More than 50 years ago, Ken and Margaret Harris were looking to reinvigorate the cultural traditions of their family and of the Gitxsan people of the Northwest coast of British Columbia.
As an elder and head Chief of the Royal Dakhumhast House of the Gitxsan, Ken held the rights to the traditional stories, songs and dances. Ken, who passed away in 2010, and Margaret formed the dance company today known as the Dancers of Damelahamid and started their journey to preserve the culture of the family and the people.
Today the Dancers are still performing and, under the Harris’s daughter Margaret Grenier, evolving a version of dance that respects the heritage and traditions while presenting a more contemporary form.
That evolution has reached a particular peak with a performance called Mînowin coming to the National Arts Centre for three days starting Sept.26.
The show is a complex presentation of masked dance that includes an intricate visual accompaniment.
“Our company and our form of dance is really founded in narrative,” Grenier said in an interview with ARTSFILE. “We are working with an origin story and … we also wanted to look at how we re-interpret stories (in this work).
“In reflecting on the stories (of the Northwest coast), what came through very strongly for me was the idea that these stories come from a place of imbalance, or a place of a lot of loss and dysfunction.
“From that place we can look at it in that way (as a place of loss) but also as a place of renewal.”
She said the visual and musical elements of the performance help the audience to understand what Mînowin’s dancers are conveying.
Many audiences aren’t necessarily familiar with Northwest coast art and dance.
“The visuals help support them to travel with us.”
There are many places of trauma in the stories of Indigenous people in Canada, but for Grenier, the critical one is the potlatch ban imposed by the federal government in 1885 and lasting until 1951.
“There was a lot of loss for many communities on the Northwest coast,” She said. And it reverberates through the generations.
“Just because work has been done to revitalize the dance form starting in the 1960s there are challenges for each generation.”
For example, she said, “my generation is first within my family where English is the first language.”
She has returned to the language of her First Nation through the songs, stories and practice spurred by the Dancers of Damelahamid.
“If it wasn’t for that I would have no basis to draw from.” Still, “it’s not easy to bring it back to a conversation level.” But within dance training and the cultural foundation that it comes from, it has created a cultural context for Grenier.
With Mînowin, “we really thought we were coming to the present day and we came to a place that our present day connection through ceremony to the past was something tangible. But it doesn’t end there. There is a sense that these stories are forever.”
The Dancers of Damelahamid is based on family, she said, like many dance forms on the Northwest coast of B.C.
“Our company maintains that. The core is still our family and we working that way inter-generationally.
“My family, on my father’s side, is Gitxsan and on mother’s side it is Cree. We wanted to look at that” in Mînowin.
Both sides of her family have informed “our identity as Indigenous people. … We are sometimes one thing and sometimes the other. We are both at the same time.
Damelahamid, Grenier said, translates as paradise. It’s the name of the original city on the Skeena River in Gitxsan territory.
Margaret took over the leadership of the company in 2003.
“The work we do in Mînowin and also in our last two productions has not been the traditional dances. That is something has shifted within our company.
“If we want to continue this practice,” she said, “it can’t be too limited, too traditional. If we do that, from my perspective, there is too much that is excluded. There are many Indigenous voices out there who aren’t born into that (tradition). That’s why I feel the work that I am doing and my contribution to this story is to take contemporary approaches.”
She credits her own strong foundational training for her ability to look at the essence of this dance form.
Then ask, “how I can use that vocabulary to also not just tell the stories we have always told, but to add to those stories.”
The Dancers of Damelahamid are looking at how the form can “open and evolve. I see it in visual arts, for example, in the work Robert Davidson does. He opens up the form but still maintains all of the principles really clearly.”
There are a lot of Greniers working on this piece. Margaret’s partner Andrew Grenier is the creative producer. Their children are dancing in the work and the wife of son Nigel Rebecca Baker Grenier is the designer of the regalia in the production.
Margaret says the company is working to continue into the next generation as she is doing by continuing and building upon what her parents did.
Mînowin lasts about 70 minutes and consists of three sections.
“The first part really is very much rooted in the origin stories we worked with. The second part is intended to look at loss and regeneration and reinterpretation. The third part is intended to look at resiliency.
The six dancers wear masks in much of the piece. In the first segment the masks are very traditional to the outside eye. The regalia evolves and Mînowin evolves.
“There are moments when we want people to really look at the dance. That is something that is important. There are many people who have been disconnected from their community and their family. That doesn’t make person less Indigenous.
“So there are times when the dancers are not dressed in as much regalia. What we are sharing doesn’t have to be so visible to represent who we are.”
To honour the traditions of her people doesn’t mean just replicating it. “That is what I hope people sense, what the work means to us as a family and as dancers,” she said.
Grenier still dances. Her choreography began later after the company had established itself more formally.
As a young girl, she practiced in her community. A key moment in the development of the company happened in 1991 when they worked with the Karen Jamieson Company, on the piece Gawaii Ganii that toured B.C. and then Japan. It also led to performances at the Canadian Museum of History Place des Arts in Montreal.
This was the first time her family had navigated something that big. “It opened up something.”
Today Mînowin stands as the biggest thing the Dancers have done. It was supported by several funders including the National Arts Centre’s Creation Fund, all of which helped the project to evolve in scope. Now they will be taking Minowin to a major festival in Mexico, shows in Ontario and in Newfoundland and Labrador, along with the NAC.
The Dancers of Damelahamid present Mînowin
Where: Azrieli Studio, NAC
Where: Sept. 26 to 28 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and more information: nac-cna.ca