British Columbia·PHOTOS

How Indigenous culture is dancing its way into the next generation

The Coastal First Nations Dance Festival embodies the effort Indigenous people are putting into reviving their long-suppressed culture.

Coastal First Nations Dance Festival embodies the effort being put into revive traditional culture

Dancers of Damelahamid of the Gitxsan Nation perform a dance involving a patient frog that seems unruffled by passing dragonflies. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

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.

Matoska Baker-Peters, 7, performs a solo fancy men's dance inspired by the wild movements of the mustang. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

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."

Dancers of Damelahamid of the Gitxsan Nation perform a dragonfly dance for an audience of school children. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

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. 

"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.

Margaret Grenier, director of the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival, performs with Dancers of Damelahamid of the Gitxsan Nation. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)
Jessica McMann performs a complicated Cree hoop dance, to great applause. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

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.

Traditional Indigenous dance was banned in Canada between 1884 and 1951. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)
Rebecca Baker and Jeanette Kotowich (background) perform a dance at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia on Wednesday. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"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.

Jeanette Kotowich (left) and Candice Johnson with the Dancers of Damelahamid of the Gitxsan Nation perform a flicker dance. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

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.

Dancers put on a show at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, demonstrating traditional dances from various Indigenous communities for a crowd of children. 0:43

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