How Indigenous culture is dancing its way into the next generation
Coastal First Nations Dance Festival embodies the effort being put into revive traditional culture
Matoska Baker-Peters gets shy when you put a microphone in front of him — but when he starts dancing in front of a big crowd of other children, his confidence, enthusiasm and skill is obvious.
The seven-year-old performed a vigorous, fast dance inspired by the mustang as part of the 11th annual Coastal First Nations Dance Festival at Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology on Wednesday.
The dance, known as a men's fancy dance, was performed in colourful, elaborate regalia.
"I like going fast," said Baker-Peters, who has been dancing since he was three years old.
He comes from a long line of First Nations ancestors who worked to preserve and promote their communities' cultures. One of his grandfathers has shown him a thing or two about dancing.
"My Nimosom was a champion dancer," Baker-Peters said. "He dances grass and traditional and he speaks Cree and another language."
"My mom makes me watch him," he said, adding that he never got lessons from his grandfather. "I just watch him."
According to Margaret Grenier, who directs the festival and also dances, one of the main reasons for the event is to pass the culture on to a younger generation.
She was born in the early 1970s. Her Cree mother and Gitxsan father had to put in a lot of work to ensure she learned their cultures, largely through song and dance.
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"It was really important to me, because I realized how much it defined who I am — it really shaped my identity, my connection to my culture, language and the history that informs the practice," said Grenier.
She was born about 20 years after the potlatch ban ended in 1951, having been in place for nearly 70 years. Indigenous people had to work hard to maintain their cultures, which were actively suppressed.
"It was part of a broader initiative to remove language, to remove the cultural practices and knowledge and assimilate Indigenous peoples — the potlatch ban, of course, being specific to B.C.," said Grenier.
"Something that I think we take for granted in our songs and dances is that they were illegal, and you would be imprisoned, and all of your regalia was confiscated," she said.
"Even though we had the knowledge, there weren't a lot of people who had a chance to experience it, so it was a lot of work that took place to bring back dances and begin to create the regalia once again."
Grenier said the effort required to preserve culture and continue traditional dance and song is what is defining First Nations people.
"I think that that struggle itself is the work that will bring healing, that will bring reconciliation," she said.
When Grenier is dancing, she's expressing — and celebrating — her identity. She said there was a time when she was young when her identity was a source of shame.
That's why she says it's such a joy to see Baker-Peters dance.
"It was really beautiful for me to have Matoska ... share in the way that he did, because it's done with such pride," she said, adding that it's equally important to let other children outside his community witness that pride in his identity.
Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffetybaker