Former Gitxsan Chief Ken Harris and his Cree wife, Margaret, had a good reason for calling their artistic company the Dancers of Damelahamid. Back in the 1960s, the couple wanted a name that reflected Gitxsan cultural traditions. It’s because they were so determined to revive Northwest Coast Indigenous heritage following the Canadian government’s ban on potlaches under the Indian Act until 1951.
“Damelahamid refers to the origins of the first ancestor, Hagbegwatku, and the land granted the Gitksan when their ancestors were placed on earth,” wrote dance journalist Mary Theresa Kelly and the company’s current executive and artistic director, Margaret Grenier, in The Canadian Encyclopedia. “It is a geographic location near Hazelton, BC, where the ‘Ksan Historical Village and Museum is found.”
Grenier is their daughter and grew up immersed in Indigenous dance. Over the phone, she tells Pancouver that in the early days, her parents “borrowed from collectors in order to be able to share songs”.
“When you hear elders singing in some of the old recordings, they’re using wooden spoons and pots because we didn’t have any drums at that time,” she says.
Nowadays, the Dancers of Damelahamid present their dramatic works in intricate masks and regalia. The company accompanies this with rich drumming and resplendent visual displays.
Moreover, Grenier credits her mother for helping members of her company learn how to make the blankets, mukluks, and drums.
“She didn’t just teach us dance,” she notes. “She taught us everything.”
The Harrises were inducted into the National Dance Collection Danse Hall of Fame a year before Margaret Harris’s death in 2020. Ken Harris died 10 years earlier.
Dancers of Damelahamid reflect values
According to Grenier, her mother instilled in her children another realization—Indigenous dance is not simply about creating performances for audiences.
“It is something that informs us,” Grenier says. “It teaches us a way of values—of a way to live our life in a good way. To live by the teachings that are embodied in the practice.
“I think that’s something that she demonstrated,” Grenier continues. “And she also reminded us of that and taught us how to carry ourselves in that way. So, I feel that’s something that we really try to honour in what we do.”
This marks the 20th anniversary since her parents passed the leadership baton to Grenier, though they continued offering advice after that point. This is also the 20th year since the Dancers of Damelahamid performed for the first time at the Scotiabank Dance Centre in Vancouver.
To commemorate the occasion, the company will return to the building on Davie Street on Thursday (March 30). It’s part of the Dance Centre’s Discover Dance! noon-hour series.
In recent years, the company has performed in China, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Scotland, Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador. The Dancers of Damelahamid were even invited to Expo 2020 in Dubai in the midst of the pandemic.
The National Arts Centre posted this short, site-specific version of Spirit and Tradition on YouTube in 2021. Videography: Andrew Grenier.
Three generations at Scotiabank Dance Centre
The Dancers of Damelahamid emphasize that Indigenous dance played a critical role in defining Gitxsan art and culture for generations. These aren’t mere words. Grenier notes that the event at the Scotiabank Dance Centre will feature three generations of her family on-stage.
Along with her will be her two daughters, Rebecca and Raven, as well as Rebecca’s three-year-old son Pisim and six-year-old daughter Mikx’aax. Grenier’s son also dances with the company but he won’t be able to make the noon-hour show because of a work commitment.
The dancers and drummers will perform Spirit and Tradition, which conveys “important cultural teachings on balance, interconnectedness, and community”.
“It’s very much rooted in our traditional form,” Grenier says. “But it does speak to the way that we care for one another, for our resources, and drawing from songs and dances that tell those stories and offer those reminders. Because of that, it is for all ages.”
The Dance Centre will present the Dancers of Damelahamid at noon on Thursday (March 30) at the Scotiabank Dance Centre (677 Davie Street) in Vancouver. For more information and tickets, visit TheDanceCentre.ca.