Interviewer: Franziska von Rosen
Place: Eskasoni, Cape Breton, NS.
Franziska von Rosen: Can we start with you telling us your name and how you started dancing.
Beverley Jeddore: My name is Beverly Jeddore, I am from Eskasoni and I am part of the Denny family. I’ve been dancing since I was 6 years old, in 1967, Canada’s 100th birthday. There was an event in Sydney that my father was invited to and that’s the day that he told me I was going to dance. At the time I didn’t want to dance. It seemed to me that I was carrying something that forbade me to dance, but I wasn’t sure where it came from; I wasn’t sure how it got there. So that’s the first day I danced. And more and more as I was dancing my head went up. Today at the age of 46 I am still dancing.
FvR: Talk to me a bit about your family. Did all of you dance?
BJ: Yes all of us danced except for our older siblings. They were already with their own lives. We danced in Chapel Island (Potoladeq). There is an annual mission there that has been going on for hundreds of years. It was customary that the Denny family danced at Chapel Island along with the Gould family of Wycogomagh. And there was a third group that came from Membertou. They were the Kabatays. So everybody knows about those three groups. We danced together, the Goulds and the Denny family. We still dance together but not as often as we like.
FvR: Talk to me a bit about the history of dancing here.
BJ. It seems to me that everywhere we went and every time I came home from school my parents would be doing something to enhance culture. For instance my mother would be doing bead work, my father would be making waltes games or something, and he would always sing the songs and chants. Especially when there was a baby they would sing and they would encourage the child to dance. So dancing was in our hearts and minds at home. But we didn’t actually dance in public until 1967, Canada’s 100th birthday.
It was a new beginning for our people because dancing had been prohibited. People didn’t understand it and a lot of the dances died, and a lot of the chants died. But we were fortunate enough to have parents who wanted to bring it back. They brought it back just in time because the elders were dying off; they were the keepers of them, the keepers of the songs, the keepers of the dances. My parents went to them and brought the dances to us. So today we still carry the dances that were collected by my parents.
Most of our dancers are from the family. We try and encourage them so we can say we are the Denny family and we all have that connection to our parents and the teachings of our parents.
FvR: Can you talk a bit about your mother, Sarah Denny, and what got her going.
BJ: I think her teachings got her going. My mom was a very culturally oriented woman and a family oriented woman. She was brought up by our great grandmother. The teachings that my mother had from her were very powerful, a lot of leadership qualities. She brought up seven people and we call them the “power seven” because the ones that my great grandmother brought up became great leaders. A few of them were the chiefs of different reserves. So those are the people my great grandmother brought up and my mother was one of them.
So with that and with the upbringing that my father brought into their union my parents were a team with a common goal. They truly believed in who they were - Mi’kmaq people, and that they had to live as Mi’kmaq people, and they had to believe as Mi’kmaq people. Their only resources were the elders because hardly anything is written.
With everything they already knew, they knew they had to get more information. So they went to the elders and collected the songs and dances, collected the knowledge of the medicines, collected the knowledge of the waltes game, collected the knowledge of beadwork, of making moccasins.
Every single thing that was part of Mi’kmaq life and survival, they learned and they brought home to us. So whenever anyone got sick, my mother was the medicine woman. Because we knew whenever she gave us her medicines we would get better. We trusted her completely and we trusted her medicines completely. And those medicines we still use and our children and our grandchildren still use them, because they have seen them.
You can’t learn something from a book. You have to learn it by experience and by looking at it and feeling it and touching it and tasting it. We live with the traditions that our parents gave us. So if you ask who Sarah Denny was I think she was a historian and a cultural inspiration to a lot of people.
My mom especially with her research, she shared it and she brought it out. She brought it out when it was safe to bring it out. Like centralization - when they were playing waltes or they were dancing or singing a lot of our people were punished for doing that. So it was the perfect time to get it out, the safest time to get it out. And now it is like an explosion of culture because of what is available and it is safe to say I am a Mi’kmaq person.
FvR: Can you describe for me how elders would pass on the songs and dances?
BJ: One day in 1979 an elder came to my mother’s house. My mother said “jila’si piskwa – have some tea with us.” He said, “Sarah I am here on business.” While I was serving them tea he said, “Sarah I am here to give you a gift. You are the only one who can carry it.” He said, “I am getting old and pretty soon I am going to leave, I am going to die.” So he said, “I brought you a chant and I am going to give it to you.” And he said. “Sarah this chant that I am giving to you, you can’t keep it; you are going to have to give it to somebody else; it is just loaned to you; you have to pass it on so when you die the song or chant won’t die with you.” So right there he started singing and singing and singing and he gave the chant to my mother. He said, “Now you are the chanter for this song. I no longer am the chanter for this song.”
So that was a great experience for me. So I believe that every song and chant has to be passed on to another person. I have that responsibility now. I have nieces and nephews that I have to pass the chants to.
