Coastal First Nations Dance Festival Revives a Banned Past

A Gitxsan dancer Nigel Grenier carries on his family tradition of cultural revitalization.

February 27, 2017

By Tessa Vikander / Photo: Coastal First Nations Dance Festival

When 23-year old Nigel Grenier steps into the spotlight later this week with First Nations dance company Dancers of Damelahamid, he’ll be reclaiming Gitxsan dance traditions that were suppressed for decades.

As part of the 10th annual Coastal First Nations Dance Festival, taking place February 28 to March 5 at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, Grenier will be performing both time-honoured and contemporary Gitxsan dances with deep family roots. Grenier’s parents founded both Dancers of Damelahamid in 2003, and the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival in 2008 in order to continue the work Grenier’s grandparents began in the 1960s to revitalize their culture. For Grenier’s forebears, the work was a response to the lifting of the potlatch ban, which outlawed the elaborate First Nations gift-giving ceremonies, including traditional song and dance, from 1885 to 1951 as part of a colonial assimilation effort. As part of the ban, ceremonial items from First Nations were confiscated, which is why performing at the MOA surrounded by traditional artifacts is so significant, says Grenier.

Nigel Grenier performs traditional and contemporary Gitxsan dances as part of the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival.

“It was illegal for us to gather together and celebrate, to practice our artistic traditions, and people who were caught doing so were imprisoned and their regalia and their blankets and their masks were given to museums and collectors around the world,” he explains. Today, Grenier and the Dancers of Damelahamid use their traditional regalia which includes wool button blankets and cedar masks, among other things in performance. As well, the festival’s opening evening of performances on March 2 includes site-specific dances where the audience will be guided through the museum to take in performances in the museum’s different galleries.

It’s a symbolic reclaiming of the First Nations artifacts housed at the museum, as well as a recognition of the role museums played in colonial history. “We want to critically engage with the history of museums,” Grenier said. “The museums are related to that process of taking…being ourselves within that space is an act of reclaiming a lot of what was lost during that colonial period [of the potlatch ban].” While the MOA is the site for the dancers’ symbolic reclamation, it also supports the dancers in continuing their cultural traditions and has a comprehensive repatriation program, through which Indigenous groups can request their items be returned.

During the festival, Dancers of Damelahamid will premiere Interweavings, which uses imagery of canoes banding together, and whales joining voices, to honour the festival’s legacy of uniting generations and preserving traditions. This year’s festival includes performances from over 20 groups from around the world, which Grenier, who holds a BA honours in history, says mirrors the historical support between different First Nations communities that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s to revive the cultural practices that went dormant during the potlatch ban.

“There’s so many stories of kindness and generosity that come from that time period of different First Nations communities and peoples and families coming together…and supporting each other in their practice and growth of the revitalization that was taking place in that time—that’s really what our festival is trying to honour, because that’s a praxis that has gotten us to the place we’re at now, and the place we’re at now is a really beautiful place.”


Nigel Grenier will be performing with the Dancers of Damelahamid on March 2 at 5:00 p.m., and March 3 to 4 at 7:30 p.m.

School group and youth workshops run February 28 to March 2; festival open to the public from March 2 to 5. For tickets and show times visit damelahamid.ca

 

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