Interviewer: Franziska von Rosen
Location: Alert Bay
William Wasden: My name is William Wasden, Jr. I am from the 'Namgis First Nation. We belong to the kwak̕wala speaking tribes. There are 17 existing tribes. My traditional name is Hiłamas.
Franziska von Rosen: Can you tell me about the dances that you personally hold?
WW: The dances that I personally hold are the Hamat̕sa. I am an initiated
Hamat̕sa. That was given to me by one of my great uncles. It comes from one of the mainland tribes. I hold a medicine man dance which traditionally is higher than Hamat̕sa but today it is not considered as high. But when you are a Hamat̕sa you can only go to that dance one society higher and that's the 'Ma'mak̕a, of the medicine man dance. I also have a grizzly bear dance. I used to belong to that society when I was younger. I am also a Hoylikala opener for the T̕ła'sala Dances. That's about it.
FvR: Can you talk a bit about how you received the dances?
WW: When I learned, I actually learned from a great aunt of my grandfather. My mother was learning how to dance and she wanted to learn from one of her elders, so she went to another village. And the elderly lady who we called Granny Nunu, she pushed her bed into the middle of the room and started to dance around it, and just because I happened to be there she showed me a few things and inspired me to start learning how to dance. From there I had a lot of male teachers, guys who were initiated Hamat̕sa who showed me how to be a Hamat̕sa. But in those days they didn't really teach you unless you were a Hamat̕sa or going to be a Hamat̕sa, so I was pretty lucky that I actually got initiated at one point. A lot of the old teachers were free with their information and knowledge to me.
FvR: What about others in your family, do they dance?
WW: Well, there are some families that hand on the traditions and they all dance and participate. In my family, my mother attended potlatches now and then, but not on a serious level. My brother was actually initiated before me when he was about eleven. The older people in our family had raised him, so they really took a favouring to him. So when there was no direct male in their family they chose him to dance Hamat̕sa for them. So he was taught at a very young age. So most of my immediate family, we were always around it but we did not take it that seriously until later years.
FvR: Is there anything about the initiation that you can share with us?
WW: In the initiations that we run today, we keep it a very secret society. We want just those members that are part of it to know how to practise and what the reason is for the sequencing and why things are done the way they are. What is really important for us is the fasting and spiritual preparation for being a dancer, not just for Hamat̕sa, but other dancers going through their rites of passage. It's really important to fast and spiritually cleanse and purify yourself to really get in touch with who you are.
We really follow that, especially with the Hamat̕sa, that if we are related to those people then we kind of step in – the ones that know what is going on with purification. We take them out and kind of walk them through it and make sure that it is done in a respectful way, with a lot of honour and dignity given to the dance.
FvR: What does it mean to be a Hamat̕sa?
WW: To be a Hamat̕sa means that you are being taken and put into a very noble position, and that somewhere along the line you are going to be trained to be a leader or put in a chiefly position or role in their family. And whether you know it or not someone has taken favour with you and has seen something in you that is worth nurturing.
FvR: So there is also responsibility that goes with that honour?
WW: There is a big responsibility. You cannot shame your family when someone gives you something as noble as a Hamat̕sa, which is one of the highest dance societies that we have. You have to carry yourself in a very noble manner when you are out on the street, not only when you are in the Big House.
For me, the teaching of the Hamat̕sa is that you are going to be the keeper of the people, protecting the people. In the olden days they used to say that if someone needed disciplining the Hamat̕sa would deal with it. So there is a lot of responsibility that goes with it, and more than anything it's important to be a positive role model in your community and a protector of your people.
FvR: Can you describe for me some of the occasions when the Hamat̕sa would be called upon to dance?
WW: T̕sit̕seka, Winter Ceremonies, Hamat̕sa is at the head of what we call T̕seka or Sacred Red Cedar Bark Ceremonies that are always done in the wintertime. These dances are only done in winter because our people believe that the spirits that are in contact with Hamat̕sa, like Winalagalis and Baxwbakwalanuksiwe', are only close to the earth during that time of the year.
The only time I really see Hamat̕sa being used is during the Red Cedar Bark Ceremonies. Different families are showing different sides of their family, and other than the main initiate, it is just other initiated Hamat̕sa related to the people that are hosting it that will really be up front and doing a lot of dancing.
