It was a celebration, an evening of singing and drumming and dancing, an evening of community and thanksgiving.
We gathered in a big gym near campus, with a polished wood floor and bleachers to sit on. Long tables held food and water, and people piled their winter coats near the walls. A group of local native women, men, and children led the dancing, with one older native woman explaining the dances and inviting everyone to join in. The singing was chant-like, with enough repetition that those of who did not know the language could sometimes join in. Each dance had a name and some specific elements, but every dance meant moving in a circle around the gym, with white people like me trying to learn the steps by watching and following the leaders.
The native dancers who were hosting this celebration chose to wear their traditional clothing. Four of the boys wore headdresses, with feathers that reveal by their arrangement which nation the boy belongs to. All the dancers wore shirts of pretty colors, with long strings that hung down and swayed back and forth, shirts with fancy beadwork and designs. The men wore breech cloths, the women skirts, and all wore leggings underneath and moccasins on their feet. All three layers were made of fabric, and Older Woman With Microphone explained that native people in this area have been using fabric for about 400 years. The colorful layered outfits and soft moccasins looked like they would be comfortable for hours of dancing, and I could not help but compare this to dances at corporate holiday parties in my own culture, dances in which women wear crippling footwear like stiletto heels, where you see women sitting at the edge of the dance floor with their high heels in their hands, resting their poor sore feet.
Older Woman explained to us that these dances were social dances, not ceremonial dances. The ceremonial dances are not done in public. One dance was for women only, and we moved in a circle, twisting our bodies back and forth so that our feet slid across the floor, the soles of our feet never losing contact with the earth. Other dances included moving along with a partner, the line turning back on itself so that we had to dance through two lines of people who stretched their hands out towards us, a dance that reminded me of the Virginia Reel and the childhood game London Bridge is Falling Down.
Always, we all kept our eyes on the native dancers in the circle, trying to follow their movements, until we were all moving in a shuffling, stomping circle, grandmothers and teenagers and children and professors and college students, people in jeans and suit jackets and holiday sweaters and t-shirts and blazers and flouncy blouses, all of us moving to the same rhythm, following the voices that sang in a language that most of us did not understand.
One boy about the age of Boy in Black, with the same long skinny body that my son has, performed a hoop dance, gradually picking up and dancing with eight hoops. We watched, applauding, as he spun and twirled, pulling his body through the hoops, balancing the hoops, holding them in patterns, dancing and moving so fast that we barely had time to see each pattern before he would shift to another one, his gorgeously coloured outfit moving and twirling with him, his hands and legs holding onto all eight hoops, all to the beat of the two drummers, father and son, who kept up the fast rhythm, the hypnotic music.
The evening ended with food and conversation, with drinks of water for our sweaty bodies, and of course, with words of thanks spoken solemnly by one of the older men in the native language of people in this area. Older Man explained that he had learned this language, ironically, as a second language because his mother, put in a boarding school, had been forbidden to speak the language, punished and shamed for the language of her people. His people are still working to preserve this language, make sure that it continues. He spoke into the microphone, and the words filled the room, words that I understand now because I've read the translation so many times, the words of thanksgiving.