Interviewer: Franziska von Rosen
Place: Eskasoni, Cape Breton, NS.
Franziska von Rosen: Can we start with you telling me a bit about who you are.
Joel Denny: My name is Joel Denny. Iím from Eskasoni First Nation, Nova Scotia. I belong to a group we call the Eskasoni Dancers. We do contemporary theatre and traditional dance. We compose some of our music. We also repatriate old songs and dances. This is something that has been passed down to us by our mother and our father and the uncles and aunts who live close by to us.
It is a privilege to have an elder from your family or another family sing the song and show the dance to you. So we are very fortunate to have some of the dances passed down to us. Different families have kept these songs and dances. Each had their own styles. It is very important that we identify the families when we sing these songs because they have been loaned to us to perform.
FvR: How did you get started?
JD: My mother Sarah Denny and my father Noel R. Denny were a big influence on us as we grew up. I think they always passed on songs while we were eating. Thatís when she would be singing the songs to us. Later she would show us the dance and tell us about the meaning and where it came from. There is always a story or lesson behind it. These stories are kept in our memory, even the spiritual memory of our family, of our people.
My family, my sisters and I, we are all dancers. As we grew up we danced for nickels and dimes. Then later [my mother] took us out and showed us off. She always said, ďIf someone is making fun of you then dance for them.Ē I did that. I got into a lot of fights. Eventually we grew up and started having families of our own. My oldest son J.J. is 32. He was dancing and performing with my motherís group ever since he was seven or eight. He is also a powwow singer and dancer.
We were also influenced by the elders in our community like Michael Paul and Martin Paul (brothers) and Helen Paul.
FvR: When and why did Sarah start with her dancers?
JD: There was a time, even as late as the early '50s, when we were not allowed to dance. It was a taboo. Then there was one St Annís Mission at Chapel Island in the early 1960s - '61 or '62. And there was a gathering of Keptins [members of the Grand Council]. My father, because he was brought up by his grandparents, knew that there should be a dance after the Keptins, or the Grand Council meet. And so that is what they did - Andrew Gould, my father, and Steven Stevens.
But the Jesuits who were still active in that area, Chapel Island, did not go for that. They suppressed that, but the men danced, they danced and everybody left. There were just three people there dancing. The rest were scared; just looked out their windows; thought they were going to go to hell for dancing. Everyone was scared. And from that day on we started dressing up Miíkmaq and going to Chapel Island. We were the only three families dancing at that time.
FvR: Talk to me a bit about your dances.
JD: The dances we have are very ancient, very comical. The way we dance commemorates life itself and the stages of life and the humour and the seriousness of the roles in the community. Thatís what the dances are for. They are all teachings. The songs were restricted to individuals in the community because they have a special role in the community.
With European policies of assimilation, suppression, and centralization, our dances and culture went underground. But some of the dances, the songs and the language are still intact. When it went underground there were particular families who became the keepers of the songs and dances. This one kept this song and dance and the other kept other songs and dances.
FvR: Describe some of the dances for me.
JD: There is a partridge song that we dance. In the wintertime, if a hunter would try to grab a partridge that is behind a tree, and it was a windy day and he wasnít able to catch the partridge and the partridge would take off, the hunter would sing for the partridge. [He sings.] So there are reasons for singing these songs and you have to find out where they came from. There is a reason that the song is sung. It could just be a song to make fun of something. It is part of socializing.
Another thing is also the respect for nature and animal life and how you talk to animals. The songs came from that sound of nature and even the cries that you hear. It could be a war dance and that is one of the songs we dance.
FvR: What is that about?
JD: The war dance doesnít say anything about killing people. It only says that you are standing your ground and states your beliefs and who you are representing here. It could be your family or another country or settlement you belong to. If there is a dispute you stand up for it. You make it right by just standing up for it. So thatís how it is.
We also do a Partridge Dance, and a Pine Cone Dance. These are different versions of ones that the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseet, the Huron, the Montagnais, the Mohawks and all the others do. They all have a similar type of singing. There has been some sort of intertribal interaction with the songs in the way they mingled and borrowed.
There is also Iíko. Most of the time there would be seven women, or Eíbit, that would dance the heartbeat, and we call that Neskawet. Neskawet is the seven cries within. And the first cry would be the first breath and the last cry is the last breath you take in this world.
There are also other songs. If I was courting a young woman I would start out with the pipugwagn [flute]. If she accepted my courting and the family allowed me to court her for a year, then she would take my song and make a lullaby to it. And if we got married she would use that lullaby for her kids. So there are a lot of ways. We even sing to the animals when they die. There are whaling songs that you sing when the whale sacrifices its life for the village, for the people.
There is a song we sing to the ancestors to remember them in our ceremonies, in our pipe ceremonies, in our sweat lodge. There will be a select few who will have that song. So there are a lot of songs.
FvR: What about your present group?
JD: The Eskasoni Dancers are our children. I have a lot of little boys and three girls. I also now have 12 grandchildren. All my children dance, and a few of my grandchildren are dancers. They are getting there. We are teaching them. Because of the great number we cannot accommodate all of them, but we do a lot of stuff. We write all the music and that spirit of our mother lingers on and is attached to every child in those dances, and all you do is smile.
