Before moving to Vancouver, I met Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, who self-identifies as an urban Aboriginal Cree-Métis from Alberta. She participated in the June 2017 Configurations in Montréal: Performance curation and communities of colour event I helped initiate and co-organize in Montréal. Frederick told us how she sends a prayer before the plane departs to let the earth know that she will be back. After her plane lands, she sends another prayer of gratitude to the earth for receiving her again. It’s a way of keeping company. She explained how our earth recognizes and knows us by our footprint – its weight, the feel of it, how we press into the ground.
I think of this as I look out the plane window on the way to Terrace, British Columbia. I’m on my way to visit Prince Rupert, Kitimat and Smithers. As the new executive director of Made in BC – Dance on Tour, and new to British Columbia, I am travelling to visit presenters and connect with two Vancouver artists who are on tour (Rianne Svelnis and Kelly McInnes) in our northern network.
Before I left Vancouver, I sent a short poetic reflection to Margaret Grenier, artistic and executive director of the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival. I had attended the eleventh annual festival, which was held at the Museum of Anthropology in the traditional and unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations from February 27th through March 4th, 2018. Inspired by the dancers at the festival and how they shared personal stories in relation to the performances, I wanted to respond from a place of accompaniment. I pivoted myself from viewer to witness. I told her that I was planning to go north as part of my introduction to British Columbia to see what I could learn. This essay is an extension of that writing.
Looking out the plane window, I notice how my northeastern eyes expect to see a town, railroad tracks or a highway nestled in the valleys. These images in my mind are instead silenced by green – waves and waves of green-backed hills and mountains. More familiar to my northeastern experience is the view out the window of mid-April snow and ice-covered waterways, something not present in Vancouver.
The plane lands and we’re invited to step outside onto the tarmac to walk into the airport. A line of mountains, whitecapped, stare down. I feel my feet press into the ground to push me into the warmth inside. I’m driving from Terrace to Prince Rupert along the Skeena River. It seems this river becomes more like a serpent that swallowed a lake. There are areas where the water has no discernible opposite shoreline, and then it’s less a lake and more like an ocean bay. Along the river, great trees are toppled over with their roots upright and tangled, showing evidence of their journeys underground. Is that the outline of a moose with its head out of the water or is it the shape of a trunk along its side? Tree trunks dot the shorelines. I can’t stop to go back. I start thinking of the root designs as decorative earrings following along the face of the river as if the water decided to wear them.
Mountains belly up to the road; a shoulder of rock seems shifted out of joint; there’s a crumbling along the rock face where a belly valley is revealed – layers slid off. Then, more curves, and a long vein emerges following the rocks’ decline. These mountain stories keep revealing themselves, shifting and changing as Highway 16 moves closer to them: majestic and hard-edged to soft and collapsed. Slopes bend into rubble and then giant slabs like doors folded and closed one on top of the other; there are mountaintops with clouds caught tumbling around them. I notice the way the clouds curl along the ridges, changing the mountain shapes again, bringing them closer and then no, they are farther away again. A patch of stone peeks from underneath an arm of green. The mountains show how they have come to be timeless entities. Rocks, sleek, with threads of waterfall. Each mountain emits its own song. I can’t hear it yet, but I know it’s there. And in between the beats, the silence feels different, like it’s held from a long way off: a rich silence, not one quietly hushed a few miles away. A held crowd of quiet. We’re in a northern rainforest with an abundance of water that flows, cascading in silvery lines, surfacing along the side of the road in small, powerful waterfalls. Everywhere water is dripping, dripping.
I arrive in Prince Rupert and quickly catch the sight of young people, women and middle-aged men walking along the side of the road, in the rain, with their dark-blue hoodies drawn up close around their heads. It feels iconic, mythmaking, and their travels feel long. When I was growing up, my mom used to occasionally pick up hitchhikers when I was with her, but we were in our corner of the world, and we knew who the person was and where we were driving. I think of our choices as I drive by them on these unfamiliar roads, near Highway 16, that “Highway of Tears,” where many Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been murdered. A few days later, Karen Buchanan (Made in BC’s community engagement facilitator) tells me that locals had been accidentally struck by cars as they were walking. It feels very heavy.
I’m early for my appointment with Crystal Lorette at the Lester Centre of the Arts (Tsimshian Territory). I stop at the local library to use their Wi-Fi to figure out directions. I’ve driven right by the theatre. As I leave, a woman in her late fifties and I have a little chat on the way out the door about an umbrella someone has left on the railing. With an “Enjoy your afternoon,” she hops on her ten-speed bike and takes off into the rain, pedalling up and over the hill.
I visit the local Museum of Northern British Columbia. This museum describes its collections and exhibitions as a place to celebrate cultures and histories. It feels like the objects have chosen to share particular knowledge and are thoughtfully arranged. After the festival experience and with this smaller collection, it feels easier to start to get a better grasp on the many nations in this area. The network presenter and community engagement facilitator in Smithers, Miriam Colvin (from the Bulkley Valley Concert Association on Wet’suwet’en Territory), advises me to grasp the word “nation” to understand just how distinct these differences can be.
