The following are descriptions of some of the dances that were performed during the 2008 event series. They are drawn from those pictured in the Curtis film and from the genealogical inheritance of many of the performers:
Galsgamliła “First to Appear in the House Ceremony” – This ancient ceremony comes from the Kwagu’ł of Fort Rupert and is a preview of all of the animals, birds and supernatural beings that will be performed throughout the T’seka “Winter Season”. A noble man enters the house; he is responsible for carrying the sacred treasure box that contains all the spirits of the dances. He sings a sacred song to call upon the spiritual power of the sacred Red Cedar Bark Ceremonies to come forth. He opens the lid to allow the supernatural power contained in the box to be released. Four attempts will be made by the singers to call out the spirits. On the fourth time—four being the sacred number of the Kwakwaka’wakw—the thin veil between the natural and supernatural will unveil itself and share a glimpse of the great ceremonies to come.
‘Yawitłalał “Welcome Dance” - This dance came to the ‘Namgis tribe as a dowry, through marriage with a tribe from the West Coast. Our tribe has a trade route that we call the “Grease Trail”, which connects to the other side of Vancouver Island. Besides trade, many marriages took place with our Nuu-chah-nulth relatives of Friendly Cove and Kyuquot. Gilakas’la— “Welcome”.
Hamat’sa “Cannibal Dance” - The Hamat’sa is the highest-ranking and most sacred T’seka “Winter Ceremony” of the Kwakwaka’wakw. The Hamat’sa is the reenactment through song and dance of a young man’s possession by the dreaded man-eating spirit Baxwbakwalanuksiwe’, who lived at the north end of the world. Through rituals, song and dance the initiate is purified and tamed, thus bringing him back to his human state. The Hamat’sa dancers that will perform are initiated members of the sacred Hamat’sa secret society.
Tłalkwała “Ladies Dance” - To complete the purification of the feared Hamat’sa, the women are called to dance and cleanse the floor. Women in Kwakwaka’wakw culture are sacred and they carry spiritual and healing powers. They are the life-givers and Chief-makers. Culturally, everything flows through our noble ladies. The women wear button blankets decorated with the crests and history of their families. These blankets replaced furs and cedar-bark robes after European contact. The ladies listen to the words of the song and dance gracefully to the beat, displaying their gift of dance.
Kwan’wala “Thunderbird Dance” – The Thunderbird is the powerful ruler of the heavens. Thunderbird’s preferred food is whales and salmon (especially in the form of Sisiyutł “Double-Headed Serpent”). In many origin stories after the Great Flood, lone survivors prayed to the Creator for protection and were sent Thunderbirds. They would assist man in building his first house for shelter and transform into humans to become first ancestors. When Thunderbirds flap their wings, thunder rolls; when they blink their eyes, lightning flashes; and when they ruffle their feathers it causes dandruff to fall, which is hail. The Thunderbird dancer will appear in supernatural form and then disappear behind the sacred dance screen. He will return in human form just as the ancestors did when they remained human and began their clans.
Tuxw’id “Warrior Dance” – Tuwx’id translates as “the one who traveled”. This ancient dance comes from the warrior spirit Winalagalis (Causing War Around the World), who takes away the initiates of his dance societies and brings them around the world in his magic copper canoe. Winalagalis bestows a spiritual song on his members, who on their return chant this sacred song to call upon their power. In our winter ceremonies, these dancers are challenged by certain Chiefs to display their spiritual power and prove their worthiness in the gathering. The dancer will make four attempts to show his gift from Winalagalis.
Nan “Grizzly Bear Dance” – The grizzly bear is the protector of the tribes that have the right to wear the bear as their crest. One clan among the ‘Namgis Tribe felt alone and unprotected when their first ancestor, who was a Thunderbird, sent his headdress and feathered clothing back to the heavens and could no longer transform into a Thunderbird. To comfort his people, the Thunderbird-man arranged a marriage for himself with a princess of the grizzly bears to gain their allegiance and protection. As dowry, he received the songs, dances, names and crest of the great bears. The dancer will appear in animal form and then retire behind the curtain. He will return to dance calmly in human form.
Długwala “Wolf Dance” – This dance, also known as the “Supernatural One”, imitates the wolves. In the beginning of time, a ‘Namgis Ancestor named T’sił’walagama’yi went to seek supernatural power. After four days and nights of fasting and cleansing, he received a powerful spiritual gift. He appeared across the Gwa’ni “Nimpkish River”, facing towards his village, riding on the back of a huge supernatural wolf. His tribe tied four canoes together and set out to capture him. After they retrieved him, they paddled him home on the catamaran and then cleansed his father’s house for him to share his treasure. It is said that his dance was so great that it was known throughout the coast and in all realms known to our people. It was famous.
Hamasalał “Wasp Dance” – In Kwakwaka’wakw culture, the wasp is respected for its intimidating and warrior-like qualities. Young warriors will often vision quest and seek the spirit of the wasp in hopes of gaining it as their personal guardian spirit. The dancer aggressively flies around the floor and stings people with its powerful stinger. The victims are paid with property to sooth their wounds and also validate the honor of being bitten by such a small but powerful insect. The dancer will disappear, transform into his human state, and return to conclude his dance.
Me’dzawesu’ “Salmon Dance” - The Salmon Dance is the dance of twins. When twins are born we believe that they are spiritual gifts from the Salmon People. This dance is the birthright of all twins and is danced to celebrate the uniqueness of twins and the greatest of our resources, the salmon. The dancers carry feathers representing twins and the dancers jump during the song ,imitating the salmon during their life cycle while at sea.
Am’lala “Play Song” (Hana’łdaxw’la) - To celebrate the completion of special events, we have play songs that are fun and less serious. Everyone is welcome to join in. This song comes from the ‘Namgis and sings about the accomplishments of our ancestors and their success in the Potlatch.
Halakas’lakala “Farewell Song” - This ancient song is said to be thousands of years old. It came to the people of Knight Inlet from a mountain people believed to be from the interior of British Columbia. The story tells of a tribe that came down into the valley of Knight Inlet. These people befriended the inlet people and shared many songs. When these people tried to return to their home over the mountains and glaciers, the weather was not in their favor and they were caught in bad weather. Sadly, the whole tribe died. All that remained were the beautiful songs that they had left behind. This song eventually included Kwak’wala words, and then was transferred through marriage to the Lawit’sis (Turnour Island) people, who own it today. HaIakas’la – “Farewell.”
All dance descriptions written by Hilamas (William Wasden Jr.), the Director of the Gwa’wina Dances and the Cultural Program coordinator for this project.