FvR: Tell me how you feel when you dance.
JD: When I dance or even when I am singing it is like a cry within. You practise and practise and finally you say that you understand what that song is for and how to play it or sing it. What happens then is there will be a time when you need to sing and it becomes a cry. If I donít sing it is like I never cried. When you sing for 4 days like for our powwows now, it is just like you went out there and cried with the people and sang with them. It is so moving.
FvR: Can you speak a bit about the process of learning to sing and drum.
JD: There are levels for singing and drumming. As a child you just start learning all these different songs. Your voice is changing, you learn to go high, go low. There is a maturity when you get to that adulthood of singing. You pick it up a little bit higher and it becomes a prayer. And you can hear the prayer - the death cry or the medicine cry, you hear that. There is a special kind of ceremony for that, and you say, ďya, now I know why the songs are there.Ē
There is a reason why you would sing and feel a certain way. I always heard that the drum was very strong and I never experienced how it would be, but I see people pass out because of the strength of a drum. Thatís the vibration of the drum, and the connection to the spirit world, when the spirits enter the drum and into the drummers and into the song so that it ripples outward. People just fall down. And then you realize you donít know anything at all. Youíve been drumming all your life and youíve just started. Now thereís another level you need to know.
Thatís what I mean about maturity in drumming, itís a totally different thing. So when I sing I cry. I cry for the people, for the dancers, I cry for that young woman and her first child; for the first baby that takes its first breath. So you take all the sounds that you know Ė sounds of the wind, sounds of the trees moving, sounds of the animals and you put them into a song, and there is your medicine. And you donít know that until you have been singing for quite a while and you learn and you learn and you learn, and hear and relearn. When youíve got it right that is when you start singing it for the people.
Hunterís song, we sing a hunterís song. The kids do the hunterís song and the warrior dance also. And one of my children is the one that sings it. You will see that in the video. The hunterís song is about three hunters in a canoe. They have been out there for more than three days and he says "nepitu nesimskaq" - this is an old language, a very old language, and it means that I could see three days ahead of me but I could see our food drifting towards us. He said, ďMy friends, we should paddle this canoe a little bit faster to our families.Ē So this is an old song, but the words of the song, our young people donít use them anymore. They are all about a canoe and being out in the ocean and this is the language for using out in the ocean. It is the song that came from the ocean. Everything had a song.
FvR: What about the Snake Dance?
JD: Jipijkaím is the serpent, the snake, and when it moves you can hear a rumble, maybe a small earthquake. That is how they moved. It was one of the seven spirits of the world of the underground.
FvR: I understand that you also write songs and your dancers choreograph the dance steps.
JD: With the songs that I write I try to take the legends and teachings that were taught to me by my mother and present them in a musical theatre way so that other people can see that and understand. The Miíkmaq dancers dance the spirit dance, the Miíkmwesu.
Spirit people, spirit people watch over us,
Spirit people watch us in our gatherings,
Spirit people, spirit people watch over our children and keep an eye on what we do.
It is you that is going to take our spirits back into the spirit world.
It is you that takes the spirit of the animals back into the spirit world.
Spirit people give us guidance.
Thatís the song, and the children made up the dance. They took the old and the new and we put it all together. And my sister Kathy sings it and it all comes together in the theatre. So I use stories, about spiritual entities of the Miíkmaq, that I was told as a child, by my mother and father, my grandmother, great-grandmother and great-grandfather.
These entities are like Miíkmwesu Ė they can change you into anything, an animal, a tree, a rock, or the handsomest person. But they are tricky; they will make you come to them. They will help you get more wood or more baskets, but they are tricky. My mother would always say, ďDonít go too far. If you see someone new donít let them help you. It could be Miíkmwesu. Heíll take you to the spirit world of the Miíkmaq.Ē So you are always scared. I donít know if they wanted to stop us from going out too much in the woods. But there are also stories of the Puklatamuj, who are little people. Kukwesk are giant beings, spiritual beings. Jipikemaqn is the serpent, the big snakes that are around here. Kulu is the big bird that watches over the burial sites of children.
FvR: How do you feel about borrowing songs and dances, or creating new ones?
JD: There are a lot of songs that our people would have borrowed from others when we had gatherings with different tribes. But it is critical now that we retain our own songs and dances in each region, each area or province because the mainstream powwow does not have a culture. It is just intertribal. Everyone is singing songs and some of them donít even know what they are saying. But when you are singing a song, getting one little syllable wrong could mean war, an insult, shame to your family or yourself. So it is vital that you know what you are saying. And that is what is wrong with the mainstream powwow. They have forgotten to address the elders first. You always sit back and let the elders open the song, start the ceremony first, show how to dance the song. You shouldnít step over the elders; thatís what they sometimes do in powwows and that is violating what the songs and dances are there for.
To us it is vital that we keep our songs so we will be able to teach our children and say ďthis is the song Sarah Denny, my mother, this is the song that Joel Denny, my great-grandfather, would have sung. He got it from his great-great-grandfather". If we do that then we have done our job and our dances well.
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