ʔəm̓i ce:p xʷiwəl (Come Toward the Fire) Reflections and new directions in Indigenous creativity

The Chan Centre at UBC and Musqueam are hosting ʔəm̓i ce:p xʷiwəl (Come Toward the Fire), an inaugural Indigenous festival-style concert, from September 17–18 which aims to celebrate creativity, culture and community. The show, which takes place ahead of Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth & Reconciliation, will include a host of musical performances from various Indigenous artists and groups.

Among others, these acts include a powwow dance performance by Indigenous Enterprise, as well as a string-based performance in a collaboration between Vancouver-based composer Ruby Singh and Musqueam weaver Debra Sparrow.

Indigenous Enterprise: preservation and progression

Kenneth Shirley of Indigenous Enterprise. | Photo by Atiba Jefferson

Kenneth Shirley says he’s been dancing ever since he could walk. Hailing from the Navajo Nation, he’s attended and performed powwow dance for as long as he can remember and says he’s always felt blessed to be able to connect with his culture and heritage through the healing practice of dance.

So, with years of experience under his belt, when the time came to start thinking about joining a dance troupe, Shirley and his friends figured they knew enough to create something of their own.

“We initially started it [as] a way to showcase our culture. I’ve always seen Native dance troupes,” he says. “But I didn’t know any of them, so I kind of figured, ‘why not start our own?’”

Since its founding in 2015, Indigenous Enterprise has had big opportunities to do that showcasing, including being featured in a music video by Black Eyed Peas member Taboo and performing in the virtual inauguration parade for U.S. President Joe Biden.

But Indigenous Enterprise isn’t just about powwow performance either. With an upcoming clothing line with Indigenous-owned brand Section 35 and plans to branch into the world of film, Shirley says that the goal, from the beginning, was always to be able to go beyond just dancing.

“That’s why we came up with the name Indigenous Enterprise, so we could have an umbrella of different businesses under that name,” says Shirley.

Nonetheless, powwow is still an important focus for the group. With cultural preservation being one of the core values of Indigenous Enterprise, Shirley says he’s both excited for newer ventures, while keeping an emphasis on a practice that still means so much to him and the audiences that watch him.

“It kind of gives them joy, and it gives them a good feeling, something that goes beyond words,” he says. “Words can’t really describe it. You have just got to be there in person to be able to really take it all in.”

Debra Sparrow: reconciliation blanket composition

Many people might see what Debra Sparrow creates and call her an ‘artist.’ After all, the acclaimed Musqueam weaver’s work has been displayed everywhere from YVR to UBC to the 2010 Canadian Men’s Olympic hockey jerseys. But Sparrow says that the term ‘artist’ is far from the first label she would assign herself.

“I think what I am is a woman who [is] creating what I would have created pre-contact,” Sparrow explains. “I’ve always been kind of labelled as a Musqueam artist, but for me it was never about art. It was about creative intellectual property, the way in which our people reflected themselves in their communities or villages and their ceremonies.”

Over the years, Sparrow has undertaken a process of cultural rediscovery through weaving and other practices by researching on her own and learning through others. And at Come Toward the Fire, she’s hoping to share the beauty of the waving by bringing it together with another medium: music.

Sparrow is working with Vancouver-based composer Ruby Singh on a string-based composition for the event. She explains that since weaving is a very pattern-based, mathematical process, she’s been able to translate the patterns of a Reconciliation Blanket she once wove and provide a numerical template for Singh to compose in his signature string-based style.

“Because music is numbers, all I have to do is number all of the patterns and find some strings to accommodate it, and [make] music from the blanket,” she says.

What’s exciting for Sparrow is the process of creating music in a way that hasn’t really been explored before. Using this new approach, she hopes that the pair’s work can create a truly new and unique sound: something universal but also unlike anything that’s been made before.

“I’m really excited because patterns are in the universe, patterns are in life. What’s exciting is that I feel like the universe is a part of this blanket and this song,” says Sparrow. “I hope it speaks to all of us, but also that it’s coming from a place we haven’t been before.”

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