A Big Day At The Big House

A Big Day At The Big House

Summer Cultural Celebrations

This past couple of months have been especially busy with travelling to Vancouver for my Canadian Citizenship Ceremony, continuing to purge my belongings, thinking about where I am going to be travelling to/ working/ living after I finish work at the end of June, and of course getting started on report cards for 7 classes so there hasn’t been much time to write a detailed post (nor to do much worth writing about!). Thankfully there has been something to look forward to which many of the students had been working towards for several weeks, if not months, in peparation. Every year the children in the schools I am teaching at participate in a celebration of the local First Nations’ cultures by hosting a cultural celebration and dancing at the Big House. Today was that day.

The first time I ever visited a Big House was in Alert Bay at the cultural celebration two years ago. It was a beautiful day from start to finish, with a boat ride across from Telegraph Cove (rather than taking the ferry) which meant it was also the first time I had been out in the open waters of the north island. The sun was shining bright and there were hundreds of people making their way up to the ‘Namgis Big House, an enourmous number considering Alert Bay only has 982 inhabitants total. I remember the atmosphere clearly as we were welcomed into the Big House which already had a large fire burning in the centre. The dances were captivating and I was priviledged to hear about some of the stories and history behind each dance from one of the people in my party. This gave me a greater appreciation for the dances and marked the beginning of my learning journey to better understand the local First Nations cultures.

Grade 1/2 students performing the Salmon Dance.

Today there was a similar energy at the Kwakiutl Big House (T’saxis Fort
Rupert) and spirits were high as everybody was excited to be involved in this celebration of vibrant culture, through sharing songs, stories and dances. I had a flashback to last year when a boy in my class had the honour of being the first to dance wearing the freshly carved Eagle View  Elementary School Spirit Mask; carved by a talented local artist, Jason Hunt. Jason had spent time in the school sharing knowledge of his craft with the students and they were really excited to see the finished EVES spirit mask in action. This young boy’s joy at being asked to perform that particular dance illuminated the fact that it is so important for everyone to be allowed to express their cultural identities freely, to learn about our own cultural traditions and to be willing to share cultural knowledge. While the topic of sharing cultural knowledge may cause some debate which I won’t go into here (think cultural appropriation etc.), I do think it is beautiful to see children with many different cultural backgrounds and identities dancing together at the Big House. The families who passed down these songs and dances have given permission for them to be shared and I firmly believe that when we share aspects of our cultures in respectful ways, we grow together as a community who better respect and understand our differences.

The Ladies’ Dance

The atmosphere in the Big House was filled both with smoke and the powerful music (drumming and singing) as the first dancers came out to dance the Welcome Dance. This was then followed by the Hiligaxste and Hamat’sa which was really mesmerizing and one of my favourite dances to watch.  I was so impressed with how much the students have learnt and improved in their dancing and confidence since last year. Two girls sang the Tuxwid (meaning “One Who Travelled”) in which they summon Dantsikw boards to represent supernatural powers granted by Winalagilis and I realised that I too have learnt as I am starting to recognise some of the different traditional dances by name. My favourite dances were the Hamat’sa and the dances that followed which all seem to link together to tell a story as well as the Bakwus. I also really like the Madam as the dancers appear to be enjoying themselves.

Girls wearing Wolf masks

Traditionally Big House celebrations are hosted by families who tell their stories though dance. They also give gifts to their guests. Today’s gift was of community as hundreds of people shared a meal, including the most delicious salmon sandwiches. This sense of community was evident as everybody came together to join the dancers in celebration at the final dance around the glowing warmth of the fire. What a great way to end the school year!

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