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Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Laura Grizzlypaws advances St’át’imc cultural identity through songs, dances, ceremonies, and education

Laura Grizzlypaws
Laura Grizzlypaws will perform with three of her kids at the Coastal Dance Festival. Artist photo courtesy of Dancers of Damelahamid.

Laura Grizzlypaws is no stranger to being in the spotlight. In 2017, the St’át’imc cultural advocate attracted attention from around the world when she appeared in a New York Times video. It featured Grizzlypaws dancing outdoors under a grizzly-bear hide, evoking the wild animal’s spirit.

“There is no other dance like it,” Grizzlypaws says in the video. “The actions and movements mimic the movements and gestures that a grizzly bear would do. So, scooping up my hand, harvesting the salmon, and shrugging the shoulders—that’s like Grizz is walking on the earth.”

All of this made sense, given that she belongs to the Bear Clan community called Xwisten. Elders conferred the name “Grizzlypaws” on the Lillooet-born educator and performer when she was about 25 years old.

“It really represents the roles, the characteristics, and the features of my identity, as well as my grandfather,” she says.

Watch the New York Times video of Grizzlypaws dancing.

The multi-talented Grizzlypaws has made four albums, including Come Home, which won an Indigenous Music Award for Best Hand Drum Music in 2019. She’s also a competitive fitness athlete and the author of the children’s book Sulyaesta, which honours past generations of St’at’imc language speakers.

On March 2, Grizzlypaws will experience another career highlight. At the 17th annual Coastal Dance Festival, she will perform on-stage for the first time with three of her children. The Dancers of Damelahamid will present the festival at the Anvil Centre in New Westminster from March 1 to 3.

“This one is going to be unique and authentic,” Grizzlypaws tells Pancouver. “We’ll be bringing live performance of St’át’imc traditional songs, as well as my voice to that stage. And sharing that with my children is going to be one of the most treasured, memorable experiences.”

Grizzlypaws advocates for Indigenous rights

She has danced in the past with her eldest son, who’s in his fourth year of contemporary arts and dance at Simon Fraser University. This weekend, she’ll be joined on-stage by him, her teenage son, and her seven-year-old daughter.

“It’s going to be featuring storytelling, the art of dance, as well as drumming and dancing,” Grizzlypaws says. “So, it’s an interactive presentation that we will be demonstrating to the audience.”

In addition to her other accomplishments, Grizzlypaws has distinguished herself as an educator. She’s currently enrolled in the Doctor of Education Leadership Program at Simon Fraser University. She reveals to Pancouver that her doctoral thesis will focus on reconciliation, decolonization, and Indigenous pedagogy, teaching, and learning.

“The work that I do is really about advocating for Indigenous rights, cultural heritage, authenticity, and empowering,” Grizzlypaws maintains.

In her interview, she highlights the importance of leadership in creating transformational change that will offer hope to younger generations. But she also aims to assure older generations that there’s going to be continuity with the culture.

“We are going to thrive into future generations—and sustainability is going to happen,” Grizzlypaws declares. “That’s the whole goal and intent of a large percentage of the work that I do.”

She’s proud to play a role in reclaiming her culture from the devastating impact of colonialism. It’s been a remarkable journey that’s come with a great deal of effort on her part.

Laura Grizzlypaws posted her “My Youngest Son’s Protection Song” video on YouTube in 2015.

Raised by a residential-school survivor

Grizzlypaws says that she and four siblings were raised by a single mom who survived the Kamloops Indian Residential School. She points out that residential school took away her mother’s voice and imposed barriers of communication within her family.

“How do you become a parent…if you were removed from your parents and did not have that ability to experience that holistic way of life?” she asks.

Grizzlypaws acknowledges that she did not grow up in a perfect family or in circumstances that others might aspire to. She struggled in school, wound up in government care, and even went to jail for a year, where she began her healing journey.

“I had a teacher that basically believed in me,” Grizzlypaws recalls. “He tried to encourage me to come back to school when I was in prison. I was just, like, ‘Nope, I would rather shove horseshit and work on the ranch and do those kind of things.’ ”

But the teacher persisted, telling her that she didn’t fail. The system failed her and the teachers failed to teach her. He also told Grizzlypaws that nobody took the time to guide or mentor her, so it wasn’t her fault. These words transformed her perspective, not only about herself but also about the value of education.

“Sometimes, we become who it is that we are because somebody created a huge impact on a life,” she says. “It came from that gentleman there, from that experience.”

Knowledge keepers showed the way

Grizzlypaws also benefited enormously from reclaiming her identity as a St’át’imc woman. This could only be accomplished through her own personal journey of research.

She sought out mentors and knowledge keepers, including the late Elder Edward Napoleon and his widow Mary. She also immersed herself in ceremony, traditions, and religious practices.

“That was a long-term process, which is still evident in my family and in my way of living,” Grizzlypaws insists. “So, it means living an alcohol- and drug-free life and abstaining from those kinds of things that bring you harm.”

Over the years, she has strengthened her resilience through songs, dances, ceremonies, education, counselling, and overall healing. For survivors of intergenerational trauma, she emphasizes the importance of finding a purpose in life and taking back power that was seized from them as children.

Furthermore, she believes it’s crucial for Indigenous people to get reconnected and regrounded to the land because it’s so central in shaping culture, heritage, and languages. According to Grizzlypaws, songs, ceremonies, stories, and even the values are rooted in the land.

“We can master the skills of the colonial way of living in education, governance, and leadership without neglecting our own authentic identities as Indigenous community members,” Grizzlypaws says.

The Dancers of Damelahamid will present the 17th annual Coastal Dance Festival from March 1 to 3 at the Anvil Centre in New Westminster. Laura Grizzlypaws will perform with members of her family on March 2. For tickets and more information, visit damelahamid.ca.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.