Video content in this article was produced with support from Canadian Heritage through the Business Innovation component of the Canadian Periodical Fund.
The American dance troupe Indigenous Enterprise made their Canadian debut with Indigenous Liberation at the Fall for Dance North Festival on Oct. 7 and 8. Indigenous Enterprise, founded in 2015 by Kenneth Shirley, is the product of a group of champion dancers from Canada and the United States whose mission is to celebrate Indigenous identity and amplify knowledge through film, fashion and dance.
Serena Lopez, The Dance Current’s regional reporter for Ontario, went backstage at the Toronto Metropolitan University Theatre during rehearsals to speak with Shirley (CEO and founder) as well as Toronto-based dancer Kehew Buffalo and California-based dancer Nanabah Kadenehii. The artists discuss their experiences performing for international audiences and share the stories that influence their performance.
Kenneth Shirley, CEO and founder of Indigenous Enterprise
Serena Lopez: When did you develop the team [for Indigenous Enterprise]? And where did the idea come from?
Kenneth Shirley: We’re friends that wanted to be able to uplift Indigenous representation to new heights. So we just wanted to form a group and come out and represent our people.
SL: What does it mean for you to get to start your own guest dance company and have it be in your control and with your vision?
KS: Yeah, really good, super happy, feel super blessed. Technically, we’re in another country, and people know who we are. I’m just appreciative of everything. I’m just one person, so it really comes from other people, like Toronto, people like yourself interviewing, spreading the name.
SL: What do you hope that audiences get from the show when they see it?
KS: I just hope that they feel good, feel uplifted, know that Indigenous culture is still here and still thriving.
Kehew Buffalo, performer
SL: How would you describe your piece in the show?
Kehew Buffalo: I would say that it’s a significant role. Because, you know, we do educate our non-Indigenous people as much as possible. So, as a performer, I really believe that dance and movement is the best way of storytelling.
SL: How would you describe the styles of dance that you do to someone who isn’t familiar with them?
KB: I dance prairie chicken style, and it originates in the Plains region. So Blackfoot and Cree. We do have a ceremony for this style of dance. And there’s actually a story to it. And the story goes that when colonizers came, they started mass slaughtering a lot of the buffalo. And that was our primary source of food. And so we asked the Creator for some sort of sustenance, and in big, big flocks, prairie chickens came in for our people and they sacrificed themselves to us so we could eat.
What we did from that was we started creating this ceremony to honour those sacrifices because without the prairie chickens, a lot of our people in the Plains would have starved to death as they already were doing. So my style of dance, it is also known kind of as a mating dance because normally when we mimic the prairie chicken, we have two male prairie chickens and one female, and they’ll kind of dance and have a courtship. And, you know, there’s a running joke: you can never look a prairie chicken dancer in the eyes. Otherwise, you’ll fall in love.
SL: What is it like performing internationally as well as in your own community?
KB: You know, for us, I believe that we’re trailblazers. When I was younger, there weren’t too many people doing this. And I think it’s a really good start as to what we’re building here. Because, at one point in time, I was a little kid watching the older dancers, and that’s how it is in powwows. But to do that on an international level, it really brings out the best [in] people because they get to see this and experience just a tiny little fraction of who we are as people and kind of further understand us, which builds up towards things like reconciliation.
I believe that we’re trailblazers. When I was younger, there weren’t too many people doing this. And I think it’s a really good start as to what we’re building here.Buffalo
Nanabah Kadenehii, performer
SL: What’s your favourite part about dancing? And the most difficult?
NK: My favourite part about dancing is just dancing for others and being able to make others feel good from my dancing. I try to give off good, positive energy. And I just want people to, when they see me, they think of good thoughts and feelings when they get to watch me dance. So that’s what I’m trying to do when I dance.
And then the hardest thing about dancing, I’d say, is trying to talk after dancing. That’s the hardest thing. I love getting ready. It just feels like you’re always getting ready for something really cool.
SL: Are there any interesting facts that people should know about the style of dance you do?
NK: So for the jingle dance, it is a healing dance. The story behind it is that a girl became really sick and her grandmother prayed to Creator, asked Creator, ‘What can I do to heal my granddaughter?’ And she [made] a dress that makes vibrations. And the jingles I have are made out of tobacco lids. We use tobacco to pray a lot; it’s also our way of herbal medicine too. And she danced for four days and [her granddaughter] was healed. And so that’s why it’s also known as a healing dance.
But in hoop dance, it’s also known as a healing dance because it’s just the story of life. And it’s also meant to make other people not worry about their situations. And usually at the end, they burn the willow hoops because they dance for those people. Whatever thoughts and prayers they have they’ll burn it and it’ll be sent up to the Creator with the smoke from the fire.
SL: What do you hope that people take away from your performance when they see it?
NK: I just want everyone to go home with something good. I hope people also go home a little more educated about Indigenous culture. And I’m just happy for the exposure we’re getting because growing up, I grew up in the city, and we didn’t get a lot of exposure. A lot of people forgot we were still here.
This interview has been edited for clarity.