That’s how I became a chanter with the knowledge from that elder. His words said a lot to me. It taught me that our people are simple people with simple teachings, but the teachings that they give you are so enormous. Those few little words taught me so many things. That elder was Michael Paul. Michael Paul’s voice is heard on the Mi’kmaq series from CBC. The chant that he is singing there is I’ko. And he passed it on to my mother and my mother passed it on to me.
And some of the songs that I do I am passing on to my nieces and nephews because I won’t be here forever. I have to be smart enough to do it now in case something happens to me. If I don’t, those songs will be gone with me. Then I would be doing an injustice to our people. So that’s how I became a chanter.
FvR: Can you talk a bit about being a chanter.
BJ: I didn’t know that I was going to be a chanter, but one day I just picked up the drum because my mom was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and her voice was skipping. Some of the times when she was singing she did not remember the words of the song. Right then I knew that I wanted my mom to sing continuously so I took her voice. So when I sing I sing with her voice, with her style. I know that I won’t be able to replace her or even to come close to her beautiful singing but still when I sing I try to sing with my mom’s spirit and my mom’s heart and a little bit of her voice. It gives me a beautiful feeling that I am one of the chanters of the Mi’kmaq Nation.
FvR: Let’s talk about some of the Mi’kmaq dances. Are there some that you see as uniquely Mi’kmaq?
BJ: I find that each and every one of our dances is truly Mi’kmaq because you sing it with your own tongue, your own language. And when you sing you get into some kind of trance. That’s what happens to me. It is like magic. So when I sing I just sing within me. Whatever comes out, it just comes out of me. So the Mi’kmaq songs are very important to us and to me.
I think the top one is koju’a. Koju’a has a unique dance to it. You can sing different variations, different songs but it is still Koju’a. If you say Koju’a people will know what it means. They will include it in their activities. If there is a wedding or some kind of event that is going on they would try to include Koju’a as the icing on the cake. You are going to have your feast, you are going to have your people, you’re going to have your celebration – whatever it is, you are going to have your prayers, but Koju’a will just top it all off.
You will have the complete celebration when you have Koju’a. It is like repeating: Jiwa luket jijuo, jiwaluket jijuo – it means bring your little sister over, bring your sister over, bring your family or bring the one you love over and let’s dance together. But I sing it differently with different variations of Koju’a just so we have a variety, not just the one song. But Koju’a is like a signature for our culture, for the Mi’kmaq. It is the most unique dance.
FvR: What about the dance steps for Koju’a?
BJ: The dance steps are different for men, women and children. I have noticed that elders, especially men, dance koju’a only using their feet, not their arms. They have their fists closed, and they just dance and hardly move their arms- just use them for balance. For women, especially older women they dance softly, not vigorously and they would move their arms a little bit. It is not appropriate for women to lift their knees too high. So they would dance very softly but enough to say I am doing the Koju’a.
For boys and young men, their knees would go up high and the movements would go up high and they would move their arms. The girls and young women they dance very gracefully, move their arms. They would be faster than the older women, and their legs would be slightly up and not pounding – as graceful as possible.
And children they are just bouncing and jumping, very, very happy. When you see a child dancing you will know right away that youth is dancing for you. I have seen Koju’a danced by a lot of people. It is all the same; it is as if their heart and blood know how to dance. Whatever you are that is how you are going to dance.
FvR: What about the Neskawet?
BJ: I think Neskawet means “the Speaker, the knowledge person,” - the leader or the person who tells the truth – the knowledgeable one. So Neskawet, would be the person who would pray, teach, have a knowledge of things around him. Not speaking from a book; speaking from experiences and life as a whole. That to me is Neskawet.
FvR: Can we talk a bit about Pestie wataq atimk?
BJ: Many years ago, there were no priests that came and we didn’t have a church. But our people were already Christian and they had a need to celebrate Christmas the proper way. So they came up with Pestie wataq atimk. And they created this cross. It is hand made out of wood – usually black ash, and they would carve it like this – just like a little flower. Different people would decorate them in different ways. Then they would attach a little medal - an extra gift for the family for the one that is being honoured. Also there would be a little rope attached to the cross.
The first person who would be given this cross would be, for example, any one with the name Noel. Because in French Noel is Christmas. And puksima or Simon would be the carrier of this cross. That was his job. The cross would be wrapped with cloth. And people would know who is going to be honoured because it would usually be around the names of the 12 apostles.
A lot of our people would name their children after the apostles. For instance my family my grandmother Denny and my Grandfather Denny named all of their children after the apostles. My aunts had Christian names too – women who played big roles in the bible.
Women and men were both honoured, but men especially. For instance my father was honoured and he would always talk about it. That’s how important it was to him.
There was a big preparation before the event. The house would be cleaned – every nook and corner. If it wasn’t up to standard it would be painted; if the floor wasn’t up to standard it would be replaced. Then there would be traditional foods –rabbit stew, pelamu (salmon dinner), or tiamuwey (moose dinner) or lintukowey (deer dinner), even pelawej (partridge). They would always cook big meals – enough to feed a lot of people. And sweet cakes, different pies, all would be ready and they would just wait. They would wait and wait until there was a knock on the door.