Usually it is only the main initiate that you see during a potlatch, but the other Hamat̕sa will join them in the finishing part, called Hilik̕ala, with the tamed Hamat̕sa, and that is to show their approval or acceptance of the new initiate. Usually it is only the initiate you see performing during the family's winter ceremonies.
Today a lot of people show Hamat̕sa, but in the early days there wasn't a lot of it around. So we wonder where a lot of people are pulling their Cannibal Dance positions from. Your history should come along with your dance presentations. Whatever you are showing, the people should come along with a real long accurate history that people can remember, because if your family has kept that line of dancing going, sharing their history through potlatching, that knowledge would have been passed on with your family as the generations went by.
So it is pretty hard to go to a potlatch today and just watch people dancing when they don't tell where their dances are coming from. So where do the rights and the dance privileges come from?
FvR: What you are saying is very interesting, particularly the connection that you are making between dance and family history. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
WW: Well, every dance has a history and every name has a history, every family has a history and that is what the whole ceremonies that we perform are all about: passing on these traditions through song and dance with the telling of the history. That's why the witnesses who have been called to come and be the guests at these gatherings are paid at the end with gifts to forever remember what they have witnessed. Accepting the gift is accepting the history and the dancing that has been presented to them. So if the history is not being told, then there is no sense in giving gifts; you could just pretty much get away with anything. So when you are doing your dancing you should really be telling your history, and that is not happening a lot these days.
We are really encouraging our new generation of chiefs to research their family and understand where they are coming from, where their dances came from and where their name came from so that these things are forever recorded in history. You want to be proud of your heritage, and if you know where you came from, then you know where you are going to be going.
FvR: Am I right in thinking that the connection between family histories and dance is a fundamental key to understanding potlatch culture?
WW: Yes, the whole potlatch system, whether it is the Red Cedar Bark Dances or the Tła'sala, is retelling your family's history through song and dance and sharing that history. The speaker is narrating the whole thing as you go along.
Through song and dance you are presenting your family's history and validating it by constantly showing it and dancing it and presenting it through your family's lifetime. It just keeps being handed down from generation to generation.
FvR: There is also the connection between dance, responsibility and privilege. Can you elaborate on that a bit more?
WW: When someone puts a dance on you, that's not yours to do with as you please. You are just the holder of that dance for your lifetime, or whenever the leader of your family or the chief feels it is time to pass it on again. So you really have to take care of what has been given to you, because you are basically taking on all the roles and responsibilities that go along with that dance and that name. If you do shameful things with that dance, you are shaming the position that was given to you and shaming your family, which is first and foremost in our culture. So you have to be very careful when a dance is put on you that you take care of it and that you keep that dance as noble and as dignified as the ancestors that had it before you.
We don't own these things. We are just the keepers of these positions while we walk on this earth. When it is time for us to pass on, or pass these dances on, they are put on someone else, and then it is their responsibility to take care of them.
In the olden days, if people did not take care of the roles and rights that were put on them, they could be very easily stripped from them. The chiefs and the elders and the family could decide they are not worthy and take it away from them and put it on someone that is worthy, even skipping birthright. Sometimes that was done for the Hamat̕sa position: if the oldest son was not worthy in the way he was carrying himself, it might be put on the next oldest son, and so on. You really have to watch how you carry yourself, especially with the winter dancing ceremonies, because there are certain strict rules and protocols that are called for when you are conducting yourself in those ceremonies, not just in the Big House but in the outside world too. You are supposed to carry that noble mannerism when you leave there, and if you don't, those things can be taken from you just as fast as you got them.
FvR: What is the role of the elders in the Big House during the ceremonies?
WW: In the olden days they were the authorities over everything. They always knew how things were to be done. The elders still play a big role. They are always called for meetings, usually there are chief and elders meetings - they might be separate, they might be together - where the family that is going to show a ceremony of some sort will call the elders that are from their villages or their families, and ask them if what they are doing or presenting is proper. And it is up to the elders, they have the final say because they are the ones that are passing down the knowledge. Their role is very important.
Older chiefs that are elders usually pass their chieftainship on to their older sons and more or less retire, but take on elder status and still keep their chiefly status.
FvR: Let us talk more specifically now about the Hamat̕sa dancer and the way he moves on the dance floor. I was struck by the grace of his movements, and the gentleness with which he places his bare feet on the ground.
