Now Or Never

Raising my son to dance, against the odds

Fifteen-year-old Theland Kicknosway is bringing hoop dancing into the 21st century after being raised to love dance by his mother Elaine, a 60s scoop survivor and women's traditional dancer.
Elaine Kicknosway and her son Theland at 'Boys with Braids' event in Ottawa - June 2017. (CBC Ottawa)
Listen10:22

When Theland Kicknosway dances, audiences are mesmerized.

The Potawatomi and Cree dancer is bringing hoop dancing into the 21st century by using brightly coloured LED hoops when he performs. 

"We turn all the lights down and I turn on the hoops and they light up," he said. "It creates a beautiful rainbow color. When I'm dancing I move the hoops in a different kind of formation. You might see some birds, you might see an alligator, a butterfly, or a hawk."

In this piece by Fangliang Xu, 15-year-old Indigenous hoop dancer Theland Kicknosoway talks about how the traditional art takes him round the world. 2:33

Theland has danced onstage with the electronic music group A Tribe Called Red. He's travelled across Canada, and he's performed in Mexico, the U.S. and Switzerland. His goal is to travel around the globe, sharing his love of dance.

"I'm dancing for my family, for the ones who can't," he explained. "As a young Indigenous youth in the 21st century — being able to represent my culture and do these types of dances that were outlawed — I am just very proud to know that I am keeping the tradition alive and that I'm making my family proud."

The 15-year-old from Ottawa is the youngest ever to receive an Indspire Award.   

Sometimes when Theland performs, his mother Elaine cries. She has done everything she can to make sure her son knows his culture. 

"When he was seven he said 'mommy I want everybody to see all the colours that I see when I'm dancing...like the rainbow,'" she recalled. "And I said 'okay when I find you the rainbow I'll go buy it.'"

Finding those lit-up hoops and fostering Theland's pride in carrying forward traditional dance was important to Elaine. When she was three, her connection to her culture was severed.  As a Sixties Scoop survivor, she was raised by a non-Indigenous family, and in foster homes. She lost her connection to her culture.

Elaine is especially proud that her son is the first hoop dancer in their family. She herself is a women's traditional dancer. But she came to it late in life.

I wasn't raised in our culture. I wasn't raised to know even that I was Indigenous.- Elaine Kicknosway

"I always knew I was Cree because I was young enough to remember the day I was taken but I didn't really know how to be Cree."

Elaine Kicknosway was three when she was taken from her birth family in the 60s. Theland Kicknosway at age three when he started hoop dancing. (Submitted by Elaine Kicknosway)

Elaine talks about loss — the loss of culture, the loss of land, the loss of language.

"We're still kind of tourists with each other's dance," she said. "Even with family traditions, because we weren't raised in our community, whereas Theland has been raised in his community."

"To have him so confident and comfortable — it's just a real blessing to witness and be a part of."

Now, Theland can't imagine not dancing.

"If I was not able to dance or sing or do anything that is connected to my culture, I don't think I would be the same person that I am," he said. "Because having that tie and connection to my culture is really what keeps me going as an Indigenous person."

Theland's mom is quick to remind him that he is the first in his family to be raised at home, not in foster homes or residential schools.

"Being that first and being able to tell these stories to my children, my grandchildren and the many generations to come — I'm just making that little drop of water in the ocean," he said. "I could create a ripple effect."

Theland Kicknosway and his mom, today. (Submitted by Elaine Kicknosway)