The rhythmic thumping drew upwards of 30,000 people over three days to an amazing festival of west coast First Nations culture—stories, dances, art, masks, regalia—that unfolded in the public plaza in front of the Royal British Columbia Museum.
It put First Nations front and center for National Aboriginal Day, the beginning of 10 days of celebrations leading up to Canada Day on July 1. On June 21, though, hearts beat extra proudly, especially in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation report of June 2.
“This is a very special time,” said Isabel Clutesi, of the Nuu-cha-nulth Dance Group, who has been dancing for 24 years. “We’re reclaiming our dances and stories, and we’re teaching them to our little ones.”
The plaza was jam-packed; even standing room was hard to find. Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon appeared in a traditional blanket. It was a sun-soaked, happy, throbbing place. Although National Aboriginal Day was celebrated throughout the country, this festival was likely the biggest, and happiest. Dancers acted out traditional stories, donning animal masks to bring real and mythical creatures to life: raven, orca, bear and thunderbird, to name a few.
Dance groups flocked in from Vancouver Island as well as the mainland. For three days under a brilliant blue sky, a continuous pageant of more than 30 stage shows featured a glorious cornucopia of Native cultures in a jubilant celebration of indigenous life. It formed an exuberant counterpoint to the negative stereotypes that sometimes seem to reign across much of Canada.
The Le-La-La Dancers and their leader and the festival emcee, the ever-smiling George Taylor, steered the celebration, held on Songhees and Esquimalt traditional lands. The Lekwungen Traditional Dancers and the Esquimalt Singers and Dancers represented the two host nations. From the Métis came the fiddling and fast footwork of JJ Lavallee and the B.C. Métis Federation of Jiggers.
Meanwhile three-time world-champion hoop dancer Alex Wells of the Lil’wat Nation shimmied his way into festivalgoers’ hearts as he transformed his hoops into a thunderbird, a globe and other shapes and creatures.
Besides the host Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations, numerous other sponsors backed the event, including Aboriginal Tourism B.C. and the Royal British Columbia Museum. A deep sense of family ran through everything, and a quiet Native humour was pervasive.
Small children dressed in full regalia would wander among the dancers beating a little drum, sometimes reaching up mischievously to strike at an adult’s drum. Attendees could savour barbequed salmon and chowder at the food pavilion, or shop for carvings and jewelry in the crafts market.
On a more sober, but educational note, tours of nearby Thunderbird Park showcased the history and meaning of the 12 towering cedar poles and great house. A daily walking tour of the inner harbor taught about the significance of this area to the Songhees Nation and recounted the history of how the people had been removed from their beloved land.
But overall, enthusiasm and pride overflowed as the province’s capital city joined in a joyous celebration of Native cultures.