By Michael MacDonald
As I researched aboriginal dance in Canada one of the names that kept recurring was that of Nicole O’Bomsawin. She was a pioneer in encouraging research into the traditional dancing of her culture, the Abenaki, and of helping her people express their identity through dance. Although she has retired as Director of the Abenaki Museum in Odanak she is very much in demand as an advisor for many projects. Consequently, over a two-month period that we tried to set up a personal interview no convenient time could be found. I therefore sent her questions via e-mail, and you will find her responses below.
How did you get interested in dance?
On the 1st of July 1960, Odanak was celebrating its tercentennial (300yrs) and large cultural celebrations were organized. Whether old or young, the majority of the village people were wearing a traditional costume. Artisans were demonstrating their skills, the choir was interpreting Abénaki songs during mass and dancers were doing shows all afternoon. I was 7 years old and I danced for the very first time a few traditional dances with a youth group of my age.
I like dancing but I especially like how the public looked at us and how they appreciated our dances while they were applauding our not so skilful performance. I was impressed by the performance of the older ones and the adults. Later I always joined the dance groups which got together to dance at the powwow celebrations.
At the age of 12 I made a discovery that was to change my life. During a holiday I was at camp for a couple of days and discovered international folklore: world music and different rhythms. I loved it so much that I bartered with my friends to exchange my duties against their time in folk dances. The répertoire was: Israeli, Greek, Russian and American dances. Later on I enrolled in weekend folk dance workshops and I was then able to discover other countries: Rumanian, Turkish, Yugoslavian and Bulgarian, and also Quebecois dances.
Between the ages of 15 and 18 I was the person responsible in my school for the after-school folk activities which occurred once or twice per week. Then at the CÉGEP I joined a dance troupe which would represent the college. We were about 20 dancers; we had a four-person team responsible for dance technique, sets, costumes, a choreographer of the Place des Arts de Montréal and musicians. We had shows in Montréal, Québec, Trois-Rivières, Orford and several other towns in Québec. Our répertoire consisted of Spanish dances from the medieval ages and Renaissance time (Flamenco and Galicia dances) as well as Polish, Russian, Canadian and South American suites. I remained a member of the troupe for five years from 1971 to 1976. This is where I met my husband.
How do you feel when you are dancing?
I feel very free, alive and transported by the rhythm and by the music. I can dance alone and feel the same pleasure. I enjoy inhabiting the space and the contact with the ground, the earth. To see good dance performances makes me vibrate and gives me enormous satisfaction, regardless of the style of folk dances, traditional or contemporary.
When did you get involved in Abénaki dances?
When I came back to live in Odanak, at the beginning of the 1980s, aboriginal women were in the midst of a battle to have their rights recognized. At that point in time there existed a dance group which only consisted of registered or status Indians. That left by the wayside a good number of children and women who had lost their status. I then got involved for the sake of dance but also for the cause of women. This group made of women and their children existed for a number of years. It was called “La Survivance Abénakise.” We participated in the first Drummondville folk festival in 1982 under the name Mikwôbaït, and again in 1983.
When and why was a dance group created in Odanak?
In 1984 I became the director of the Abenaki museum and I realized how important it was to preserve the Abenaki heritage for future generations, and not only the material culture but also the non-material heritage: gestures, language, legends, dances and chants. At that moment in time there were few people who danced and the répertoire was shrinking like a “peau de chagrin;” the dances which I had seen during my childhood were a mere memory. I thus benefited from good timing when I was able to establish a dance group to promote the Odanak village and its 325th anniversary planned for 1985. Parents got involved to make regalia while I was involved raising money. I also did research amongst the elders and I appealed to the Abenaki of the United States to provide us with traditional chants.
The Mikwôbaït troupe was created and lasted for 15 years. It pursued a number of objectives including the conservation of heritage and its transmission. This meant that we needed to make sure to integrate a number of new dancers every year and to make sure they acquired an understanding of Abenaki history, traditions and language. Moreover, after each performance dance members animated an activity with the public – and exchange with the public to create ties and to go beyond a simple performance. More than 50 persons of the community took part over the years. Vocal music was accompanied by the drum(s) and the rattles. Some dances also had dancers wearing bells [grelots].
What do the Abénaki dance?
Today the Abénaki still dance their dances when they are young, however there are few teenagers who continue to practise or who are interested in this form of expression. It is the same for traditional chants. I find this is too bad. I feel that history is repeating itself; 30 years later, here few people go to powwows apart from artisans. Thus the Abenaki of Odanak are not very influenced by the dance répertoire of the Western [powwow] dances. Meanwhile dancers in the United States don’t know their traditional dances any longer and now perform the dances of the powwows with the western regalia which sometimes carry Abénaki symbols.
What is Mikwôbaït’s répertoire?
The Serpent, War, Birth, Wheat of India, Elder, Old Sorcerer [sorcier], Sun, Rain, Caribou, Totem, Fiancée, Marriage, Feather, Shawls, Knives, Friendship, Election of a Chief of the Kezela, Canoe, Eagle, and Wounded Eagle Dances.
What are your most memorable moments?
The first performance on a large stage during the first Trois-Rivières festival in 1984. It was an evening show and lasted an hour and a half.
A trip to Dieppe in Europe for the commemoration of D-day in 1989.
The inauguration of the Canadian Museum of Civilisation in Hull [now Gatineau] (1989).
The participation in an international festival in Brunssum, Holland, and in Belgium in 1992.
What has been your involvement with Mikwôbait since 2000?
For professional and personal reasons I had to limit my activities with the troupe, especially the transmission aspect of the dance program. However, I continued to answer requests to MC and perform. The troupe is composed of seven persons who have travelled a number of times to France to represent the heritage of the aboriginal cultures of Québec during events highlighting Canada or Québec (Embassy of Canada, France-Québec Association).
What are the other dance troupes?
During the winter of 2000, four family members and four to six other persons created another dance group. These persons started with Mikwôbait. There is also a chant group which is less active and performs rarely in the community. It is mainly made up of parents who have one or more children in elementary school.
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