Drumbeats thundered around the inner harbor in the heart of picturesque Victoria, British Columbia. The rhythmic thumping drew upwards of 30,000 people over three days to an amazing festival of west coast First Nations culture — stories, dances, art, masks, regalia — that unfolded in the public plaza in front of the Royal British Columbia Museum. It put First Nations culture front and center.
The Festival opened with the arrival of a flotilla of canoes, followed by a formal procession of the paddlers to the Festival stage. Dance groups flocked in from Vancouver Island as well as the mainland. For three days, a continuous pageant of more than 30 stage shows featured a glorious cornucopia of Native cultures in a jubilant celebration of indigenous life. The Le-La-La Dancers and their leader and the festival emcee, the ever-smiling George Taylor, steered the celebration, held on Songhees and Esquimalt traditional lands. The Lekwungen Traditional Dancers and the Esquimalt Singers and Dancers represented the two host nations.
The plaza was jam-packed; even standing room was hard to find. It was a cheerful, throbbing place. Although National Aboriginal Day was celebrated throughout the country, this festival was the biggest … and happiest. Dancers acted out traditional stories, donning animal masks to bring real and mythical creatures to life: raven, orca, bear and thunderbird, to name a few. And, surprise, this cornucopia of cultural richness was all available for free!
Three-time world-champion hoop dancer Alex Wells of the Lil’wat Nation danced his way into festivalgoers’ hearts as he transformed his hoops into a thunderbird, a globe and other shapes and creatures. Dressed in the colourful, feathered regalia of the plains Natives, he was energized, skilled and truly the Lord of the Rings.
A new feature of this year’s festival were the He Waka Kõtuia Dancers, a Maori group from the south island of New Zealand. Their singing and dancing was Polynesian in nature, providing a fascinating contrast to that of the west coast First Nations. Their Haka, a fierce war dance, included expressions that, with their complex facial tattoos, were particularly ferocious, even frightening. The crowd loved the show.
A deep sense of family ran through everything, and a quiet Native humour was pervasive. Small children dressed in full regalia would wander among the dancers beating a little drum, sometimes reaching up mischievously to strike at an adult’s drum.
In addition to the stage shows, festival attendees could savour barbequed salmon, chowder and indigenous cuisine at the Songhees Seafood & Steam Food Truck. Or they could shop for carvings, jewelry and clothes in the adjacent crafts market.
Saturday and Sunday opened with a popular smudging ceremony by Frank Antoine of the Bonaparte First Nation. This was followed by tours of the nearby Thunderbird Park and Mungo Martin House, led by Andy Everson in the colourful regalia of the K’omoks First Nation. He explained the history and meaning of the 12 towering cedar poles and the history and use of the great house. The vibrant inner harbour could be enjoyed on a Songhees canoe tour.
In summary, the festival was a joyous celebration of Native songs, dances, myths and beliefs. Enthusiasm and pride overflowed and, as the huge, enthusiastic crowds attested, indigenous culture is gaining a strong foothold in the hearts of all Canadians.