by Trudy Sable and Julia Sable
Despite 500 years of foreign influence, dancing is still a strong part of Mi'kmaw culture. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, when North America's First Peoples began to renew their cultural pride, young Mi'kmaq headed to western Canada and the United States where Lakota and Cree elders taught them about traditional ceremonies and practices.
The youth brought back the Great Plains and Woodlands drum and its teachings, as well as songs, dances, ceremonies and the traditional lifestyles that went with these practices. This inspired the Mi'kmaq to research their own ancient songs, chants, and dances. People created dance groups, put on cultural workshops and performed in their communities. Gradually more Mi'kmaq took part, prompting previously hesitant elders to come forward with their knowledge of the traditions. People also worked to preserve the Mi'kmaw language.
Communities adopted the drum culture as their own, as their ancestors would have done. By the 1980s, most Mi'kmaw reserves had drum groups. Mi'kmaq also created new "traditional" songs. For example, George Paul of New Brunswick offered an Honour Song that told of the eagle coming to help their people. Today communities have called that song the "Mi'kmaq Honour Song".
Dance regalia continues to be deeply significant for both the wearer and maker. To teach the symbolism that keeps traditions alive, designers adorn the clothing with hand-drawn animal images, traditional patterns, petrographs (rock drawings and writings), petroglyphs (rock or cliff carvings), and pictographs (drawings or writings on skins, bark, pottery, etc.).
The designs have also portrayed each dancer's personal spirit (Kathy Denny, personal communication, May 1, 2006). Click here for an interview with Kathy Denny, a regalia painter.
Many female dancers now have chosen to wear beautiful shawls. One artisan, Georgina Doucette of Eskasoni, said the shawl has been her contribution to healing her people. Her shawls, she said, have helped dancers to touch their Mi'kmaq roots.
If you would like to hear more about the meaning and the making of dance regalia Click here for an interview with Georgina Doucette, a maker of dance regalia.
The Eskasoni Mi'kmaq Dancers
The Eskasoni dance troupe was formed in the 1960s, and has continued to this day. The founder was Sarah Denny, now deceased, who saw that the dances and chants of the Mi'kmaq would be lost if someone did not record them. The Grand Council gave her special permission to record the chants that traditionally only men have performed.
Sarah's efforts have paid off. Today, the Eskasoni Dancers, including her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and dancers from other families, proudly perform the dances and chants she kept alive.
The dance group performs traditional dances such as the Koju'a and the Welcoming Dance, as well as newly choreographed dances, such as Mi'kmwesu that re-enacts a traditional legend about a forest trickster who plays a flute.
Powwows have become part of the aboriginal cultural revival in Atlantic Canada. Mawiomi means "gathering," and sometimes refers to a powwow. Such celebrations have always been part of the culture and "showcase the beauty, strength, spirit and endurance of the Micmac (Mi'kmaw) peoples' culture and tradition" (Mi'kmaq Website: 2003).
The powwow, as the Mi'kmaq practice it today, is a term North American tribes use to describe events at which First Peoples share their dances, songs, and arts and crafts. Aboriginal peoples have two kinds of powwows, traditional and competitive. At competition events, drum groups and dancers compete for prize money. Traditional powwows generally do not award money, rather focusing on celebration, ceremony, storytelling, gift exchange, feast, dance, and song.
The Nova Scotia Eskasoni reserve held its first powwow in 1992, but other reserves, such as Eel Ground in New Brunswick, started several years before that. The Mi'kmaq have learned different dance styles both from traveling out west and from powwow dancers from other tribal members who visit Eastern Canada. Each summer, dancers, drummers and chanters flow back and forth across borders to follow the powwow trail to celebrate and honour life. Click here for a video clip of powwow dancing in Eskasoni.
Some of the traditional Mi'kmaw dances such as Koju'a and the Welcome Dance continue to take place at powwows.
Mi'kmaw people first learned the Sun Dance in the early 1980s, and eventually began hosting this ceremony within their own communities. Nevin family members brought the Sun Dance from the Western Cree, while other Mi'kmaq studied with the Lakota in the western United States. People who Sun dance have said it embodies Mi'kmaw traditional beliefs, but not everyone accepts that idea. William Nevin, a Mi'kmaw Sun Dance Chief, says:
"Is it modern, I don't know! All I tell you is this: my sons have only been brought up one way. They've seen their father dance from the time they were born; they will tell their children that their grandfather was a Sun Dancer. . . So when you look at it, what is ours belongs to us; that's what tradition is. It's something you call your own. I'm the first generation of Sun Dancers to bring it back. My sons and my grandsons will be second and third, then there will be no question what it is because they are going to call it their own" (William Nevin, personal communication, Dec.24, 2005).
During the Sun Dance, dancers go without water for four days or more and dance individually to the sun, the earth, and the four directions. The dance is a personal sacrifice to help people who are sick, or to ask for the well-being of their families. The Sun Dance is sacred, so the dancers endure tremendous discipline and years of training. Nevin said the dance is a way to recapture the ancient kinship and connections between different tribes: "It's time to come together and dance together and that's what the Sun Dance is doing; saying let's all join each other, let's be, let's have one common way to dance in front of the Creator and Sun" (Ibid.).
Dances express our stories and feelings. They change over time as conditions change. Some Mi'kmaw dances have adapted and others have vanished, but this does not mean that the current dances are no longer Mi'kmaq or "Indian". Today, people have chosen different ways to dance, but all dancers feel they are carrying on something that is Mi'kmaq. Groups such as the Eskasoni Mi'kmaq Dancers are still adding dances to their repertoire, while continuing traditional dances like the Koju'a.
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