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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. 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 if all else failed. Indigenous people in Canda often had to use such tactics between 1884 and 1951, a period during which the Indian Act was amended to ban the potlatch 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.

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.

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.

Every Indigenous Nation has its own unique corpus of dances. In the case of Nations in lands curently labelled 'Canada' on most maps, usually the dance floor is circular, with current non-dancers standing or seated around the edges. Being seated doesn't mean doing nothing; the people in the circle contribute by singing, playing drums, or clapping to provide music for the dancers. That said, there are exceptions for certain occasions. When a dance group is on a European-style stage, they will often dance in a more linear arrangement even if for no other reason than not to turn theirbacks to the audience or fall off the stage.

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, and people often expect that all dancing happens at powwows. This isn't the case at all, any more than non-Indigenous folks only dance at weddings — but of course, I've already said that indirectly by mentioning the potlatch, which is certainly no powwow.

Métis traditional dance, like Métis themselves (and trust me, I know this being Métis myself) is not always considered 'Indigenous.' How Indigenous can Irish and Scottish jigs with their fiddle music be? Well, that's another question entirely if we're discussing their versions, but in the case of the Métis ones, the fiddle music, jigs, and square dances are far from slavish imitations of their Irish and Scottish contributors. 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 really has replaced the drum in 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 Irish or Scottish original, watch out for the lyrics, they'll tyoically be quite different, and not just because they may not be sung in english.

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 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. So a logical step in this effort was disrupting and ending the teaching and transmission of 'Indian' cultures. Despite years of effort, millions 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.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:43:03 MDT