WW: What I was taught was that our ancestors return to the earth, everything comes from Mother Earth and we dance on a dirt floor in our Big House. And they are usually packed down and kept very clean. In the middle of that dirt floor is a fire. That fire is a direct connection to our Creator. So when our dancers dance, they are trying to dance very gracefully because we are taught that we are dancing on the breast of our Mother Earth.
The spirit, the energy and the power of our ancestors is in this land, that's why when they dance barefoot - it is a strong energy point, the base of your feet - they are pulling the spirit and the energy from their ancestors. Everything that we do is done very gracefully because we say that the way you dance, that is the way you walk through life. Some people walk very smoothly and very lightly on this earth and others don't. The way you dance says a lot about you as a person.
FvR: Can you talk a bit now about the music, the songs that are presented along with the dance? Where do they come from?
WW: That music is as old as our people. We have ancestors that came down after the flood time. The one I know for sure was a composer and a songmaker at that time, so that tradition has just always been passed down. I know songs that are two thousand years old that still have the same flow or a similar feeling as one composed two days ago.
They tell us that everything that comes from our people comes from the land, our language came from the land, the spirit of our people came from the land, so I would imagine that it was from things that they heard, or things that they saw, that this drumming or these types of music originated from.
All I know is the way it is done is the way it has been handed down for thousands of years. We just have a really good link from our ancestors to where we are today. Things have not changed too much, despite the fact that the potlatch had been banned, and that our people had to go underground to keep these things going. So there has never been a real break in our chain. As a people we are very lucky. The beating (drumming) and the different songs, they are very, very unique and very powerful. Anywhere I have travelled in the world I have never come across beating or singing that is like ours.
But I know that we have hung on to it for a reason. On a more spiritual level, I think that we came close to losing it because maybe we were not handling it properly. And that the Creator showed us what it would be like to take it away, and that is why I think the potlatch prohibition came down on the people. But we survived and we are still here, and I believe that with our song and dance there is a strong message for the rest of the world, why the Creator let us hang on to it and we are still able to share it today.
FvR: Talk to me a bit about your dance group.
WW: I always wanted to have a real professional dance troupe to represent our people because we have a wide variation of dances and a lot of really gifted people amongst our tribes. I just thought it would be something to do to get together and practise, keep bettering ourselves, learn more songs and more dances and practise them. And then we can give some of our young people the opportunity to travel with this culture and share a strong message about who we are as Kwakwaka'wakw people with the world. It isn't easy. There is a lot of politics that goes along with it.
I really respect that there are a lot of people who don't believe that our dances should go outside of our own traditional ceremonial houses and ceremonies. On the other hand I think about what it could bring for our young people. I know how important these experiences can be in their young lives, because just like every other reserve, we have a lot of social problems and obstacles for our young people. Some of them are just not going to make it.
Our culture is the only thing that will save our people, as long as our young people use it, share it in a respectful way. That's what our elder said to us, if we were going to share our dancing outside, that we come with a strong message; that we don't sugar-coat anything; we tell our issues the way they are; we tell the world who we are and what we are about and what we are going through, and do it in a respectful way when we represent our people. In the best way we can.
There are a certain number of dances that we are allowed to show. I have gone to our elders and asked them, "Would it be all right if we did this?" They said, "As long as you only show so much. There are some things that are too sacred to show to the outside world. That's for our people; keep it at home. But there are enough dances that we can share some of the other ones with other people, other cultures, other nations".
It is a fairly young group, but we have a lot of older people that are part of it. We basically just get together and sing and dance and keep practising, working on our protocols, making sure that young people understand why they are dancing to a certain song; that they understand the rhythm, understand the translations of the songs and the meanings of them. It is more than just a dance group - it is more a cultural learning society.
FvR: Are the young people interested?
WW: With our people you grow up seeing your uncles dancing and your grandfather dancing and your great uncles dancing, and for the ladies they see their aunties and their moms, it is not something that is foreign to them when they are young. You just grow up seeing it. Occasionally you get the honour of seeing someone that totally inspires you; he is one of your relatives and you want to be just like him. So there is a lot of that kind of inspiration among our people and culture.
