VideoRound dance: Why it's the symbol of Idle No More
Posted by Melissa Martin, SCENE Writer | Monday January 28, 2013
An Idle No More flash mob and round dance demonstration in London, Ontario on January 10, 2013. (CP/Geoff Robins)
People are sharing that knowledge amongst each other, where it's been forgotten. They're bringing back that spirit of being one people, with one voice.
—David Courchene Jr.
It could be the most enduring image of the Idle No More movement: in malls and on streets and on the set of George Stroumbouloupolous Tonight, the circles bloomed, hands linked, bodies circling the drum and the beat. This is, they call it, the Round Dance Revolution.
In news coverage of the round dance flash mobs, the dance itself is not the story - but it carries stories of its own. In many Aboriginal communities of the prairies, the dance is a beloved tradition, passed from generation to generation. In others, it is a ceremony almost lost, and now returning.
Meanwhile, to many Canadians watching news clips at home, the round dance is all but unknown. Most schools don't teach the history of these things, it's left to traditional knowledge-keepers to record how the dance and its songs have rung across this territory since time immemorial.
And the round dance, several knowledge-keepers say, was always a healing song, born in the plains, likely Saskatchewan, it spread out from there. "Our people had this great faith that there was great power in the round dance," says David Courchene Jr., an Ojibwe spiritual leader. "The dancing itself was calling the spirit to help in healing whatever the community was in need of healing."
One story of its origin tells the story of a Cree mother grieving the death of her child. After weeks of mourning, the Creator came to her in a dream, and gave her a song and dance to help soothe her tears.
And while round dances take place among many different nations in Canada, the
ceremonial reasons behind them vary depending on the nation.
"The way I was taught, is the round dance was a ceremony that was done when somebody passed on, that would help them in their journey to the spirit world," says Ray "Coco" Stevenson, a Cree traditional singer from Winnipeg. "So when you had a round dance, you had your faith, you smoked your pipes. And sometime, somewhere, things kind of changed."
A demonstration at the Douglas-Peace Arch border crossing near Surrey, B.C., on January 5, 2013. (CP/Darryl Dyck)
That is to say, the dance became lighter, more of a celebration. Over time a number of musicians and singers and community leaders began holding round dances for festive situations, often in the fall and winter months. These days, Stevenson says, he often sings fun songs, and love songs, and anything with a beat that fits the dance.
"A culture never really stays the same," Courchene says. "It evolves. People are adjusting right now to bringing back the foundation of those ancestral ceremonies. Certainly today we see a much more contemporary type of expression in the round dances, but the foundation has not changed in terms of what it represents. The drum is still the key."
That the drum remains is its own survival story. In the darkness that fell from colonization, ceremonies were banned, some threads were lost. In Manitoba, several people say, the round dance almost vanished from communities where it may once have been danced, but lately, it's been coming back.
"When I started doing round dances in Winnipeg, people here didn't know how to do actual round dancing like they do in Saskatchewan and Alberta," Stevenson says. "Now, they've caught on to how people actually dance."
Stevenson - who recorded an album of round dance songs with his wife - is not alone. In Winnipeg, a number of singers, drummers and knowledge-keepers have been hosting round dances to revive the tradition. Last year, one Manitoba First Nation reportedly invited elders from Saskatchewan to come teach the dance and its history.
"What's important is [the ceremonies] are slowly coming back," Courchene says. "The journey of restoration is happening across the country. People are sharing that knowledge amongst each other, where it's been forgotten. They're bringing back that spirit of being one people, with one voice."
The Idle No More flash mobs are a part of that: returning a beat, a song and a dance to the heart of the territories where they were born, and where they still thrive. "These round dances are very, very significant," Courchene says.
"There is a lot of excitement, I think, with young Aboriginal people. Round dances are sweeping across the country. I just hope that it's kept in the spirit of the way that it was meant to be, which is to have peace and respect. People are looking for inspiration and guidance to a better world."