Then the dancing began. Dressed in spectacular regalia adorned with feathers and headdresses of brilliantly painted thunderbirds, four young men came out to the centre of the house and began whirling and whooping in time to the drumming. The house was electric!
Half way through the dance someone whispered to me that the dance had been banned by the European missionaries and later by the government. I froze in disbelief. Banned? A dance? Why? At the time the dance was considered evil and misunderstood so those in power responded by banning it. When it concluded, an elder told the group that this dance was being taught once again to the young people of the community in hopes that the heritage of the people might be restored. It had been many years, he said, since the dance had been passed along and it was only through the efforts of all the people in the community that they were able to make this possible; from the elders recalling and retelling their ripped away memories, to the younger generations wanting, coaxing and encouraging those memories back to life, to the youngest generation willing to sit quietly while the new ancient traditions are passed on to the community.
It was a pivotal moment. Realizing the stories, drumming and dancing I was hearing and seeing was a true story of this community and of the people in the house and many other houses across the land cemented the message of the moment into my being. Seeing and feeling the desire and passion in the eyes of the people of the community to keep their traditions alive was a true testament to the spirit of community and a shining example of how a community can come together to make the dream become a reality.
My experience of such ‘deep community’ began when my partner and I accepted an invitation to join a group from our local university on a portion of a ten-day paddle trip known as Tribal Journey. The basics of the trip were: it is an annual event within the west coast first nations communities; routes and host nations are determined based on regional activities; our portion would span from Fort Rupert to Sayward; and most of the participants would be paddling traditional dug-out cedar canoes. Along the route canoes are welcomed by the local first nations and offered shelter, food, storytelling, dance, song, warmth and hospitality.
On our third day this warmth and hospitality was most heart-felt as we approached the shores of Alert Bay after a day of paddling in windy conditions. Standing proudly on the beach, dressed in button blankets of red and black was much of the first nation population of this tiny hamlet. The atmosphere was one of celebration and welcoming as each canoe backed into shore, a traditional show of respect for the hosts and a symbol that we each came in peace.
After securing the canoes and enjoying the culinary delights of our hosts in the big house, tables were cleared and children were ordered to sit quietly. Then the drumming began. The sounds emanating from the log drum at the front of the house resonated my whole being yet were not so loud that I could not hear the singing accompaniment… and then the dancing began…
Lexia Baich is a freelance writer living on Vancouver Island.