With various cultural festivals happening around the City of Toronto this summer, which are each focused on specific cultural niches, it can be hard to choose one which is representative of Canadian culture. As a nation which celebrates multiculturalism, it is often difficult to articulate what comprises Canadian culture. There is a general understanding that Canadian culture has its roots in French and British cultures due to the enduring legacy of these cultures in law, language and customs, however the place of Indigenous culture in broader Canadian culture may be unclear due to past efforts to suppress First Nations’ cultures. The Indigenous Arts Festival was the ideal event to make clear, the significant place of Indigenous culture in Canadian culture, as it educated Canadians about Aboriginal teachings and traditions, and brought together Canada’s diverse communities in an intercultural celebration.
DANCING & SINGING
The festival featured a performance of traditional singing and dancing by Blue Stone Cloud from Ojibway First Nations (Bear Clan), Gary Sioux from New Credit First Nations and a young boy PJ Kurt. The music permeated the entire location as the powerful singing emanated through loud speakers and attracted visitors to the performance site. The crowd of approximately 100 people sat on the grass in a semi-circle and took in the performance.
The audience was invited to participate in an intertribal round dance. One performer explained that an Elder had told him “in order to have an understanding of the culture you must participate”. He told the audience that the ability to dance, was an important right of Indigenous peoples since it was previously against the law for Indigenous peoples to do their traditional dances. He stated that being able to do this performance was an important means of reclaiming their culture and making people aware of Indigenous history.
By participating, I gained an appreciation of the skill and endurance of the dancers. Near the end of the performance, I was surprised to hear the performer’s rendition of the Sponge Bob Square pants theme song in the traditional syllabic style of Indigenous singing. This was a forty-niner, a funny use of English songs adapted to Indigenous singing style. It reminded me of the camp song ‘There was a Moose’, which really seems to be an imitation of the Indigenous forty-niner style, especially since so many camp activities are an appropriation of Indigenous culture. This was an eye-opening experience for me, which made me really consider how many Indigenous practices have been incorporated into Canadian culture, whose origins we are no longer aware of.
STORYTELLING BY SHKODEN NEEGAN WAAWAASKONEN
Shkoden Neegaan Waawaaskonen of the Ojibway Shawanaga First Nations band spoke of the significance of Indigenous nomenclature and story-telling. Shkoden Neegaan Waawaaskonen explained that she preferred to be called by her Ojibway name which means leader of the fireflower and that Indigenous names are significant because a person’s name relays the role of that person in their society and their gifts to anyone they meet. Shkoden Neegaan Waawaaskonen took the time to pronounce her name slowly to the audience and have us repeat it back to her. She also explained that Ojibway people call themselves Anishnaabe which means ‘good being’ which is important because the name conveys how people should conduct themselves and that we (the audience) were also good beings. Shkoden Neegaan Waawaaskonen imparted the importance of storytelling in Indigneous culture as a key part of oral history, because a story is often an etiological myth- an explanation of why or how things came to be. She told us stories of how the fireflower was originally a star being, of how bears teach you what is good to eat in the woods and how the pack behaviour of wolves teaches you to work together and know your place in your tribe. Her storytelling was interspersed with songs in her native Ojibway language and she taught us how to respond back to her at key points in the story. Her final word to the audience was miigwech. Shkoden Neegaan Waawaaskonen’s blending of Ojibway words and songs with English in her storytelling, reminded me of how culture is recreated through meeting with other cultures.
My experience at the Indigenous Arts Festival was extremely positive. I was welcomed and included in all the cultural performances. The inclusive nature of the event and the benefit of attending with my dad who is Cree and who gave explanations of culturally significant features of the performances, gave me the emic perspective of an insider, however I was still had the etic perspective of an outsider as I mediated Indigenous cultural practices through my own Canadian cultural experiences.
In light of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission and in the spirit of healing, please take the time to learn more about Residential Schools and to consider signing this petition to establish a national holiday to honour and remember Residential School victims.