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Dance Festival a Brilliant, Growing Showcase of Native Culture

The Coastal First Nations Dance Festival is a cornucopia of beautiful images, with dancers creating supernatural beings and stories.

When darkness falls, the Museum of Anthropology, a sprawling building at the edge of the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver, transforms into a mystical dreamland. Dramatic lighting highlights towering totems, the thick beams of a big house and large canoes. Long, mysterious shadows crisscross the floor. It is like entering a world of myths and legends.

With goose bumps I took my place for the signature evening performance at the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival, which is presented by the Museum of Anthropology and the Dancers of the Damelahamid and celebrates the stories, songs and dances of the Indigenous Peoples of the northwest coast of North America. A glance around the Great Hall showed that every seat was taken. Elder Larry Grant from the Musqueam First Nation, on whose traditional territory the Museum is situated, had a place of honor in the front row. A few young Native men in the audience wore cedar hats and red button-blanket vests.

Suddenly drums reverberated, pounding and intense, and the Squamish Eagle Song Dancers snaked amongst the audience and onto the low stage, singing and drumming. With only 200 seats, each one close to the stage, there was an intimacy, a closeness with the performers. Of their four dances, the Eagle Song was most captivating, as it portrayed the transformation of the eagle with dancers wearing three large, colorful eagle masks.

The Rainbow Creek dancers from Haida Gwaii wore wonderful regalia, including many large carved masks, some with large beaks that would clacked loudly to the singing beat. The group included two youngsters, a shy girl of about four and a baby of less than a year. The dances, which have been passed on for generations, carried audience members into the supernatural world.

Photo: Derek Dix

The regalia and the dances transported the audience into other worlds. Here, one of the Dancers of the Damelahamid.

Adding to the intimacy was the fact that each dance group consisted primarily of extended families, said executive and artistic director of the Dancers of the Damelahamid Margaret Grenier.

“It’s satisfying to express oneself in a meaningful, artistic way, and, at the same time, to also build close family ties,” she said, herself wearing a traditional cedar hat and attractive black button blanket trimmed in red and white fur. This sentiment was echoed by her son, Nigel, and husband, Andy, who also dance in the Damelahamid group, which is from the Gitxan First Nation of the northwest coast of British Columbia.

“When my parents, Ken and Margaret Harris, started this festival in 1967 in Prince Rupert, they had to borrow the regalia from museums,” Grenier said in describing the festival’s history.

She is proud that since then the festival and the Damelahamid Dancers have grown significantly. This is the eighth year that the event has been held at the spectacular Museum of Anthropology. This year the Festival spanned six days, from March 3 to 8, and the signature events were all sold out.

Other Native groups are encouraged to participate as well, and performers came from as far as the Yukon, Arizona and Alaska. In the past, international groups from New Zealand, Australia and Peru have shared the stage, helping link indigenous dance cultures around the world. The festival also encourages young people by holding workshops and educational seminars.

The Damelahamid troupe has flourished in its artistic expression as well as in the public support it receives. They are British Columbia’s only professional indigenous dance group. They practice diligently, develop new dances and go on tour, having performed in places as far away as Shanghai and Ecuador. Currently they are preparing for the “Made in B.C.” tour, the first Native group ever to be invited to participate in this initiative that connects dance artists and presenters from around the province.

Still, there are challenges.

“Most difficult is capacity,” Grenier said. “We still rely a great deal on volunteers. Organizing finances and people is time consuming. But it’s very satisfying to see the continuing growth, seeing indigenous dance moving forward every year.”

The evening closed with a set by nine Damelahamid dancers wearing striking red-and-black button-blanket regalia. Their hand and body movements were dramatic and in perfect coordination with the beating drums and singing. Carved wooden masks and costumes reflected the central beings in the Mountain Goat Dance, the Warrior Song and the Flicker Dance. For their exit song, they drummed and sang as they wended their way out through the audience.

A magical evening had come to a close. But it was a happy ending, for it showed that indigenous west-coast culture is thriving, and has a strong champion in the Damelahamid Dancers.