Included in these objects are headdresses that I recognize as similar to those worn by some of the dancers in the festival. Now I’m looking at their details close up and reading about how the walrus whiskers of the Haida headdress (shakee.át) form the crown and how that crown becomes like a nest that is filled with eagle down. I remember how, at the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival, these small feathers floated out into the space when the dancers moved, filling the air with their symbol of peace and landing in our hair and clothes. These masks and headdresses are powerful in action, and just as powerful resting behind glass. They pull you to them and push back at you to think about who made them and how. They ask you more questions.
The festival continues to create more echoes in how I experience British Columbia afterwards. After hearing the Inuit throat singers, I imagined how to make the throat singing sounds to conjure Canadian geese flying overhead – bringing them near and then farther away. On another morning in Vancouver, I heard a sound in the treetops. In my mind’s eye, the raven masks and dancers from the festival performances appeared. For the first time, I knew where the sounds were coming from. What was different was that it was the dance and the masks that first revealed this northwest part of Canada to me – where I fit within it and who I was sharing it with. I knew the mask and the dance before I knew the bird. A few days before the festival, I saw a pair of orcas for the first time. They were heading out of the bay as the ferry was heading in to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. It was mesmerizing to watch them moving through and with the water: their bold colouring in all that blue, their fluidity in swimming a reminder of their ease in all that expanse and how we’re the visitors. In the Dancers of Damelahamid’s performance dedicated to the orcas, I saw them again in the dancers’ spacing of one slightly behind or ahead of the other, always in twos. The rhythm of movements in the dance mirrored their swimming.
On this trip north, I attend the first annual North Coast Whale Festival in a room overlooking Prince Rupert Harbour. A First Nations dance group from Prince Rupert, Wii Gisigwilgwelk (Big Northern Lights), performs. One woman in particular, Rachel Hewer, holds the space steady for the other dancers. The girls are dressed up in regalia, their hair and clothing arranged with care. In one song, the Friendship Song, everyone in the room is asked by the performers to sing the refrain with them as loudly as we can. The girls are in a group on one side of the stage. They range in ages from four to about ten years old. When they are asked to sing loudly, they totally go for it. The room changes to hold their young voices bubbling up with all permission and encouragement. They’re full-on little-girl loud (there’s loud, and then there’s little-girl loud). I briefly connect afterwards with Hewer, who explains that she tries to sing more quietly in that part so they can be heard as loudly as possible. It’s a whole other kind of support. The boys too are encouraged to shift their weight as they drum, engaging with their whole bodies, to find the physical rhythm in the action.
I was thinking about the possible challenges of presenting this work – to family and friends, in intergenerational gatherings and to external audiences. Their participation is a performance that doesn’t seem to be meant as a performance but still is. Dancer Marissa Nahanee (from the Chinook SongCatchers) explained to us in an artist talk and discussion with the Candance members at the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival that the dancers have to figure out how the movements can shift and slightly open up to be read by others without losing their original essence.
Later I drive to Smithers and cross through the Gitxsan Nation Territory near Hazelton. We are moving farther inland from the coast, and the land and river feel different. The water here moves more ponderously, lumbering, determined. A sign along Highway 16 reads 20km/h in “urban areas.” This concept of urban feels very different from the Bronx, and I have to smile when I see the small gathering of homes. There’s an older woman sitting on a knoll in a fold-out lawn chair. She is wrapped up in layers and she waves. I give her a big wave and we have a nice recognition – our eyes meeting for that quick second.
On the way back to Terrace, the highway is under construction. Workers in reflective vests and holding signs instruct cars to stop and wait. One of the guys waits to flip his sign from “stop” to “slow,” walking back and forth, keeping steps in time by dancing a little to his own beat. We are held there for a good few minutes. I give him a big thumbs-up when we are allowed to drive by. We exchange smiles. He reminds me of every dancer I know, keeping himself and his energies alive and moving, keeping the music of movement with him and into the day.
A Statement from Margaret Grenier about CFNDF’s Ten-Year Anniversary
The Dancers of Damelahamid have choreographed a short dance work to celebrate the legacy that has been built over the past ten years of the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival (CFNDF). The imagery of canoes coming together in celebration and a pod of whales singing in harmony symbolizes the intergenerational community that has been built by the festival. Reflected in this work is the dynamic and vibrant nature of Northwest Coast dance, which continues to redefine itself with each generation that practises it. The festival has been led by two generations of grandmothers, whose constant dedication has touched the lives of all who participate in this celebration. The women’s dance contains a gentle beauty that acknowledges the love that our grandmothers have passed forward in their teachings. We honour all of us coming together, interweaving to strengthen our communities through acts of reciprocity.
As a whole, these dances celebrate the work that has brought us together and enabled our art form to thrive over the last ten years of the CFNDF. They also look toward a hopeful future and all of the potential that it contains.