Dancing with our Ancestors
Dancing with our Ancestors
A drum begins to beat.
Dancers pour into the middle of the gym, spinning and singing. Their voices fill the space. Mother-of-pearl buttons outlining the crests on their dark blankets sway as they dance. Generations of dancers fill the floor, creating a sea of woven cedar bark and spruce root hats. They perform their dances, sing their songs, and speak the language of their ancestors. Children follow the movements of their mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles and cousins. They learn their culture by living it.
The fourth title in the Sk’ad’a Series that focus on Haida culture and community, Dancing with our Ancestors shares the music, dances and food of an exciting celebration—the potlatch. Once banned under the government policy of assimilation, the gathering of families takes months of planning and preparation. The potlatch described here took place in Hydaburg, Alaska, the author’s father’s birthplace, and included guests from other First Nation clans living nearby. The large crowd was accommodated in a school gym, with room to set up tables for eating and space for dancing. For this event, dance screens, designed by Haida artists, were prepared as a way to learn about the crests and the history, and then given as gifts. It is the way to ensure that the history recorded in this way will be preserved.
This potlatch was extra special for the author. It would be the last memory of dancing with her brother who passed two years later. The authentic details and description are an emotional memorial tribute for the family to keep and to share. The vibrant illustrations welcome the reader into the ceremony through the regalia—headbands with geometric shapes, button blankets decorated with crests, beaded deer-hide moccasins. The dances are inspired by ravens, frogs and Supernatural Beings whose persona the dancers adopt as they move to the drums and chants.
As has been the style of illustration throughout this series, readers are treated to up close and personal, boldly coloured images of the dance screens and masks (pictured on the front and back end papers), food, costumed drummers and dancers, and fancy beaded moccasins. There’s also a poignant picture of the author’s late brother, a skilled Haida artist, who “continued on his journey… paddled away in a canoe all by himself” into the eternal sunset. Some notes on the family tree are included in the final pages, along with a map of Haida Gwaii and Hydaburg at the southern tip of Prince of Wales Island, in Alaska.
Every culture has traditional ceremonies. Dancing with our Ancestors, a recounting of a potlatch, will help young readers witness and understand the significance of ancestral Haida intergenerational teachings through this historic experience.
Gillian Richardson is a freelance writer living in British Columbia.