The father, the one that is being honoured, opens the door. Puksima –Simon hands him the gift. It is wrapped in cloth. He says “your guardian angel has sent you this flower.” And they would all come in and watch him unwrap the gift. And he would honour it and say thank you for bringing this gift to me and my family. And then right away they would put this on the wall.
After that there are prayers, prayers and prayers and prayers. Then everyone is invited to the middle room. Usually the homes were not big. Now we have fancy homes but at that time they were very small. But everything would be clear – there would be a dance floor. The drum would come out and then they would do this Koju’a. They would dance and dance and dance. Dancing would happen until the honouree would say it is time to eat.
FvR: So does this tradition still get practised today?
BJ: The cross does not go around but the people carry the cross within their hearts. Because there is still a lot of cleaning that happens, a lot of renovating and big projects that come before Christmas. It is not just putting up a Christmas tree. It is everything – I think the Christmas tree now is the cross, because if the house is not ready the tree is not going up even if it is Christmas Eve.
Then Christmas Day, as soon as the dinner is over, the visiting starts. The visiting is on a daily basis. People come morning, noon and night into your home. We used to visit until 3 or 4 in the morning. Everywhere you go there is food. So all those things are happening in Eskasoni still. And not just on our reserve, we visit over to Chapel Island, Membertou, Wycocomagh and Wagmatcook.
I take this [the shaved cross] to the school. I am a teacher. And when I open it the children just love to see it. Even if it is just a paper, because I photocopy the image of it. And then they colour it in and decorate it themselves. But a lot of them they would cut so carefully. A few would take it home to put it in their bedroom or by the entrance door of their house - for protection, even if it is a piece of paper. So the children know about this. They know there was a tradition and some people have the crosses to prove it.
FvR: Can we talk about some of the Mi’kmaw dances that you do..
BJ: I sing several chants and each chant has a specific dance. Now I’ko the one that was passed on to my mother and then passed on to me, that is a very powerful chant, a very powerful dance. It has to do with gathering and celebrating. But we took it a step further.
Seven is a very powerful number for the Mi’kmaq people. For in our traditions we know that we are part of the seven districts. And the seven districts were in what is now known as Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, PEI, New Brunswick and parts of Quebec. Each of the districts had a district chief.
The seven district chiefs had one responsibility and that was to take care of the people. So if you can picture the Maritime provinces as a whole- there were different settlements all over the place. Each of the settlements fell into one of the districts and they were under a district chief. The district chief’s responsibility was to make sure that their people had enough hunting grounds and fishing grounds. Their sole responsibility was survival of the people. The seven district chiefs would come together to work out these things.
So whenever we dance I’ko we try to have seven women dancing because they are the creators of live. As women we have to make sure that the Mi’kmaq people don’t become extinct. So that is why we have the seven women doing the dance along with their seven children or grandchildren. When we dance this dance they go in and out, in and out. It is like a heartbeat. That’s what I’ko is. It is a very powerful dance. To see the Eskasoni Dancers (including Beverly) dancing I’ko at the Canadian Museum of Civilization see the nearby video module.
We usually do four rounds. Each of the four directions represents all kinds of things including the four sacred colours. The first is the white, it points to the north and represents the white people. The second points to the east where the sun rises and it represents the Asian people. The west represents the Black where the sun goes down. The south represents the hot regions, the people of the earth, the Mi’kmaq people, and the red earth people – which are the Aboriginal people.
FvR: I see that you use a drum with I’ko.
BJ: The drum too is very powerful. The drum itself represents your mother. The stick represents Kisiku, which is the oldest elder, which is also the tree. And the tree does a lot for us. It cleans the air, it puts a roof over our head. We can even eat from Kisiku, we can educate ourselves, warm our homes, and even cook with Kisiku. So Kisiku is doing a lot.
So the only way you can get your stick is from Kisiku and that represents your dad. So when they come together they make a heartbeat and that heartbeat is you – the one being created. And that is the first thing you hear when you are in your mother’s womb. And your children and my children have shared a sacred place, our wombs. And they have heard the same sound. So there is a big connection to it.
FvR: I’d like to get into what it feels like for you to dance? What goes through your mind?
BJ: When you are wearing your regalia the regalia is part of the dance. You are not just a dancer, your regalia is also a dancer. You have to make sure that your regalia dances. You are responsible for your regalia to dance. So the dancers try to move so that the regalia moves with them.
When I dance I dance with my whole being. It makes me feel complete and so happy. It puts me into a different level of thinking and feeling that I don’t usually feel and I don’t usually think. I feel very proud of who I am when I dance. My heart is so happy. So it is the most complete humanness of who I am. It is like a big package with a big bow on it when I dance and when I sing.
FvR: Thank you Bubblo.
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