What I see today is that a lot of young people, as soon as they are able to walk and talk, are already gifted dancers. A lot of young people are really good singers at a young age. You hear a lot of children banging on a drum and singing their own songs. What I think is that the old spirits are coming back. Energy never dies, and we believe in reincarnation in our tribes. There was a time when there wasn't a lot of power in it anymore. It was just going through the motions, still alive, but the spirit was not as strong as it is today. I think that a lot of old souls are coming back to our people again, because our culture is alive and flourishing. It is time for these old spirits to come back and make it even stronger.
FvR: You spoke about people being keepers of dances, but what about songs?
WW: Everybody has their own song in life. When you are initiated you get a composer to compose a song for you, if you cannot do it for yourself - this art is really dying among our people, there are only two or three composers that are capable of making authentic traditional songs. When you are given a dance, the dance may be inherited, but everyone in our culture has their own song. You could not dance to anybody else's song in life, because you are just not that person. Everyone has their own spirit and their own character. We all dance to our own tune in life. We all go through life with a different song.
The composer will go to the person who is being given the dance, look at the characteristics that this person has, and through the wording of the song relate the character of that person as if referring to the society that they will belong to. One of my great uncles said that if we were to dance to the same songs all the time, if we kept on using old songs, that only the faces would change and our culture would stay stagnant, it wouldn't move.
So this is part of the growth of our people. There always has to be a new flow of songs and dances, because there are always new spirits and new energy. We cannot just stay in place, we have to always be moving forward. It's the same as when we are dancing on the dance floor: we don't go back to the entrance where we began, because symbolically that means that we are just remaining the same as a people. So when we finish on the other side it means we are progressing and moving forward.
FvR: So are there also new dances being developed?
WW: No, not for a long time. The way our people used to get dances was through fasting and spiritual purification; through visions and dreams, spiritual encounters while you are out in the forest, spiritually cleansing yourself. When you cleanse yourself you lose your human scent and you have a better chance of getting in contact with the spirits of the animals and different forest beings. That part of our culture is only just now starting coming back again.
There are a lot of people who are what I consider dreamers, who have been dreaming about dances but don't know how to bring them out. Yet a lot of the great ceremonies that our people did have came through dreams. So that is a part of our culture that needs to be revived and taken seriously.
I know that on the spiritual side of things we will have to really get that moving again with the people who understand it, and use it in a proper manner where it does not just become a free-for-all, with everyone saying, "Oh I had a dream last night. Let's have a dance". There has to be some sort of measure of seriousness where people will say that this is a worthwhile dance; it has spiritual significance to it. It has meaning for the people. That there is some kind of medicine or spiritual power that will help the people or the family.
FvR: Can you tell me what is going through your mind and spirit as you come into the Big House as a Hamat̕sa?
WW: I think about my ancestors first and foremost. Particularly my grandfather, I know he was a very good dancer and I think about the spirit he had when he danced. And I know that by just being his great grandson I would carry that spirit too. A little part of him is within me.
Then I think of all the old people I knew who took the time to put their teachings into me, and I take that spirit of all of them and give it my best. It is hard to explain. I do not see anybody when I dance. There is nobody there any more. It is just between me and my Creator.
The fire is there and all I can hear is the song. If the song is good, then the spirit is there because the spirit is in the song. If the song is booming, it is like you are not there anymore. The spirit just takes over and you start to dance. There is no way to explain it. It just comes from somewhere within. It is definitely your ancestors who are carrying you and lifting you along.
Before I leave the curtain everything that I was ever taught flashes in front of my eyes, and the reason why you do these things. I was taught that Hamat̕sa, and especially the Medicine Men Dancers, there is a medicine in what they do; that you are dancing for the people and you are sharing your spiritual power with those people who have come to honour your family and see you and your brothers and sisters and cousins dance.
So when you dance, you dance open-handed, sharing your spiritual power and energy with them. You dance to the best of your ability because you are representing your family, but you are also dancing for the people. You want them to feel the spiritual power that you are sharing with them and to know that you are doing it with everything you have for them because they have come to honour your family by being there.
FvR: When you dance Hamat̕sa, how much do you take on the character of the cannibal coming in out of the wild?
WW: It depends on how much you have prepared to become Hamat̕sa. If you have gone to the forest and fasted for four days and four nights and bathed when the sun is rising every morning, you are going to come with a lot of spiritual power and influences from outside forces that people are not going to understand outside that Big House because they have never been a part of it.
