By Bren Kolson
The Dene no longer perform some dances. Missionaries from the south came and preached about religions and faiths different from those the Dene knew. The missionaries told the Dene people to stop the ceremonies, songs and dances. One Gwich’in Elder from the Mackenzie Delta, Elizabeth Colin, says that in Fort McPherson no one has held a traditional Dene dance since 1860, but she does remember hearing her mother and grandmother talk about some of the dances.
She says she knows the Handkerchief Dances, but not many others. “The only dances I know are the Tea Dance, the Line Dance and the Partner Dance. You know, that’s one thing that I always think about,” Colin says. “Why did we listen to the missionaries and let it go? Now we don’t have our drumming or dancing.”
Two Metis Elders from Fort Resolution in the South Great Slave Lake region (who chose not to be identified) also say their community history does not include the Dene dances. For one thing, the community is Metis, not Dene. But, for nearly 100 years, the missionaries have forbidden it.
Ironically, they say the first time they remember seeing a Dene dance in Fort Resolution was in 1952 during a celebration to honour the missionaries’ first century in the community.
“The old people said: ‘Oh, they’re having a drum dance,’ when they heard the drums beating in the distance.” “But the priests used to try to bust the drums and throw them over the fire and say it was the devil’s work. It was especially the old priests that had their old ways from the old country that they came from.”
“Young people who went to school in the United States and southern Canada came back North in the 1960s and brought with them new ways to dance from the Cree down south and from other groups. It’s not ours; it’s the south, but some of our dance is now mixed with theirs.”
But occasionally the people danced even in the 1930s. One of these informants recalls: “Way back when I was growing up there were celebrations for Treaty Days and they would have a big gathering of people from all over.” “They had hand games and drum dances. But nothing today. Since then, some people try to start it up again but it falls back down and now there’s no drum dances in the community. Sometimes they bring in drummers from Rae, Dettah or Hay River but nothing from around here. It’s a sad thing because it’s our culture and our life.”
In the Deh Cho ("Deh" means "moving river," "Cho" means "big") region of the South Slavey, resident Mike Cazon told a reporter, Derek Neary, in 1999 about drumming and how the drum is important to Dene dance: “It’s a way of restoring balance; a way of nurturing your spirit. If there’s lots of people dancing, it kind of gives you feedback and makes you want to sing and play harder.”
The reporter also interviewed Gerald Antoine. “It really helped me to fulfill that vision I had for myself being able to sing,” Antoine says. “It was quite emotional for me at that time. It’s something that I really treasure in my heart. It is something that has been given to the Dene people and it’s something they need to utilize to enhance their way of life and relationship with the Creator.”
Neary writes: “Cazon noted that the group is still learning songs and the meaning of them. He says they recently traveled to a gathering in Meander River in northern Alberta and saw a variation of drum dancing where people gathered three-by-three. They have also learned a great deal from other drummers and Elders from groups such as the Haida and Squamish.”
The situation varies from one area of Denendeh to another, but the Dene say the most important reason why they continue to dance is for their children. “It is hoped that if our children are given Dene perspectives to guide them in establishing good relationships with the land, the spiritual world, other peoples and themselves, not only will our identity be maintained, but we will all be closer to survival,” says F. Taddi in a Feb. 6, 2002 Dene Kede Mission Statement. “In the final analysis Elders were telling us as individuals, as a people, and as a species, we must become ‘capable’ in order to survive.”
The ceremonies with song, drums, dance and feasts honour the child, the young woman, and the young hunter. They also sanctify the marriage of two people who birth children, then grow to become Elders. In the Northwest Territories, the people over the years have lost some of the Dene culture, yet traditional knowledge about Dene dance still survives today.
The Dene tell their children the stories about the people’s way of life and why they must keep the culture alive in today’s society. For the Dene, re-telling the experiences of one person leads to the remembrance of many people’s lives.
The Elders also share their stories about ceremonies, songs, drums and the Dene dances for all people who read or listen. The Elders say they tell stories the old way, so that Dene dances will always be living histories that build a stronger future.
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