[This is an excerpt from the British Columbia chapter of my book, Dancing Through History: In Search of the Stories that Define Canada.]
The Performing House is a gorgeous cedar longhouse-like space, with three steps on all sides descending into a “pit.” The Haida people are divided into the Raven and Eagle clans, and a large cloth design depicting those animals is hanging at the front of the room. Bright sunlight blasts through the open doorways on either side of it and the high ceiling expands the room to feel larger than it is.
Without further ado, the chatter settles down and the group readies to practice their first dance. This is the Chief’s Peace Dance, using Chief Cumshewa’s song. Cumshewa was a Haida village that once stood on the northern shore of Cumshewa Inlet on Moresby Island. A dozen drummers and singers stand along one side of the longhouse steps in a sea of black and red regalia, their beige hand drums and wooden paddles moving in contrast.
The “Chief” enters the pit area to the steady pounding of the drums. He wears a yellow, blue and black cape with white fringes hanging from the bottom, and a red headdress with a yellow mask on the front and eagle feathers dangling down the sides and back of his head; on his legs are matching leggings around his calves with more white fringes.
His bare feet are spread out wide on the wooden floor and his knees are bent in a half seated position, half bouncing and half jumping slightly off the ground to each beat. In his right hand he holds a branch and every time the drummers make an emphasis with a long beat and the singers’ voices lower in an abrupt tone, the “Chief” dips his head in the direction of his right arm, which also dips like he is tapping someone with a wand. This is a way for the Chief to welcome guests to the event and he spreads eagle feathers as a sign of peace.
Although a Chief’s Dance is performed on many occasions, the Hltaaxuulang Gud Ad K’aaju dance group doesn’t have a set repertoire of dances, like a regular troupe would, because each dance is ceremonial rather than for show. “It really depends on the ceremony we’re performing,” Nika tells me, “because we create ceremonies specific to the event at hand. Sometimes it might be a general performance, where we’re honouring the Eagle side of the nation and the Eagle spirit, or it could be about the origin of the Eagle, so it depends on what dance we’re doing.”
Although each ceremony is different, Nika explains that the bases of the dances themselves are ones that they learned early on. “The principle behind the dancing and the singing has been passed down, predominantly unbroken – I mean, there’s been lots of different things that we’ve faced over the decades, that have tried to stop our ceremonies – but for the most part they’ve been handed down. Of course, because we are a live and evolving culture, that means we do develop new dances as well. But they’re always based, or speak in those original traditions, so that when we do move forward in a modern context, it’s not just all willy nilly.”
And that goes for the songs, too, which are also passed down and learned from parents and grandparents. “In particular, right now, it’s so important that we can bring the old songs back out because of that time – I call it the silent years, from population loss right through to the 1950s when they finally lifted the Potlatch Ban, that was a long era, 1884 through 1950 where any visual or external practicing of our culture was outlawed in one form or another – so to be able to sing our old songs and bring them back out into youth is really important.
“That being said, we don’t know all of our traditional songs’ original functions anymore, so we have to re-study them and work with the elders to decide how best to apply them in a contemporary fashion. There are new songs being composed, again because we’re a living culture. We can’t just sing about things that happened in the far past.
“When we do a dance, it’s a ceremony and it’s to mark the occasion that is taking place. If it’s in a potlatch, it’s to demonstrate the rights and privileges that the host has, or to mark that occasion through some form of song and dance. So that’s what song and dance is, it’s ceremony. But just because it’s ceremony doesn’t mean it can’t be fun or funny. I think a lot of people think, when they hear ‘ceremony,’ they’re like ‘Oh, we must be quiet and hang our heads and be super serious for 10 hours’ and, yes, there are ceremonies like that, but there are also other ceremonies… Many years ago we moved away from the standard, ‘We’ll do the Eagle and the Raven and the Chief.’ We have to put meaning back into it and tell stories with it, and that’s what we’re doing now.”
This is an excerpt from the book, Dancing Through History: In Search of the Stories that Define Canada by Lori Henry.