Again, when you come and dance you are carrying that position from generations back. The name alone and the position is going to carry some spirit with it. It is going to make you feel you have to dance from somewhere deep down within.
Today I would not say it is about being possessed and wanting to eat people, it is about coming to oneness with yourself and the struggle that we have in life. That is what I was taught, that it is about becoming one with yourself and finding some inner balance through your dance.
You know we all have our own cannibal spirits that bother us everyday, or different kinds of spirits that don't make us feel right. And it is in overcoming those types of feelings and emotions about ourselves that we begin to find inner harmony and peace. And that is what the stages of the dance and the whole initiation process are about, to get to that place. That is why you have to go to the forest to fast and prepare yourself, because you are searching for your inner being, to find out who you are, what makes you tick in this world; and through your dancing and being given a good dance position, that you are going to feel good about who you are and where you come from.
My great aunts were the ones who told me, what you are searching for when you become a Hamat̕sa, and I guess when they say balance, that is to say that inner peace and harmony, that balance in life because when you are finished this whole ordeal there should be no reason for you to get involved in those things in this world like hate and jealousy and envy. You should be quite content with where you are at in life because your family has put a very great position on you and you have been allowed to join a very prestigious spiritual secret society.
It is like everything in life. If someone is at peace and harmony with themselves they can live in peace and harmony with everything in this universe. If someone is sure and confident, no matter what anyone does to them, they can move on and deal with it in a healthy way. And that is what that dancing is about, it is to find this inner peace and balance within yourself, to know who you are, and that nobody in this world, no matter what they say or do to you, can make you believe anything different than what you have been taught about who you are. That is all that dancing is.
Our people put dances on their children so they will have a place within our society. In doing so other people cannot say that they don't count or do not come from anything. People who have dances and standing have a place in our social system. We have a ranking system, and that is why the grandparents and parents save up and put on these lavish potlatches, to give their children standing, so they can function properly in this world of ours, in this Kwakwaka'wakw world. So they don't struggle and feel as if they are children of a lesser family. That is what it is all about.
The potlatch is where our people give away their property to establish status amongst their family ranking. If a person gives away, that is how they are respected among our people. The more they give, the more they are respected. The order is family first and friends after. So the more you give of yourself the greater your status. It is not always money and dry goods, it is how much you give of yourself.
The way we do it publicly is called potlatch and that is to give gifts to your family and friends to come and witness what your family's history is through song and dance. The more you give, the more potlatches you have, the higher your status. Potlatch is just a loose word given to us by the Europeans because it is from the Chinook jargon. We have tons of different words for different types of giveaways: canoe potlatches, grease potlatches, flour feasts, money feasts, blanket feasts, berry feasts, clam feasts, all different kinds of giveaways. If there is one word for it, I think it means to give, to uphold the honour and standing of your ancestors by giving to your family and friends. That is what I think potlatching is all about.
I don't think that potlatching was competition and rivalry in ancient times. I think that came with the Europeans. The older people have a lot of stories about that. In the ancient times our people really honoured birthright and nobody challenged each other's positions. Our Creator chooses what time we are born into this world. And if we are born the oldest, the Creator chose us to be the oldest. In the ancient times nobody challenged the respect that is given to the oldest. So I don't think that happened until the diseases hit us and there were many positions open for competition to start.
FvR: A final question. The powwow drum seems to have become almost a universal symbol of Nativeness in this country, at least in the media. What role if any does the powwow play in this region?
WW: From my understanding, the powwow drum is shared by a lot of communities that have lost their culture, and that is a beautiful thing. But amongst our tribes, the Kwakwaka'wakw people, we have never really lost our traditions. We still have the culture the Creator gave to us.
I know that a few of our people participate, but when they come home here, it is first and foremost our culture. I think it is amazing how they have opened their songs and traditions to all the people, but the powwow has not made it here to my knowledge.
If anything represented our people it is the cedar tree because everything came from the cedar tree. A lot of times you see a nice cedar tree on the back of button blankets, which represents the tree of life. The cedar tree, all different species of cedar have provided everything that we have ever needed from the beginning of time and if anything would represent us, it would be the cedar tree.
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