Photo by Chris Randle
From Tuesday Feb. 27 through Sunday March 4, the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA) hosts the 2018 Coastal First Nations Dance Festival with groups from up and down the North American west coast as well as international performers.
MOA’s 11th annual Coastal First Nations Dance Festival showcases dancers who hail from many First Nations, including the Tsatsu Stalqaya or Coastal Wolf Pack which according to dancer, Francis James, translates directly as, “Beach Wolves, because our language has no word for coast or coastal.”
The Musqueam have a long history that reaches back millennia. On the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people Richmond has once-thriving villages and sacred sites, over three times older than the pyramids of Egypt, buried under the Fraser River’s silt. In fact, Vancouver was the site of a city of over 100,000 people before European contact.
Tsatsu Stalqaya is a 2010 Olympic legacy. “Originally, we started in 2009 leading up to Vancouver Olympics and I was getting a bunch of phone calls to do Coast Salish openings and reopening of various venues before the Olympics.” So the Coastal Wolf Pack dancers were formed.
“Our group is based out of Musqueam. We’re all family or married into family, but, we’re not just Musqueam. Our root families are Musqueam, Squamish, Lil'wat, Sto:lo, Saanich, Nanaimo, Okanagan, Dene, Yakama, Tsleil-Waututh,” James says.
For his regular job, James works at the Spirit of the Children Society, a non-profit society that serves families in the Burnaby, New Westminster, and the Tri-Cities area. The society works to empower and strengthen Indigenous families by providing support and resources through the programs offered.
James discusses what people may see at their Sunday performance: “Some of our dances relate to some of our traditional stories of how our people were before contact. One of them would be the story of look-out men or runners; they would be like somebody that stood guard at the farthest part of our territories and run messages from tribe to tribe inviting them for ceremonies or some sort. So we pay respect to that, someone almost all up and down the coast they would have that role before contact.”
James lists other dances in Tsatsu Stalqaya/ Coastal Wolf Pack’s repertoire: “We pay respect to our old warriors, their histories, the history of our canoe paddling which is how we travelled before contact.”
Some stories, bestowed by one generation to the next, were not meant to be shared with everyone. James say the dance group had much to consider before setting their repertoire, “See, our cultural ceremonies are very closed. We had to consult with some of our older family members what we could and couldn’t do. “
The First Nations’ histories are oral but not like Granddad’s old tall tales that got better, and less true, with each telling but rather more like Ray Bradbury’s story Fahrenheit 451, of a time when banned books were learned verbatim, and passed down that way from each generation, as a gift and a responsibility.
Sometimes the settlers’ written historical records echo the long, oral traditions of First Nations. Sometimes, it’s with a twist.
James talks of one of the group’s dances: “We pay tribute to the old runners, they were kind of like mailmen as well. One of the unwritten stories was when Simon Fraser was doing his little tour of BC, when he came down the river somewhere, he wrote this down in one of his writings; somewhere up the river, he took canoes without asking, and [the local First Nation] sent their runners who came down ahead of the canoes and told the people at the mouth of the river that Fraser and his men were travelling in stolen property and the people at the mouth of the river turned him away and told him he could not pass through.”
Fraser, kept a diary. James continues the story about the explorer, “In his book he wrote he was greeted with hostile Indians.”
James says, “It’s a history we learned from our Musqueam elders. Once in a while, depending on where we are, we will share that story. It proves that our people don’t turn you away for no reason.”
If the energy of the crowd needs lifting, James says they do a dance about Slahal:
“It’s a stick game. Slahal’s our oldest gambling game, more so on the western part of North America. It’s basically a gambling game. They play it all up and down the coast. They play it as a money gambling game.”
According to James, sometimes there can be more than bragging rights at stake, “Some tournaments are $25,000 for first place. Many families can claim it comes from their territories, it’s that old. We pay respect to that, it’s fun, it’s very energetic.”
Yet another dance option of the group, James says, “Sometimes we share how young men would have to come and get the family before they would be allowed to court a young lady.”
“Sometimes we change what we’re going to do depending on the crowd. Sometimes it calls on an energetic song lift everybody. We try to have a good time and educate though that good time,” says James.
Mostly what can people expect when they see Tsatsu Stalqaya or Coastal Wolf Pack? “We will have fun, interact with the audience. We try to educate with the little bit of talking we have.”
According to James, their message is: “We were here before and we are here today and we are going to be here tomorrow.”
For schedule and ticket information, cut and paste:damelahamid.ca/coastal-dance-festival/program/