The revitalization of traditional indigenous songs

The annual Coastal First Nations Dance Festival, presented by Dancers of Damelahamid in partnership with the UBC Museum of Anthropology, celebrates the stories, songs and dances of the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America.

From March 3–8, the festival will showcase the First Nations communities of the Northwest Coast, through an artist talk, signature evening presentations, school groups and daytime festival stage performances.

A cultural bridge between communities

Dancers of Damelahamid in Performance. | Photo courtesy of Dancers of Damelahamid

Dancers of Damelahamid in Performance. | Photo courtesy of Dancers of Damelahamid

The festival is an opportunity to share the knowledge and culture of the different Indigenous communities, and welcomes internationally-renowned artists from British Columbia, Alaska, Yukon, Washington, Australia, New-Zealand and Ecuador. New this year will be artists from Arizona and the Grand Canyon area.

The hosts, Dancers of Damelahamid, are professional Aboriginal dancers from the Gitxsan community, or ‘people of the river of mists.’ Their dance celebrates diversity, transformation and building a bridge between the ancient and living traditions.

Margaret Grenier, executive and artistic director of Dancers of Damelahamid, has always been immersed in the Gitxsan culture thanks to her grandmother and her parents, Ken and Margaret Harris, who founded the dance group in the 1960s. Her family and the people of the area began sharing songs and dances not only during ceremonies, but also through public performances. The festival started to draw together other communities and helped the process of song revitalization.

“Each year, the festival serves as an important cultural bridge between First Nations and non-First Nations communities by providing opportunities for artists and audiences to witness living traditions,” says Grenier.

Keeping the knowledge alive

Haida artist Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson. | Photo by Brian Hawkes

Haida artist Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson. | Photo by Brian Hawkes

During the festival, award-winning Haida artist Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson will give a talk on March 3 at the UBC Museum of Anthropology. She will discuss her experiences as a traditional Haida singer and share her ways of encouraging youth and emerging artists to strengthen their own traditional artistic practices.

Williams-Davidson was born in Haida Gwaii and has been singing Haida songs since the age of 13. A well-known lawyer representing the Haida Nation in the area of aboriginal-environmental law, she dedicates her life through her two careers, law and music, to preserving the Haida songs of her culture. In 2000, she founded the Haida Gwaii Singers Society with other veteran Haida singers including her husband, artist Robert Davidson.

Williams-Davidson says that learning the Haida language through Haida songs led to an interest in ceremonies, medicine, and other cultural knowledge. She also learned that the songs come from the land, and are a reflection of the land.

As aboriginal artist, Williams-Davidson feels that all storytellers or singers share the same responsibility to keep the knowledge alive but not only in its original form. She thinks that if knowledge remains static it denies the creativity and genius that flows from the Creator.

Williams-Davidson believes that song revitalization implies a sharing not only between the different communities but also with the public, and that knowledge is kept alive by sharing it. By doing so, relationships are created with others who witness that knowledge.

“But the listeners do not acquire rights to the words, stories, songs, or ceremonies; if anything they acquire responsibilities,” says Williams-Davidson.

Coastal First Nations Dance Festival

March 3–8

UBC Museum of Anthropology

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