At a traditional Pow Wow, it’s called the inter-tribal.
That’s the dance where all tribes — and, in our modern Canada, that includes all peoples of the community present, indigenous or not — are invited to move to the beat of the drums, “the heartbeat of Mother Earth,” as the day’s Master of Ceremonies may explain it.
One of the great shames Canada as a nation must face is the treatment of indigenous people by the European settlers who starting arriving in these lands in the 17th century. Our celebration of “Canada150”, flag-waving for our confederation, can be salt in the deep wounds carried by descendants of those who suffered indignities and, often, impoverishment, under rules and laws that theoretically were supposed to “help”, but mostly harmed.
Yet in the sunshine and celebration of a traditional Pow Wow, such as the one hosted in June 2017 by Na-Ma-Res at Toronto’s Fort York, recognized that the incredible power of dance to unite and heal can connect all Canadians: indigenous, European descendants, and all the layers of immigrants who have come to these shores since.
Dance sometimes gets hived off into the realm of experts: those who train their bodies, almost beyond the limits of human capacity, to learn choreography that can then be repeated, like a theatrical play: there’s a script but it’s rejuvenated by the artists who interpret it.
In indigenous dance, while anyone can join an inter-tribal dance, moving as they are so moved, stepping to the drum beat around in a circle, there are specialists who take many years to learn their intricate craft: from hoop dancers to fancy dancers.
Within the European tradition of dance, Canada has had world-class achievements in ballet (National Ballet of Canada, Royal Winnipeg Ballet) and in exploring the modern dance techniques that developed in rebellion against the structure of ballet. I live in a neighbourhood of Toronto that hosts several well-regarded modern dance companies: Toronto Dance Theatre; Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre; and Coleman-Lemieux & Compagnie.
People who come to Canada bring with them the dances of their home countries. Some are considered “folk” —that is, the kind of dance in which the community can participate, as opposed to performance solely the realm of trained professionals — while others require training, deep talent, choreography, and costumes. From British Morris Dancers to Ukrainian folk dance, from West African drum dance to the Dragon Dance of Chinese New Year’s, each adds another flavourful layer to the Canadian dance parfait.
In the past couple years, Canadians (and others) have been charmed by the Maritime Bhangra Group, five Sikh men from Nova Scotia who record themselves dancing bhangra, Punjabi folk dance, with Canadian twists: they’ve danced at Peggy’s Cove, on Parliament Hill (with hockey sticks) and, my favourite, with snow shovels. The men do this for love, not money, at least not for themselves: they research and choose a charity to be the beneficiary for any donations or streaming revenue they might receive.
Hasmeet Singh Chandok, in a recent interview with Vice, said the “snow shovel bhanga” was dedicated to the ALS Society of Canada. “It got more than 50 million views in four days and, after that, we stopped counting.”
And in a “this would only happen in Canada” kind of cross-pollination, Sikh bhangara dancers have teamed with Scottish Highland dancers: the similarity of moves and sounds is uncanny. Just look up one of the many of the many Sikh-Scots mashups out there in online video world, many originating from Vancouver and featured at Highland games in Coquitlam and Canmore, B.C.
The Toronto Pow Wow, too, raises charitable funds, in its case to support Na-Me-Res, short for Native Men’s Residence, a social services organization that provides “temporary and transitional housing to Aboriginal men experiencing homelessness in Toronto, while also conducting outreach and support services to Toronto’s broader Aboriginal homeless population.”
The site where this Pow Wow takes place — and all the land on which the modern city of Toronto has developed — was first settled by Indigenous people. To quote curator Bonnie Rubenstein, who organized a recent exhibition there of photographs by Mohawk artist Shelley Niro, Battlefield of my Ancestors, “The British established a garrison on this site in 1793, after the transfer of Indigenous land from the Credit Mississaugas to the Crown, known controversially as the Toronto Purchase (1787). During the War of 1812, First Nations warriors helped defend the Town of York.” To say things went downhill after that would be the understatement of a couple centuries.
Feeling guilty and sorry is a start, but won’t go far without knowledge and respect. Dancing to the same drummer is one positive, and joyous, way to bond the many tribes of people who call Canada home.
Main photo: From an “inter-tribal dance” at the Na-Me-Res Traditional Pow Wow, Fort York, Toronto: Photo by Kelley Teahen.