenier. “Each season, we endeavour to assemble a talented pool of emerging and established performers, which serve as a critical link in strengthening and upholding the rich cultural traditions of Indigenous peoples. We are honoured by the opportunity to share such a diverse and meaningful array of First Nations artistic practices in the grandeur of the Great Hall at MOA.”

Margaret Grenier grew up in a small community, “immersed from a young age in the practice of songs and dances that had been passed down for countless generations.” She explains, “It was through this experience that I entered into a relationship with my ancestral memories. Today, as a traditional Gitxsan dancer, a practice which interweaves many artistic disciplines, I have found a means to make a tangible connection with my ancestral lineage.”

The 2016 festival featured an exclusive preview of Dancers of Damelahamid’s Flicker, an innovative and dramatic performance featuring intricately carved masks. The Gitxsan “people of the river of mists” are part of the coastal group of cultures with distinctive button blanket regalia. Their history of masked dance inspires a compelling performance, celebrating the diversity and depth of Indigenous cultures. According to Gitxsan history, Damelahamid is the original city where the first ancestors were placed on earth from heaven. For countless generations, Gitxsan songs and dances have been performed in the feast hall and played an integral part in defining art and culture. Though banned by the Canadian government for several decades, social change created a new context for the dances to survive by being shared as public performance. The Dancers of Damelahamid transform time and space, bridging the ancient with a living tradition.

Photo courtesy of Dancers of Damelahamid

Photo courtesy of Dancers of Damelahamid

For the past nine years, Dancers of Damelahamid has presented dance groups from the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, Kwakwakawakw, Gitxsan, Tsimshian, Nisga’a, Haida, Tagish, and Tlingit First Nations. International performers from as far as Australia and New Zealand have also shared their traditions, connecting the festival with the global community of Indigenous dance.

The Lax Kxeen Traditional Tsimshian Dance Group has travelled the world sharing their unique and authentic song and dance. “We write and sing songs that portray our four clans (Raven, Eagle, Killerwhale, and Wolf) and also milestones in our lives and those of our group members, keeping our culture alive and well. Our songs are powerful and tell the stories of our communities.” Just remember to keep a sharp eye on your shiny things when Raven dances by.

Eagle Dancer Cori Derickson lives her life close to the land and her culture, and dance has helped focus her energy as well as heal her spirit. She is a Suknaquin (Okanagan) interdisciplinary artist and one of the few female Eagle Dancers in North America. “I make art for a purpose,” she says, “to stay connected to who I am as an Indigenous woman expressing my views, educating, acknowledging who I am. When I dance or sing and play the drum, I am praying for our people, our lands, and our future.”

The eagle is a powerful and sacred being connected to both the earth and the spirit world, inspiring traditional and contemporary arts among many North American Indigenous peoples. Eagle feathers often adorn regalia or sacred objects, and during certain dances eagle down is scattered, swirling through the air as the dancers move and falling like a blessing.

Photo courtesy of Dancers of Damelahamid

Photo courtesy of Dancers of Damelahamid

Tradition and language are very much alive among the Northwest Coast peoples. They are being practiced, passed down, and shared. Throughout the week, songs and drums resonated to the rafters, calling to the spirit. We are all related. The peoples’ voices and languages translated in feeling, pitch, tone, and rhythm. Expression and movement told their stories.

Git-Hoan songs and dances are presented with an energetic and proud style that, while different than most contemporary dance groups, is based on ancient traditions that belong to all coastal tribes. Renowned carver and culture bearer David Boxley formed the Git Hoan Dancers to revive, practice, and share the Tsimshian way of life that was once forbidden.

The Dakhká Khwáan Dancers are the most prominent traditional dance group in the Yukon. They work to bring cultural revitalization and social transformation within their communities by reclaiming their culture traditional art forms of song, drumming, dance, and storytelling.

Songs and stories have great value. To hold them is an honour, and they are treasured. Sometimes they are traded or gifted to a performer. The art of performance continues to evolve, though its roots remain deep in traditional culture.

Git Hayetsk Dance Group leaders Mike Dangeli (Nisga’a artist and carver) and his wife Mique’l Dangeli (Tsimshian art historian and curator) make it a priority that the Git Hayetsk (people of the copper shield) sing the songs of their ancestors as well as create new songs, dances, drums, rattles, masks, and regalia to reflect and record their experiences as contemporary First Nations people.

Andrew Grenier, dancer and production manager for Dancers of Damelahamid, dedicated 15 years under the guidance of Damelahamid Elders Ken and Margaret Harris, learning from their stories, songs, dances and teachings. Elder Margaret Harris is a respected Cree Elder from northern Manitoba and wife of the late Chief Kenneth Harris. She was immersed in the traditions of the Gitxsan and founded the Haw yaw hawni naw Festival to revive First Nations arts and culture. Her 40 years of experience teaching Cree and Gitxsan dance and her wealth of traditional knowledge and wisdom is invaluable in guiding the Dancers of Damelahamid.

In 2017, the festival celebrates its 10th anniversary. Given the diversity of amazing talent drawn to the stage, next year’s event promises to be spectacular. Connect with Dancers of Damelahamid at [] and on Facebook [].