British Columbia

How Indigenous dancers connect with their power through performance

Indigenous people were once jailed for dancing. Today, a new generation finds an inner balance through dance culture, tapping into their own legacies, honouring those who came before them and laying foundations for those to come.

'When we dance, we are whole,' says musician and dancer Edzi'u Loverin

Edzi’u Loverin, left, is pictured at home with her sister, Dut Zi Zi Sus Loverin, right, in Vancouver on Sept. 25, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Edzi'u and Dut Zi Zi Sus Loverin are separated by two decades in age, but they're close. Edzi'u was in the room when her younger sister was born and smiles at the memory. Dut Zi Zi Sus often looks on her elder sister for guidance when she isn't sure what to do next, burying her face in their hugs for comfort.

The sisters are side by side when they practice and perform with Git Hayetsk, the northwest coast First Nations dance group with a base in Vancouver.

Canada once jailed Indigenous people for dancing. Today, Edzi'u, 31, and Dut Zi Zi Sus, 9, are part of a new generation finding an inner balance through dance culture, tapping into their own legacies, honouring those who came before them and laying foundations for those to come.

"When we dance, we are whole and stepping into our own power separate from what's done to us," said Edzi'u.

"We are dancers, this is our culture and it shouldn't be that we have to defy any other people or any other state to do that."

Edzi'u and Dut Zi Zi Sus Loverin have been dancing with the Git Hayetsk dance group for six and three years, respectively. (Beyond Human Power/Wolf Spirit Films)

The Potlatch law

Indigenous dance was outlawed when potlatch ceremonies, held to celebrate births, marriages, naming of children and other milestones, were banned under an amendment to the federal Indian Act in 1884. The ceremonies were recognized as particularly integral to the culture of coastal First Nations, targeted by colonizers who wanted to erase Indigenous culture.

Dance, a fundamental part of the potlatch, was considered a crime.

Edzi’u Loverin at her home in Vancouver on Sept. 25, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The law was seldom enforced until authorities were alerted to a potlatch held at ʼMimkwa̱mlis, or Village Island, off the central coast of B.C. in 1921. Dozens of Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw leaders and their people were arrested. Twenty-two were imprisoned for months at the Oakalla prison farm in Burnaby, B.C., as punishment for their crimes: dancing, giving speeches and exchanging gifts. 

The potlatch ban was repealed a generation later in 1951.

Edzi'u Loverin, a mixed-race Tahltan and Taku River Tlingit musician, joined the Git Hayetsk dancing group six years ago. Her sister started three years later.

"Dance is just a connection with ourselves and with our ancestors in practicing our culture ... and, really, resisting against colonial violence," said Edzi'u, sitting down for an interview at her apartment in East Vancouver.

"When I'm dancing, I'm dancing for people that can't dance. I'm dancing for all of my relatives, relations, ancestors that died in the residential schools and died because of colonialism — that are currently dying because of colonialism," she continued.

Dut Zi Zi Sus and Edzi'u Loverin, far right, have been dancing with the Git Hayetsk dance group for several years. (Beyond Human Power/Wolf Spirit Films)

"The dancing that I do is my culture," Dut Zi Zi Sus said in her own interview, her sister standing close by. "I do it for the people that weren't allowed to or couldn't. It makes me feel happy when I dance for them ... and also kind of sad."

The sisters' father, Tlingit-Tahltan filmmaker Gordon Loverin, directed a documentary this year chronicling the history, resiliency and future of Indigenous dance within coastal First Nations. Beyond Human Power covers the Git Hayetsk dance group, as well as The Dakhká Khwáan Dancers and Kwanlin Dághàlhaan k'e Dancers in Yukon.

Watch Beyond Human power on CBC Gem:


Loverin, 56, grew up in another time. His grannie and great-grandmother would sometimes sing to family during his childhood in Cassiar, near the B.C.-Yukon border, but dancing was only quietly displayed with certain family members and likely only for special occasions.

"It's different now," said Loverin, who lives in North Vancouver but feels at home in Yukon.

"People all over the north, all over the coast, all over B.C. are singing with pride, they're singing with an overwhelming confidence in their culture and they're not shy anymore. It's gone 180 degrees from a time of being put in the closet and kept 'hush-hush' to now, where we literally have festivals all over Canada and the United States celebrating song and dance and and cultural practices."

Edzi’u Loverin, 31, and Dut Zi Zi Sus Loverin, 9, are pictured at Edzi'u's apartment in Vancouver on Sept. 25, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

One such celebration is Haa Ḵusteeyí. Meaning "our way of life," the inland Tlingit celebration brings Tlingit people and visitors together to reconnect through workshops, food and dance in Yukon every second year.

Edzi'u and Dut Zi Zi Sus travel to Yukon to perform with the Git Hayesk group during the festivities. Their father filmed one of the final portions of his documentary during this year's celebration in July.

"It's not often that a filmmaker gets to come home and tell a story about his own people ... turn the camera on his own children and see them tell a story that should have been told a long time ago," Loverin said.

"Nothing could be more prouder. Nothing can be more emotional," he continued.

"Before we began filming we stood in a circle, we held hands and we had an Indigenous prayer and then we looked at each other and said, 'OK, let's get to business and get this done because we're here to show the world who we are.'"