On February 24th, I attended the Talking Stick Festival at the Roundhouse community centre. This festival brings in many different Indigenous artists to perform, speak and display their beautiful work. I was lucky enough to have the change to attend a performance at this festival, the Git Hayetsk Coastal First Nations Dance group. Sm’algyax is spoken by the Nisga’a, Tsimshian and Gitxsan Nations. The words Git Hayetsk mean the people of the copper shield in Sm’algyax. The copper shield is symbolic of ceremonial wealth in the Northern and Northwest coast nations. The group uses traditional and hand made regalia, masks, and drums for their performances. The songs and dances performed are a mix of contemporary and ancient. The dance group has performed at many different locations and events in the past. Most recent events include Hobiyee, SFU: Indigenous City Gathering, and the Discover Dance! Series.
When you walked into the performance floor it was constructed in a circular formation. White wooden temporary walls formed the circle where the stage, tables and chairs as well as a dance floor were located. On the walls hung regalia, tapestries, rugs, drums and carvings. When I arrived, a dozen people were walking around to view all the beautiful works of art. Nine round tables with candles distributed were present in half of the circular area. These tables had 5 chairs surrounding them. I sat at a table that was unoccupied and soon after had 4 strangers at the table with me. The tables allowed for easy discussion about different pieces with a variety of people. Sitting at a table in the space made it feel comfortable and informal. The way the tables were distributed with space in-between them made it easy for dancers to interact with the audience during certain pieces.
The acknowledgement of the land was made by Mike Dangeli before the performance began. Before each piece was performed it was introduced and background information was given. I was sitting with someone who had walked into the Roundhouse community centre to ask for directions and ended up staying for the entirety of the performance and she loved the introductions because it allowed her to visualize and make connections to the introduction throughout the performance.
The second piece was made for the raising of Mike Dangeli’s first totem pole. This song comprised three singers on stage with two of them drumming and one with a shaker. Six dancers came to the stage all in masks that represented birds. The faces couldn’t be seen except for one dancer who was a younger boy around the age of 7. The diversity in age of the dance group made the group seem more like a family. There were children and older adults present, and the way the whole group interacted made it obvious that everyone was welcome and treated as more than just a dance group member.
The third piece was a photography piece. Professor Dangeli introduced this piece. It was written and composed to represent the topic of her Masters thesis, Benjamin Alfred Haldane. She addressed the fact that bridging the traditional and contemporary indigenous artistry is important in this day and age. After this introduction, four people went on stage. Each person gathered around one big drum and started singing while drumming. Three dancers took the dance floor each holding a canvas. The canvases were covered in black cloth and the dancers moved around the stage holding them. A fourth dancer came out with a camera and pretended to take pictures of the audience and the dancers. Halfway through the piece the cloth covering the canvases was removed. This removal followed the action of the fourth dancer taking pictures of the covered canvases. The removal of the cloth revealed a beautiful picture taken by Benjamin. The level of mystery and the connection made between the artistry of photography and dance in this piece was new and exciting. It left me wanting to see more. It wasn’t like any other performance I had witnessed.
The fourth piece was about a trickster. Different nations see this figure in different forms. The form shown by this performance was a raven. The dancer performing this piece came onto the stage wearing a Raven headpiece that allowed the beak to open and close. This figure then went into the audience and stole patrons hats, bags, and scarves. Eight other dancers joined this figure, some wearing big masks, others wearing smaller headpieces. They all joined in the stealing of items from the audience. At the end of the piece the items were returned and patrons thanked for being good sports throughout the performance. I personally loved the interactive aspect of the piece. It fully engaged the audience and had everyone laughing nervously as their belongings were taken from them.
This was my first introduction to Indigenous dance. Without having background knowledge on what to expect, other than the research I did on the dance group prior to my arrival, it was an incredible experience. The diversity of pieces this dance group performed gave me an encompassing view of the different pieces that are performed by dance groups. I am very happy I was able to attend Git Hayetsk at the talking stick festival prior to my attendance at the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival. Going into the festival with a slight idea of what I was about to witness allowed me to explore what I was seeing to a deeper extent rather than strictly being in awe of the beautiful performance in front of me that accompanied my witnessing at Git Hayetsk.
The question I had at the end of my experience was ‘How is stereotyping addressed with respect to traditional and contemporary dance and how can we better recognize and acknowledge contemporary composers for their work?’