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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Dance With Power

There are few art forms as universal or as stubbornly persistent as that of dance, except possibly oral poetry and storytelling, which some scholars believe actually developed from dance chants.1 It seems that we humans are willing to put up with quite a lot, but dance is one of those things we won't give up. There have been various attempts to ban dancing or at least certain dances, but people have always managed to find ways to get around the rules, dancing in secret in bare feet if all else failed. Indigenous people in the land currently called canada often had to use such tactics between 1884 and 1951, a period during which the indian act was amended to ban "the potlatch"2 and eventually all other traditional dances and ceremonies. Try to imagine what it would be like if dancing at a wedding was actually a legal offense, for which you could serve jail time and/or pay crippling fines. Resist the temptation to try to relate this to the 1980s film Footloose, because that was a relatively benign situation in comparison. The fines and jail time were often designed to ruin a family, and made it all the easier to kidnap any children and imprison them in residential schools.

Many of us have experienced for ourselves the way dancing can bring people together, with even those who insist they can't actually dance and that they have a tin ear having a great time. Well practised dancers are wonderful to watch, and often their artistry draws those watching into dancing themselves, even if only by clapping and and tapping their feet. These are important features that the dances of all people have in common. But it isn't often people realize that dances tell stories, and the stories told by the traditional dances of Indigenous peoples are still known and alive. Furthermore, Indigenous dance artists have determinedly struggled their way into mainstream dance schools, where they have critiqued and faced down ongoing efforts to appropriate the dance forms from their own cultures. Just as efforts to destroy and criminalize Indigenous culture focussed on Indigenous dance and other forms of ceremony, efforts to somehow renew the strangely unsatisfying mainstream culture focussed on taking over Indigenous cultural forms and claiming to do them "better" by "formalizing" and "modernizing" them. Some of them were modernized into "sports" if they couldn't be rendered "art."3

There are many kinds of stories that can be told through dance, from teaching stories and personal stories, to epics that explain the history of a particular group of people. As you might expect, the mode of dancing and number of participants varies with the type of story and the culture of the people. A personal story is usually danced by one person alone, a teaching story may be danced by several people who effectively play its cast of characters. Certain types of ceremonial dances, such as the highly misunderstood and misrepresented plains rain dance, were participated in by everyone in the community in some way because they dealt with a subject of concern to everyone. I suspect they still are, though if that isn't widely heard outside of the communities where they are held, that is only to be expected. These aren't entertainment events. In fact, that is well worth emphasizing. Dance in the context of ceremony is not there for your entertainment, even if visitors who are not dancing or helping are welcome. That means, among other things, no cameras and no recorders without explicit permission.

2018 federal government theme image for national aboriginal day, now rebranded national Indigenous peoples day. 2018 federal government theme image for national aboriginal day, now rebranded national Indigenous peoples day.
2018 canadian settler federal government theme image for national aboriginal day, now rebranded national Indigenous peoples day, may 2018.

Every Indigenous Nation has its own unique corpus of dances. It is tempting, and was overwhelmingly tempting when I first wrote this article, to try to generalize on what type of dance floor is "usually" used and its most common shape. With much better knowledge and more experience, and I have to admit that such attempted general descriptions are silly. Sure, the dance floor might be circular in many cases, because dancers dance in the middle and teh non-dancers sit or stand outside. Or actually the dance floor could be a ring, because the drummers and singers sit in the middle and everyone dances around them. Or it is the whole floor except for where the watchers stand or sit, matching whatever the shape of the building is. Maybe the building is a long house, or a double tipi, or a rented stadium. Mostly it's all about practical considerations of the space and the dance. Due to the popularity of westerns and movies like "Dances With Wolves" it is the dances of the plains Nations that are most well known, at least in caricature. Many people expect that all dancing happens at powwows, and that these are the only "ral" Indigenous dances. This isn't the case at all, any more than non-Indigenous folks only dance at weddings in pairs – but of course, I've already said that indirectly by mentioning "the potlatch," which is certainly no powwow. Another both funny weird and funny make you laugh misconception is the idea that only Indigenous people in the americas and africa dance in circles. Which I suppose is a sad reflection of the continuing impact of the so-called "cold war" and common social prejudice against slavic peoples and pretty much anyone from the middle east.

Métis traditional dance, like Métis themselves is not always considered "Indigenous," when people who are not Indigenous are trying to make sense of what they are seeing.4 Celtic jigs are Indigenous to ireland and scotland, and since then they have been adopted and adapted by Indigenous communities in north america, especially the Red River Métis. In the case of the Métis adaptations, the fiddle music, jigs, and square dances are far from slavish imitations of their irish and scottish inspirations. Every melody tells a specific story, and the music is often in two sections. During the higher section the dancers perform their most elaborate and rapid steps, competing with each other in virtuosity. You could even argue that the fiddle has replaced the drum in some Métis music, because it is played with a distinctive bouncing rhythm. And quite unlike non-Métis jigging music, the tempo and rhythm of the same song can vary by community. The odd time you hear a jig being played that sounds pretty much like an trish or scottish original, watch out for the lyrics, they'll typically be quite different, and not just because they may not be sung in english.5

Having said all this, it probably doesn't seem at all clear why traditional dances should ever have been banned. In fact, I've already mentioned why they were banned: they tell stories, they teach, and they are part of ceremonies. The dances are powerful in and of themselves, carrying memory, history, and culture as they do. Not so long ago, it was an open and explicitly stated policy in the settler states called canada and the united states that every "indian" was to be remade, their own culture and identity erased and replaced by a "more advanced" version of whatever was considered a "white, christian, european" identity and permanent membership in the servant classes. So a logical step in this effort was disrupting and ending the teaching and transmission of Indigenous cultures. Despite years of effort, billions of dollars, and far too many tragedies, the efforts to end the dancing and reprogram "indians" into pseudo-white people never worked.

And the people are still dancing.6

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 8, 2018 19:14:52