Becoming a pro wrestler helped this B.C. woman embrace her Carrier First Nations culture
‘I had my headdress on and stood loud and proud,’ said Dawn Murphy, a.k.a. Princess Delta Dawn
A B.C. woman who became a pro wrestling star in Japan when she was a teenager says fighting in the ring inspired her to connect with her Carrier culture.
Dawn Murphy, who competed as crowd-favourite Princess Delta Dawn in B.C.'s All Star Wrestling before taking her career to Japan, was a sensation in the 1980s and early 1990s.
"There were no other First Nations women that were 16 and wrestling. I was pretty unique," she said.
When she stepped into the ring, the teenage fighter wore a long feather headdress that fell past her knees, regalia once gifted to her mothers' Carrier First Nations' family by a chief in northern B.C.
"I had my headdress on and stood loud and proud," said Murphy.
Wrestling persona masks loss of culture
But Murphy says her signature headdress and First Nations wrestling persona initially masked the fact that she grew up with very little connection to her Carrier culture.
It was her first wrestling promoter in B.C. who urged her to put her First Nations roots centre stage, she said. And that inspired her to reconnect with what she had lost.
"Getting into wrestling really helped me appreciate my culture. It was really the start of where it all began, to relearn my culture," Murphy said.
"I wanted to learn what it was to be Indigenous. I really wanted to represent it well [in the ring]."
Murphy's father was of Ukrainian descent. Her mother is Carrier, from the Lake Babine and Takla First Nations in northern B.C. Murphy said her mother went to residential school and had siblings taken away to foster care in the Sixties Scoop.
"Because of what mum had been taught, she really believed what they were being told at the time – that they weren't valued. My mum worked really hard with me, living the non-Native way, and kind of hid my Aboriginal ancestry side," Murphy said.
Murphy has happy memories of her early years, living in a trailer home under a bridge in Prince George's close-knit Island Cache community, where many First Nations and Métis families lived.
"It was one of the more poverty stricken areas," she said, with homes encircled by two fast flowing rivers, the railway's noisy, busy main line, and lumber mills nearby.
"The smell of the wood and the sawdust didn't bother us."
When Murphy's family was flooded out by the rising river and their home condemned, she said her parents faced discrimination from landlords as they tried to find a new place to live.
A 1972 photograph from the Prince George Citizen shows Murphy as a young child with her family, as they hold placards saying, "Are you against Indians? If you're not prejudiced, rent us a house" and "We are Canadians."
Despite these challenges, Murphy's parents encouraged her to compete in figure skating and speed skating.
"Being an Aboriginal person in a non-Aboriginal sport, I felt intimidated," she said.
"I was really fearful . . . because I still resemble more of a First Nations person than I do my Dad's side. My family weren't rich . . . so my equipment wasn't as fancy as everyone else. My mum sewed my speed skating outfit. I'm thinking in my head, 'Oh, I'll never win.'"
Murphy also had a passion for wrestling. At 13, she went to city hall for a business licence, so she could sell photos of wrestlers to fans during matches at the Prince George arena.
One visiting wrestling promoter, impressed by her entrepreneurial spirit and her athletic background, invited her to a training camp in the Lower Mainland.
Soon after, she signed on with All Star Wrestling, a B.C.-based wrestling circuit, and donned her headdress.
'Before a fight . . . was the scariest moment'
Murphy travelled the small-town circuit in a van reserved for the "good guy" characters. The villain wrestlers, known as "heels," rode in a second van, and a truck carried the parts to build the wrestling ring in each town and village. Murphy often slept on benches in the arenas where she fought.
"Every time before a fight, it was the scariest moment. I would feel sick to my stomach," she said.
"But when you jump up in the ring and you grab those ropes and give it a stretch, it just seems like everything comes back to you."
The fights were intensely physical. Murphy recalls a male wrestler once smashed her head into a turnbuckle, a metal piece of rigging, during a champion tag team match.
Her grandfather, watching from his wheelchair, rolled up to the ring, pounded on the mat and screamed at the referee.
"There was so much blood, I could hardly see. But he inspired me to continue," she said.
Success in Japan
A top fighter on the B.C. circuit, Delta Dawn went on to compete nationally, first with Alberta's Stampede Wrestling and then in Manitoba and Ontario.
Despite her popularity with audiences in Canada, Murphy's dream was to compete in Japan, where wrestling was hugely popular, and women's wrestling more established.
When Murphy was 17, she signed with All Japan Women's Pro Wrestling and travelled to Tokyo, where she had to surrender her passport to her bosses to ensure she completed her contract.
In Tokyo, she competed in front of audiences in the thousands.
"It was huge to come out into that audience, just the noise, the vibration . . . there's energy everywhere," she said.
Japanese audiences were also interested in Princess Delta Dawn's cultural heritage.
"The [Japanese fans] just wanted to learn who this First Nations person was. They were so mesmerized by my culture," said Murphy.
Wrestling fans and photographers would gather outside Murphy's hotel and swarm the ring.
"We'd actually lose our footing because the [camera] flash . . . would blind us," she said.
Far from her home turf, Princess Delta Dawn was now cast as a villain and added two Burmese pythons, named Precious and Destiny, to her act.
"You'd have a tough First Nations woman. You have her in a headdress. You have this snake draped around her shoulders that is seven feet long. Who wouldn't be intimidated by that?"
She was also given an entourage to protect her.
"Some fans would bring weapons. I'd be hit so many times as I went by. They'd roll up the wrestling program and swat at me," she said.
Murphy said Japan's high-intensity matches and dramatic theatrics were cathartic, encouraging her to become larger than life and releasing painful feelings she'd kept bottled up inside.
"I was angry about not identifying with my culture," she said.
"All of this anxiety or fear or anger … I just let it roar and explode."
Murphy said going to Japan and winning championships with her headdress as a First Nations woman gave her a lot of strength.
"Here I am now showcasing it for the entire world to see. It was absolutely the best thing … to really show people what this First Nations person is bringing and live it loud."
After five years fighting in Japan, Murphy threw in the towel in 1994 to return home to Canada and start a family.
Hall of Fame
Murphy said it was hard to return home and work as a waitress after being in the limelight in Japan. She also learned that because of injuries from wrestling, she wasn't able to conceive children, news that she says was "traumatic to hear."
She also didn't want to let go of her wrestling persona.
"Coming back from Japan, I really wanted to stay in touch with my Indigenous side," she said.
Murphy married a man from the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation. She served as an elected band councillor. She sought out jobs in Indigenous organizations.
When she got a call from the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 2018, "I was absolutely blown away," said Murphy.
"You work so hard, so much blood, sweat and tears."
Dawn's signature headdress is now on display in the Hall of Fame's Indigenous Sport Gallery.
"For Indigenous youth with athletic aspirations in B.C., Dawn's accomplishments at home and internationally serve as a source of inspiration, and a reminder that no dream is too big," wrote B.C. Sports Hall of Fame board member Tewanee Joseph in an email to CBC.
"Growing up in [Island] Cache was beautiful, but I always wanted something more, to know what's out there in the world, to do something that was impossible and show them I could."
About the producer
CBC reporter Betsy Trumpener has covered everything from Canadian pipeline projects to the 2010 Paralympics and hip hop in Tanzania. Her journalism awards include the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award and a national network prize for radio documentary. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy is at work on her second book of fiction.
This documentary was edited by Alison Cook
Thanks to Jennifer Geens at CBC Indigenous