National Aboriginal Day: June 21

The first time I saw men and women performing traditional dances in aboriginal regalia was at a tiny tot pow wow hosted in the gymnasium of my university. The event was a celebration of children. When the dancers first entered the gymnasium floor they danced in a wide circle, “flattening the grass” of the dancing area as their ancestors did before them. Then the different categories of dancers proceeded to astound and delight with light and sure feet. Like the deer, birds and butterflies they mimicked the dancers swiftly pranced and ducked. But they had nowhere to go in that gymnasium, no sun and sky to embrace so they circled and stayed close to the ground.

This time I was witnessing the dances in a small school theatre and the dancers seemed even more out of place than the gymnasium. The fancy shawl dancers twirling and fluttering like butterflies seemed caged in the confides of the stage.

Originally the dancers were to be hosted outside a school called Griffin Park, but rain drove them indoors to save their delicate regalia. 

However, as displaced as the dances seemed in that box, there was one thing that came from the sacrifice of movement and environment. The blazing lights and steady dark background highlighted the beauty of the regalia. The dancers were placed in a dream state. Alone with their regalia. Separated from all else.

It’s only when a butterfly drifts close and you have either the luck or the ability to capture it in a moment of time that you get to really see the magnificent patterns of its wings.

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Though each set of wings may share similar characteristics each is enchantingly unique.

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One thing I noticed immediately as I went through these photos was how the younger dancers were carefully watching the elder dancers. They are seen in many of the photos, quietly gazing from the sidelines.

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And why wouldn’t the children want to watch closely. The elder dancers flowed and pranced with a practiced grace and a solid stance.

The differing age categories of those wearing jingle regalia especially displayed the difference in experience. The elder healing dancers, as many Canadian First Nations believe jingle dancers are, moved their jingles as one wave creating a steady, strong rhythm. The younger dancers on the other hand scattered their jingles in a chaotic scramble. Sometimes though a wave of organized pulses would emerge from the youthful dancers.

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I recently learned that each regalia is blessed before it is performed in and there can even be a coming out ceremony for the regalia. I found an interview with a formal shawl dancer named Cynthia Rickard who speaks about her coming out ceremony and what dancing means to her. She is from Moose Factory and went to a Cree ceremony to ask for her regalia colours.

I also know that all regalia are handcrafted and many are passed down through generations. It is disrespectful and impolite to touch regalia for these two reasons.

It is also important to note that dancers may earn the different components of their regalia by improving their dance. Because each nation is unique they each have a different way of looking at dancing. Just take a look at this Native Dance site to get an idea of what lies under the surface of high school textbook knowledge.

The events I have attended have been a mix of First Nations. Talking to a number of dancers and observers I’ve learned a lot and yet know so little. I can’t wait to learn more from these culturally rich peoples.

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